Posts tagged Portland history
A Place Called Home: From Vanport To Albina
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"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.

Bringing Vanport history into the classroom

We spent a week at the wonderful Oregon Episcopal School, where 3rd graders explored the history of Vanport and its legacy guided by their dedicated teacher Kiah Johnson Mousey.

We are so inspired by their reflections in response to our exhibit Vanport: A Story Lived. A Story Told! 

On February 27th, as part of the Oregon Episcopal School Exploring Our Oregon History Through Art and Experience series, we screened Lost City, Living Memories: Vanport Through The Voices of Its Residents, a selection of short oral histories documentaries part of our growing collection. The room was packed with families and community members, including Vanport Flood survivors who shared their own memories. Prof. James S. Harrison helped us understand the impact of this history, and Story Midwife Laura Lo Forti talked about our on-going "memory activism" effort.

We closed this beautiful collaboration by curating a panel with former Vanport residents: an unforgettable intergenerational exchanged that touched everyone lucky enough to be part of it!

Would you like to create a meaningful educational experience and bring community voices to your school or community group? Let's dream up something together! Get in touch with Greta Smith, our educational programming director, at, or comment on this post.

LEFT HOOK at Westminster Presbyterian Church

On October 17th, Westminster Presbyterian Church hosted a staged reading of LEFT HOOK, a timely drama about gentrification and community displacement in 1970’s Portland, set in an Albina boxing club, written by Rich Rubin and directed by Damaris Webb.

Following this staged reading, Left Hook is slated to receive a full, three-week production at the Vanport Mosaic Festival, in May 2018.

Left Hook, a new play about community displacement in 1970's Portland

Vanport Mosaic presents

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A new play about gentrification and community displacement in 1970’s Portland, set in an Albina boxing club.

Presented as part of the 2017 Fertile Ground Festival
4 Public Performances: Friday 1/20 @ 7:30pm, Saturday 1/21 @ 2pm & 7:30pm, Sunday 1/22 @ 2pm
Venue: Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center, 5340 N. Interstate Ave.
Admission: Pay What You Can. Suggested $10; $5 Students/Seniors
Buy tickets here, or at the door one hour before curtain
Run time: 2hrs with intermission - join us for a curated conversation following the Sunday matinee. 

Featuring: La'Tevin Alexander, Anthony Armstrong, Kenneth Dembo, Mario Depriest, Jasper Howard, Tonea Lolin & Jocelyn Seid.

I boxed the NYC Golden Gloves in the early ’90’s. It was one of the most rewarding times of my life. Up at 6am to take the train to Gleason’s gym, giving my whole mind & body to the training. The support of my community, my trust in my trainer, my faith in a fair fight, stepping into the ring and facing my opponent. And no punch is as beautiful as the left hook. Precise. Powerful. Clean. Because of its proximity to your opponent it’s a hard one for them to see coming, and as with any good blow, the power comes from your back foot, spiraling up through your body, with clean alignment you deliver the blow.

Many times I have encountered the lament “there are no black people in Portland”. It would certainly seem to be the case relying on the dominant narratives from mainstream media (like the TV series Portlandia) down to public school history books. Growing up as a person of color in NE Portland, I knew this wasn’t true, we were here - but somehow we weren’t seen.

History teaches us that the greatest influx of Portland’s African American population was due to the Great Migration from the south during the War Years to work the Kaiser shipyards. After the 1948 flood, those who had established a community in Vanport now found themselves redlined into the Albina neighborhood, one of the few areas of Portland blacks were allowed to rent or buy, due to the Rose City's discriminatory housing practices. Keep Portland weird indeed. 

The storyline of Left Hook condenses a history that unfolded over a dozen years or more in Portland into a few months, touching on the intermixed experiences of African-American Soldiers returned from Vietnam, the aborted Legacy Emanuel Hospital Expansion, the Black Panther Movement, and Portland’s once world famous black boxing community in Albina. The all black cast focuses on the owner of the fictional Left Hook Boxing Club, and his struggle to claim a stake in the American Dream for himself and his family. To keep faith.

Rich Rubin’s new script allows us to hear voices of this all to true recent history, offering a start of an understanding of the intentional and systemic choices that lead to the continued displacement of the African American community in Portland. In this time of engaged discussion about gentrification, affordable housing and displacement of communities, I hope we can use this as a spring board to ask where do we want to go from here, and how do we imagine our city.

Damaris Webb, Left Hook Director

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."