Posts tagged Oregon history
A Place Called Home: From Vanport To Albina
Lost City screening.png

"Will anyone show up?" That is always the question when we host an event that deals with our appalling racial history, and with past and present community marginalization.  On Saturday, May 12th, the question is particularly relevant. It is a beautiful sunny day, one of those Portlanders wait all winter for, to remind us why this city is, after all, such a great place.

The Kenton Library is particularly quiet. The St John Street Fair, with its great arts, music and food, is calling. Would any of the 986 people who pressed the Interested button on Facebook show up? What about the 92 who committed on "going"? 

Slowly but surely, as it has been happening for the past 4 years, event after event, the room fills up. Race Talks director Donna Maxey, and artist Velynn Brown, both Vanport descendants, are here, ready to guide us and facilitate our journey into feeling and understanding. Henk Pander, the renowned visual artist who has been capturing the shipyards, Liberty Ships, and the Vanport Flood in his watercolors, is here too, sitting in the audience carrying his own painful memories of war, and "home" back in Holland.

Those who are meant to be here are here. And once again, we gather around the stories of those who share them as gifts: leaving the Jim Crow south just to find a more subtle but equally dangerous racism in Oregon, building a better life and a new community in Vanport, losing both in 1948 once a flood wiped all out in a few hours... the new "chapter" in redlined Albina: losing all, rebuilding stronger, losing all again; this time, not because of a poorly conceived system of dikes and irresponsible lack of evacuation plans, but because of racist city planning under the name of urban renewal.

Velynn Brown, Vanport descendant, performing her poem "Roots and Remnants"  (Photo by Andrew DeVigal)

Velynn Brown, Vanport descendant, performing her poem "Roots and Remnants" (Photo by Andrew DeVigal)

We share only a small selections of our oral histories, part of the on-going memory activism effort now in its fourth year, and then we sit quietly with our eyes closed to listen, truly listen, to Velynn Brown's words. Her poem, "Roots and Remnants," is a lullaby of memories. I cheat, and open my eyes for a moment. Tears are streaming down her face. My face. Everyone's face. She has embraced the responsibility and the honor of being the "Remnant Keeper," the one left to tell the story. We clap for long time. If my hands could speak they would say Thank you. I am sorry. Forgive us. Forgive me. What can I do? I made my home in your home. I don't want my story to bury yours. And how can we tell a different one together, one where we all belong?


Donna Maxey must understand the language of my hands, because she stands up, hugs Velynn as warmly and tight as I wish I could do right now, and answers my questions. See us, she says. See your neighbor. Let's truly see and meet each other. Ours and yours survival depends on it.




"First they came for the Jews and I did not speak out — because I was not a Jew
Then they came for the communists and I did not speak out — because I was not a communist
Then they came for the trade unionists and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist
Then they came for me and there was no one left to speak for me.
—  Pastor Niemoeller, Victim of the Nazis in Germany

Race Talk Director Donna Maxey, Visual Artist Henk Pander, Artists Velynn Brown, and Story Midwife/Vanport Mosaic Co-director Laura Lo Forti ( Photo by Emmalee McDonald ).

Race Talk Director Donna Maxey, Visual Artist Henk Pander, Artists Velynn Brown, and Story Midwife/Vanport Mosaic Co-director Laura Lo Forti (Photo by Emmalee McDonald).

A PLACE CALLED HOME; FROM VANPORT TO ALBINA will be offered again on June 24th,  3-4.30pm at North Portland Library. Join us for a FREE screening of oral history documentaries, part of the Vanport Mosaic participatory on-going oral history project, with a facilitated dialogue presented in collaboration with Donna Maxey, Founder/Director of RACE TALKS, and artist Velynn Brown, both Vanport descendants. Through archival footage, historic photographs, and compelling first-person narratives, this collection of short films and audio oral histories traces the story of Portland’s African American community from the 1940s to 1970s. It is a story of struggle, perseverance, and resilience that continues today.

This program is part of the Our Story: Portland Through an African American Lens digital collection and project-
Made possible by The National Endowment for the Humanities Fund of The Library Foundation.

The Vanport Mosaic oral-history project is facilitated by Story Midwife Laura Lo Forti, made possible by Regional Arts & Culture Council, Oregon Heritage Commission, Oregon Historical Society, The Kinsman Foundation.
Thanks to our partners: University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication, Open Signal, Stream PDX.

The Vanport Mosaic Festival Education Workshop


The Vanport Mosaic Festival 2017 presents:
May 27th, 2017
11:30-3:00 p.m.

PCC Cascade Campus Terrell Hall Auditorium, 705 North Killingsworth Street - Portland, OR 97217
FREE! Registration is required as space is limited. You can register here.

For questions, please contact Vanport Mosaic Education Program Coordinator: Greta Smith 

In response to the increasing number of inquiries we have been receiving from educators who want to explore the transformative history of Vanport with their students, The Vanport Mosaic offers its first workshop to share multidisciplinary tools and opportunities for curriculum development for formulating lesson plans.  

This year’s festival themes of migration, housing, and displacement are central to the workshop, as well as the question of how unresolved issues with race-based displacement reverberates through future generations.

Educators will have the opportunity to attend three different sessions offered in the disciplines of history, geography, and arts & humanities:

Teaching Vanport through History: 
This interactive workshop prepares you for teaching about Vanport, a significant episode in local and national history. Learn how to craft a 15-30 minute lesson that wows students and helps them gain a new insight and appreciation for our history. 

