LESSONS IN BLACK HISTORY – The Vanport Flood

The Vanport Flood—Vanport City was founded in Oregon, just north of Portland, in 1943. A makeshift community that was built to house the shipyard workers who had come to work in Portland and Vancouver, Washington, during World War II, Vanport was the second largest city in the state of Oregon. It was also home to approximately 6,000 blacks, who made up rough a third of the city’s population. At the time, Portland had a reputation of being incredibly racist and unwelcoming to blacks, which led to the formation of Vanport City, a public housing community that served as a means to keep the “undesirables” out of the rest of the state. Although the Vanport was never meant to be an actual community, it thrived in the years after World War II, with its own school system—including Vanport College which would go on to become Portland State University—and local business community. Unlike Portland, Vanport was a heavily integrated city, with blacks and whites going to school together and living in the same neighborhoods. After a winter of heavy rainfall and snow, the Columbia River that bordered Vanport on the north was in danger of flooding. On Sunday, May 30, 1948—Memorial Day—the river broke through the railroad dike and the river came rushing in. Within hours the city of Vanport was wiped off the face of the Earth. There were only 15 reported deaths, but urban legends of hundreds of deaths, including a school bus full of children and a warehouse full of corpses hidden from the public, still persist in the Portland. With almost the entire black population of the state displaced by the destruction of Vanport, the city of Portland and the state of Oregon was grudgingly forced to desegregate.

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