Photo: Apartments at Vanport circa 1943 (Photo courtesy of City of Portland Archives, Oregon, A2001-025.652)
One place. One time. Two families. Each family haunted by the death of a loved one; both looking for a fresh start. There the similarities end. It’s 1943. Both families have arrived in Vanport City, a federal housing project for shipyard war-workers, a planned community, visionary in scope, but shoved to the swampy outskirts of Portland. The citizens of Portland want nothing to do with the Okies and Coloreds who’ve come there to work and live. Sissy, a thirteen-year-old of mixed Indian and White heritage befriends Abe, one year older, a Colored boy out of Mississippi. Their troubled relationship draws the two families together over time in ways that eventually drive both families to the brink of ruin.
The novel, based on a series of actual historical events, explores the local history of racial and class prejudice and how people resisted. It’s a story about place, how people’s lives are bound to and shaped by the landscapes they inhabit, the ways they succeed and fail to build community.
As a lifelong resident of Portland, I’ve long been fascinated by the story of Vanport City, which had an out-sized impact on the social and economic landscape of Portland, and especially the African-American community. Vanport was a place of great ambiguity, incorporating elements at once utopian and Jim Crow, innovative and second-rate. But the history of Vanport has been largely eclipsed by the drama of its demise. It was literally wiped off the earth in a matter of hours in the devastating flood of 1948. My novel fills in some of the gaps.
Historical Cast of Characters
- Reverend J. James Clow: Baptist minister and civil rights activist
- James Hamilton: progressive education reformer and superintendent of Vanport City schools
- Tom Johnson: real estate mogul, bootlegger and vice lord of the Black community
- Sam Markson: labor and civil rights activist
- William McClendon: editor of the black newspaper, The People’s Observer, jazz pianist and impresario
- Julius Rodriguez: president of the local Shipyard Negro Organization for Victory and civil rights activist
What They Said About Vanport
“Vanport, Masterpiece of Urban Planning”
The Oregonian, October 21, 1943
“…Northwest’s unique sociological experiment…nothing like it anywhere in the country.”
Daily Journal of Commerce, June 16, 1943
“The nation’s newest, most unusual city…”
Business Week, June 12, 1943
“Vanport City has been characterized as a city with everything but a future. The notion that it has everything is far from true, but its lack of a future seems certain.”
James Hamilton, Superintendent of Vanport Schools, 1945
“The prejudice against Vanport is quite widespread.”
The Oregonian, December 18, 1945
“[Vanport is] a municipal monstrosity.”
Earl Riley, Mayor of Portland, 1946
For more about Vanport visit the Vanport Mosaic Project.