On Memorial Day 1948, flood waters washed down the Columbia river. They swept over Jantzen Beach, burst through a dyke, and destroyed the unofficial city of Vanport, leaving behind very little evidence of the community that, at its peak, included over 40,000 people.
This month, on the 70th anniversary of the flood, Clark students have an opportunity to bring Vanport’s history to life. Geography professor Heather McAfee is recruiting volunteers to help the nonprofit organization Vanport Mosaic run its 2018 Vanport Mosaic Festival at the site of the former town in North Portland from May 23-28.
“Volunteering is of enormous benefit to you and your community,” McAfee wrote in an email. “It is vital to keeping organizations like Vanport Mosaic going.”
Vanport was a mostly black community of shipyard workers living with scarce resources during World War II. Many of its residents were forced to live in the ramshackle settlement by discriminatory housing policies.
“North Portland’s Albina was the last stop on the train before going into downtown,” social sciences professor Joseph Cavalli said. “Black people were not allowed to take the train into downtown so the black community grew up around Albina where they had to get off the train.”
He called the flood “the biggest disaster that beset the city in the 20th century, other than maybe the Mt. St. Helens eruption, which was uncontrollable.”
McAfee said she’s arranged volunteering opportunities at previous Vanport Mosaic festivals for her geography students, who do geographical surveys of the land and remaining evidence of Vanport. Sometimes, she said students turn their observations into presentations about the land’s current use and stories for the Vanport Mosaic project.
“Clark students are thoughtful and motivated to learn,” she said. “So it should not matter to them if they have taken Geography or not.”
One of the festival perks is access to parts of Vanport that are usually blocked off, including one of the school’s foundation.
“It’s one of the few foundations that they actually built,” McAfee said. “Most buildings had no foundation, that’s why they floated off like little boxes.”
McAfee said learning about the flood gives insight into the Northwest’s current struggles with race and homelessness. She said when the ship workers arrived, many lived in their cars until Vanport was built.
“Now we have [the] same story, different day with people in Portland and Vancouver living in their cars and coming into Portland to work,” she said. “It’s a really important thing that mosaic is doing, to keep the spotlight on the story of housing struggles that is happening just as much today as it was then.”
Cavalli said the event is part of a larger picture of race in the ‘40s in America.
“Portland is an incredibly white city,” he said. “In 1948, [President Dwight] Eisenhower had just integrated the military and the color barrier had been broken in baseball only a few years earlier with Jackie Robinson. It’s all part of the big puzzle of desegregation and coming to grips with what racism was and is. This is Portland’s piece of that puzzle. History is what it was, not what we would like it to have been.”
McAfee said while the site is in Portland, the lessons of the Vanport flood are universal.
“We can go get that story and collect it,” she said. “Students can go find a sense of place out there, even if they’re a journalist or a psychologist or a sociologist, we can see that this thing that happened so long ago is part of who we are today on both sides of the river.”
Volunteering is open to all students. Geography professor Heather McAfee said responsibilities may include being assistant guides for bus tours and sharing the story of the places the bus visits.
Those interested can sign up by putting their contact information on a sheet outside McAfee’s office at T Building 129 before May 21. She said volunteers should head to the site in the morning on May 28 for free parking at the Expo Center. Volunteers will work in two-hour shifts and can then attend festival events — including art exhibits, performances, tours, rallies and a survivors dinner.