Lead by James Stanley Harrison, professor emeritus of History at Portland Community College where he has taught since 1993. He is currently working on a book about the wartime housing project of Vanport.

The Landscape of Vanport: 
This workshop will focus on how to use both the past and present day landscape as an opportunity to study a local geography project. The sample assignment will expand on the creation of “learning opportunities” around both human/cultural or physical geographies of the location and place we know as Vanport City, Oregon. 

Lead by Heather McAfee, who teaches geography at Clark College and serves as chair of the Geography Department. 

Vanport through the Creative Lens: 
This workshop will spark ideas about teaching Vanport through creative responses to film and images and will provide several writing prompts and assignment ideas.

Lead by Melissa Favara, a writer and educator who lives in Portland, Oregon and teaches English at Clark College in Vancouver, Washington. She writes and publishes creative nonfiction and essays and curates the 1,000 Words reading series.

Scott Piper's memories: Vanport, City of The Future
Scott and his father in Vanport, around 1946.

Scott and his father in Vanport, around 1946.

We were in Ft. Leonard Wood Missouri at war's end, and dad said he saw a Vanport sign on a bus, City of the Future, and decided to take his last airplane ride in the Army with mom and me out to Oregon, and Vanport.  We were West Virginia people.

I was a toddler, but I remember driving out of the Vanport flood in 1948, and distinctly remember the shattered faces of the Vanport people working in the mud and debris, one of my earliest memories.  By 1948 and the Flood, we were a 4 person family, my younger brother David was born during our years at Vanport.  David lives today in north Clark county.

We settled in the Vancouver Heights across the Columbia in Vancouver after the Vanport flood, on the high ground above the old Kaiser shipyards, for 3 years, until dad was able to have a home built north of Vancouver in Hazel Dell, Clark County.

Phil Corson's memories of the Vanport Flood: "The dyke has broken, the dyke has broken!"

Dr. Phil Corson was ten years old and one of the first to discover the dike had broke. He sent his memories to the Vanport Mosaic, and we are thrilled to share them with you! We are continuing recording oral histories of those who lived in Vanport, but we are starting to gather and publish essays and written memories in an effort to honor everyone's story. If you need our support to record yours or your loved ones' memories, please drop us a line at

We were no different than hundreds of other families  who moved into Vanport so dad could work for Kaiser Shipyards. The war effort was humming at top speed with one Victory ship created every day.  I was little brother at age six in 1944 and the five of us moved into a tiny little two bedroom apartment and mom cooked on a two burner hotplate.  It was kinda funny, but we really didn't know that we were poor.

When I was nine, dad made ice carts for my big brother and me to carry 50 & 100 pound cakes of ice from the ice house to ice boxes in other apartments.  Once or twice I dumped one on the ground but I wasn't big enough to put it back in the cart.  Us kids played marbles, carved wooden rubber guns using strips of old tire tubes and when we played cowboys and indians we used sticky stripes of paper from Swifts Meat packing plant for our makeshift headdresses. 

 But my most vivid memory was of Memorial Day 1948 when Vanport, the second largest city in Oregon, disappeared under ten feet of water from the Columbia River.  It was flood season again and rumors were rampant that the dyke might not hold that year and the city would be flooded.   My adult uncle Tom was visiting from the east coast and we got on two bikes that beautiful Sunday afternoon to ride about a mile north to check on the condition of the dyke.  What I saw is with me today, imprinted on the mind of a ten year old.  The railroad track which was on top of the dyke was now hanging over a gaping hole in the dyke and water from the Columbia River was rushing in with great force.

 Uncle Tom and I sped back home yelling the dyke has broken, the dyke has broken!  I will never know how many believed a ten year old, but it gave my parents several minutes head start on the rush to drive out.  Mom made my older brother and me promise to take Spot, the dog of our out of town neighbors, and ride our bikes straight to our favorite gas station on Lombard Street.  When we rode up onto Interstate Road, we stood and looked back at the most enthralling scene two young boys could ever see.  The dozens of 14 unit apartment buildings were beginning to float around and crash into each other. Wow! What drama!  Finally, my brother said, let's go! I will never forget my frantic mother standing off the curb at the gas station on Lombard looking for her boys. 

Officials said only a couple dozen were killed by the flood that fateful day, but we know that there were many more than that.  Just in our unit alone, two wonderful older ladies were killed. Mrs. Wonderlin was invited by her neighbor upstairs to ride out the flood, but they were never seen alive again.  I have a VCR tape of footage taken from the air by a friend of our family.  The film was so good that Newsreel paid him to use it on national television.  If you would like to see it, let me know. After 68 years, the Vanport flood is still a vivid memory. 


Digging History: Oregon's First African Americans
Artwork by Jeremy Okai Davis/Portland Mercury

Artwork by Jeremy Okai Davis/Portland Mercury

From Portland Mercury, December 11, 2013 - Oregon's First African Americans , by Joe Streckert:

"Vanport's construction was of the cheap and temporary kind (the locals called the prefabricated dwellings "cracker-box houses"), and for much of the 1940s, Portland's first sizable black population was separated from the town proper by economics, administration, and the river. The town was destroyed by a flood in 1948, and many refugees from the disaster settled in the Albina neighborhood. More than 100 years after initial settlement, Portland finally had an African American population of appreciable size. The influx of that population didn't come about, though, because Portland had liberalized or become more open. Portland's first large black neighborhood materialized because a force of nature destroyed an industrial ghetto."