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Black Folklore In Video Episode 4: The Flooding of Vanport

Vanport, Oregon

Source: iOne Digital

It’s no coincidence that Oregon is one of the whitest states in America—this lack of diversity was intended by design. Back in the 1800s, as Oregon became a state, it was the only one to enact legislation that explicitly prohibited Black Americans from living, working or owning property in the state. This policy continued until 1926.

As World War II became a reality in the 1940s, white men were sent overseas in droves, creating a labor shortage. Black and poor white Americans descended onto Portland seeking job opportunities that were now available to them. But due to its fast-growing population, the city faced a housing crisis, unequipped with sufficient housing for its new working residents. Due to discriminatory housing policies that were common during this time, Black residents were especially limited in where they could call home.

Industrialist Henry Kaiser, who needed a place to house employees of his Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation, which built ships for the war effort, decided to take on the housing crisis himself. Kaiser built a temporary housing project on the Columbia River, and this became the city of Vanport. In just 110 days, 10,000 housing units were hastily erected. Its only protection from the Columbia River was a system of dikes. Vanport grew to become the second-largest city in Oregon and the largest housing project in the United States, with a population of 40,000 at its peak—6,000 of whom were Black Americans. But it would soon meet a devastating end.

In May of 1948, the Columbia River began rising to dangerous levels. However, government officials maintained that Vanport was not at risk of flooding. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers insisted that the dikes would hold. Faced with this half-hearted assurance, the Housing Authority of Portland transported files and equipment out of their offices ahead of the flooding. Six hundred horses from a nearby racetrack were also relocated out of harm’s way. But residents were left in the dark.

The dikes finally gave way on May 30, 1948, inundating the entire city of Vanport in 10 minutes. Thousands of homes were destroyed. More than 18,000 residents were displaced, one-third of them Black. Fifteen people died. Instead of warning residents, the Housing Authority actually issued a message on the morning of the flooding, doubling down on its assurance that the rising waters posed no immediate danger. The city was decimated by the evening.

Today, the former city of Vanport is the site of Delta Park and the Portland International Raceway. Last year, Portland maintained its status as the “whitest big city in America.” Now we know the disquieting origins of this modern day reality.

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