May 31, 1948– The Vanport Flood
You probably think of Portland as a pocket of liberalism, the eccentric sister to Seattle and San Francisco. Portland’s whiteness is often treated as a joke, but its lack of diversity is very real. In a city of nearly one million, only six percent are African-American and nine percent Hispanic.
When Oregon was admitted to the Union in 1859, it was the only state whose Constitution explicitly forbade black people from living, working or owning property. Until 1927, it was illegal for black people to move into the state. Whites looking to escape the South after the end of the Civil War moved to Oregon, which billed itself as a sort of white utopia. In the 20th century, Oregon had an especially active Ku Klux Klan, with over 15,000 members, 10,000 in Portland. The KKK’s influenced businesses and politics; they were even successfully ousted its sitting governor, replacing him with an outspoken segregationist. Most high-ranking members of local and statewide offices were associated with the KKK. Portland was one of the most segregated American cities well into the 1970s.
You have probably seen or heard this horrible story. Last Friday, a white supremacist, Jeremy Christian, verbally assaulted and threatened two teenage girls, one wearing a hijab, on a MAX train, then turned his rage on the three men who stepped in to try and calm him. In a rage, Christian cut the throats all three men. Ricky Best, 53-years-old, an Army vet and a city employee, and 23-year-old Taliesin Myrddin Namkai-Meche, a recent graduate of Reed College, died from their injuries. The third man, Micah David-Cole Fletcher, a 21-year-old poet, went home from the hospital last night. A GoFundMe account for Fletcher and the families for Best and Namkai-Meche has raised more than one million dollars.
Christian had been showing up lately at Portland protests spouting racist rants. He had started a fight with a woman at a MAX station the day before he murdered the two men, throwing a plastic bottle at an African-American woman, who then sprayed him with mace.
Many are drawing a correlation between POTUS’s racists rhetoric and the rise in the harassment of American Muslims and the Portland attacks. The incident sparked outrage and heartbreak across the country, but it drew no comment from POTUS until three days after the fact, even though he found time to Tweet about his recent trip to the Middle East and congratulating a man in Montana who assaulted a reporter. He finally managed to Tweet this yesterday, but has yet to acknowledge the victims by name:
“The violent attacks in Portland on Friday are unacceptable. The victims were standing up to hate and intolerance. Our prayers are w/ them.
President Trump (@POTUS) May 29, 2017″
If you think that riding light-rail in Portland is frightening, well sometimes it can be, but mostly, I enjoy riding the MAX train. The bus always seems to have the odor of diesel, sweat and a slight hint of moisture, but the MAX is electrically powered and usually clean. I find the sound and the motion of the train to be pleasing.
I have a fantasy that I live in Westchester County and work in Manhattan, and the wife and kids pick me up at my train stop in the family station wagon. In reality, the wife is a husband and the kids are canine, and except for the whiskey, my life is not Mad Men.
l live with low grade Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder that includes a driving need to have “my seat” on the train: right hand side, very front, behind the operator, the only single seat on the train. If I don’t get this spot I can become grouchier than usual.
On a cool, rainy, spring weekday in 2012, I boarded a MAX train and found my favorite seat occupied by a hipster. I took a moment to center myself and breath, and then I sat close to my favorite place in case it should become vacant. I was joined in my seat at by a beautiful African-American woman of an indecipherable age, so chic in her hat and gloves.
With my nose in my book, so that I would not have to engage in conversation, this woman dared to ask me: “What is that you are reading?” I showed her the cover of Just Kids by Patti Smith, and hoped that this elegant lady would not ask me to explain Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith to her.
I have always held that everyone’s story is interesting if you can get them to open-up and actually listen to them. I told my seat partner how lovely she looked. She smiled and introduced herself as Coral and then started in on her story at my urging.
10-year-old Coral moved to Portland from Texas with her parents in 1945. They lived in Vanport. At the time, Vanport was the largest public housing project in the USA. It was home to 40,000 people, mostly African-American, who worked in the Kaiser Shipyards. In a city that before the war claimed fewer than 2,000 black residents, white Portland eyed Vanport suspiciously. In a dramatic parallel to Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans, and Superstorm Sandy and Breezy Point, on May 30, 1948, at 4:05pm, a dyke holding back the Columbia River collapsed during a profound rain storm and high waters, killing 115 people.
Vanport was underwater by nightfall, leaving its inhabitants homeless. Like Katrina, the U.S. Government misled the population into believing that the damage would be slight. Many have attributed the poor response, in both cases, to the racist attitudes of government officials who neglected to respond appropriately to the destruction of a mostly black community. Amazingly, I now live in walking distance of what was once Vanport, now named Delta Park.
Coral told me that she spent four days searching for her parents. She was eventually reunited with her mother and father at a church shelter in North Portland’s Albina neighborhood. Yes, that’s right, Portland was so racist that its black neighborhood was named Albina. Extreme housing discrimination, known as “Redlining”, prohibited minorities from purchasing property in most neighborhoods. In the 1950s, The Realty Board Of Portland even approved a Code Of Ethics that forbade realtors and bankers from selling or giving loans for housing to minorities.
In the 1940s, half of Portland’s 2000 black residents lived in the Albina district. Coral and her family had no choice but to settle in that part of Portland, which was a stubbornly segregated city.
Coral eventually graduated from high school and attend Beauty College. She found employment at a downtown Portland salon that catered to “colored ladies”. She worked her way up to manager and when the owner retired in 1965, Coral bought the place and gave it the name: Coral’s House Of Hair.
Even more impressive in racist Portland of the late 1960s, Coral and her Coral’s House Of Hair became illustrious enough that she was approached to have her own 15-minute local television show giving beauty tips to women of color. True Colors Of Hair aired at 3:15pm, Monday- Thursday on KPTV. The show lasted five years.
I was close to my stop. I told Coral that I had not expected to have such an enchanting and engaging ride into downtown. I gave her my card and I offered to buy her lunch sometime.
A year later, Coral had yet to take me up on the offer, but on the Max train in spring 2013, I glanced up from my book and outside the window standing at the station was Coral, chic in her hat and gloves. She caught my eye, smiled and gave me a little wave.