Portland, Oregon — Recently, we went for a two-week family visit to the mecca of hipness and ecological rectitude, Portland, Oregon. The city is friendly, socially and politically progressive, with a decent art museum, a modest zoo, many cafes and restaurants, and the small but impressive Northwest Film Center that shows art films from many countries and series like Constructing Identity: Black Cinema Then & Now.
Portland may be second to San Francisco in the number of L.G.B.T. people who live there, and it has won an award as the most vegan-friendly city, but it’s also the whitest big city In America. On the surface there are few signs of overt racism — the city consciously projects a reputation for tolerance. Still, despite a diverse range of newcomers moving in, the city’s black population is diminishing under the pressure of gentrification, and it stands today at about 6 percent.
The fact is Oregon carries the weight of a racist past. When it was granted statehood in 1859, it was the only state in the Union admitted with a constitution that prohibited black people from living, working, or owning property there. It was illegal for black people even to move to the state until 1926. And in the early 1900s, Oregon was a hotbed of Ku Klux Klan activity, boasting over 14,000 members (9,000 of whom lived in Portland).
One tragic incident in the post-WWII era demonstrates the nature of Portland’s racial history.
World War II changed the landscape of Portland completely. Portland became a center of shipbuilding. At first, it used generally unskilled but unionized white workers, but when America entered the war many of the white male workers were drafted, and black workers from the South filled the void, Between 1940 and 1950, the city’s black population increased more than any West Coast city other than Oakland and San Francisco. They weren’t always welcomed. In a1942 article, Portland’s Mayor Earl Riley was quoted as saying, “Portland can absorb only a minimum number of Negroes without upsetting the city’s regular life.”
To house these workers, Vanport, which was always meant to be a temporary housing project (in a city then without public housing), was built in 1942. At its height, Vanport housed 40,000 black and white residents, making it the second largest city in Oregon, and the largest public housing project in America, a genuine home open to all the workers in Portland’s shipyards and their families — though the town, made up of 10,414 apartments and homes, was mostly a slipshod combination of wooden blocks and fiberboard walls. Built on marshland between the Columbia Slough and the Columbia River, Vanport was physically separated from Portland — and kept dry only by a system of dikes that held back the flow of the Columbia River.
Vanport contained a 750-seat movie theater, a 150-bed hospital, recreation centers, schools, and nurseries that provided 24-hour care for the children of working parents. Daycare provided by the school district came with dinner and breakfast for children aged 2 to 12. There were also prepared meals that working women could pick up on their way home from work. The community was inhabited by a small core of left-leaning activists who had some success in organizing among tenants. Still, the housing was segregated, though the schools were integrated, and a few black law enforcement officers were appointed.
With the end of WWII Vanport faced massive layoffs, and its inhabitants were told to move. But by 1948 there were still about 18,500 people living there — one third were black, and because of racist lending practices, most couldn’t get better homes in Portland.
However, when in 1948 the Columbia River swelled after weeks of heavy rain, that year’s seasonal flooding proved to be more damaging than any other year in the city’s short life. The flood destroyed the city’s buildings, 15 residents died, and Vanport ultimately became a swampy wasteland. Afterwards, Portland had to deal with a number of homeless and jobless Vanport people, many of them black, who suffered most from the flood. In the words of Portland State University professor Carl Abbott, author of Portland in Three Centuries: “Vanport is a symbol for African Americans. They were the people who left… and suffered the consequences of being displaced into an inhospitable city.”
The point of this historical discussion is that no city or region, no matter how ostensibly liberal, is without its racist past and contemporary racial problems and ironies. Oregon may have two active liberal Senators, Wyden and Merkley, and Portland a liberal Congressman, Earl Blumenauer, but it doesn’t allow us to escape the fact that the state remains only 2 per cent black. It is also not a historical accident, despite its liberalism, that a state that was committed for many years to keeping blacks out or segregating them remains such a white preserve.