By Chetter Galloway

Story Summary:

During World War II, a young African-American couple relocates from Georgia to Vanport, Oregon in pursuit of the American dream. But the dream turns into a nightmare due to a major catastrophe and they have to decide if they should move back home.

For a print friendly version of the transcript, click here:   Urban Renewal and Vanport-Oregon in the 1940s

  1.  Who was Henry Kaiser and what was his role in World War II?
  2. What were the names of the trains called that took African Americans across the country to Vanport?
  3. What is the origin of the name “Vanport”?
  4. What is a Liberty Ship?
  5. What year did the flood happen that destroyed Vanport, Oregon?
  6. What is redlining and what is its significance in Portland, Oregon during the 1950s?

Resources:

Themes:

  • African Americans/Africans
  • Family and Childhood
  • Housing/Neighborhoods
  • Stereotypes and Discrimination
  • Workplace

Full Transcript:

Hi, my name is Chetter Galloway and the story I’ll be sharing today is a first person narrative that’s part of a larger one man show that’s based in Portland, Oregon in the 1950s.

They told us don’t get excited. “Mr. Jones, don’t get excited. It’s only urban renewal.”

Urban renewal. Well I’ve got another word for it. I call it Negro removal and I can’t believe they have the nerve to give us a 90 day notice to tell us we have to move out of our homes. When Jane and I first moved here on Larrabee Street, this is gonna to be the place where we could set our roots down, lay the foundations and finally build that dream home. But it doesn’t look like that’s going to happen now that they’re telling us this urban renewal is going on. And I guess that only proves one thing in life that there’s only one constant and that’s change.

Now admittedly change is what we were looking for when we moved here back during the early 1940s from the South. Jane and I were looking for a new opportunity to better ourselves, and along came a man by the name of Henry Kaiser that presented us with that opportunity. He was building something called Liberty ships for the war effort and gave us the chance to come out West where he’d be willing to pay our way out there, give us a place to stay and we would get wages up to almost a dollar an hour. Now you know that was money unheard of where we were living. And even though we would have to go outside of the state we decided this is gonna be a chance to better ourselves. Then why not go ahead and do it.

So we did as we were instructed packed our bags and went down to the train depot and was about to board the train. But being that we’d never traveled outside the state, we were surprised that there were two cars there; ya know, one for whites – one for coloreds. And in many ways that was a sign of things that were about to come.

Well we boarded the train and got on our way for this journey. We ran into other people who were heading out West too to the very same place we were going to Portland, Oregon. And after a week long journey and we arrived there at Union Station. You know that saying the more things change, the more they stay the same? That’s what came to mind when we arrived. You see now admittedly I’ve always been around white folks and lived and grown up around them, but I just wasn’t used to seeing so many at one spot. I mean they were everywhere just everywhere.

But along with that came the signs. You know the all too familiar Jim Crow signs, white trade only – we cater only to whites – colored entry in the rear. In many ways it was like we hadn’t left the south.

Well leaving Portland we were eventually going to go to our very final destination which was Vanport, Oregon. Now Vanport got its name because of the way it’s located south of Vancouver, Washington and North of Portland, Oregon. This is where they were going to house all the shipyard workers like myself and my wife Jane.

Now the housing Mr. Kaiser promised this was not the more than four walls and a roof. Sometimes the walls it seemed were so thin you could hear everything your neighbor was saying clean through. But fortunately because we had so much work to do and everyone was working around the clock to turn out those ships, we didn’t stay in those homes that long. We could turn out ships in little as 10 days or usually we would turn them out maybe once a month. And when we weren’t working, we found our way down to the avenue or the stem we used to call it. Where all the colored clubs and night spots and hot spots were that we went for entertainment.

Now after the war was over some of us lost our jobs and went back home. Myself and my wife we kept ours and managed to continue saving money in hopes of building a home and making ourselves a life there out west. And things were going along OK until the flood happened. I’ll never forget when that took place. It was 1948 on Memorial Day and the few days leading up to the flood it had rained quite a bit. Now the way Vanport is situated and located it’s almost like it’s at the base of a bowl and around that bowl just imagine water coming in to it. Now to prevent that from happening and prevent it from flooding there were dikes at different places around the city. The one we were worried about most was the Northwest one, railroad dike.

And the morning of the floods some people got word that everything was OK – by, by mouth, by radio, or some white folks got word by letter that said dikes are safe at present. You’ll be given time to leave if necessary. But above all else don’t get excited.

Around 4:00 that afternoon we had every reason to be excited because the sirens went off letting us know that one of the dikes had been breached. I told Jane to grab the bags that we had packed just in case something like this was ever to happened and we start to head to the east side of the city to Denver Avenue where there was higher, safer ground. And when we reach that higher, safer ground I look back, and if I hadn’t seen it with my own eyes, I wouldn’t have believed a word of it if you told me. There was Vanport, our home for the past few years, being washed away right before us. Those cracker box houses were no match for those floodwaters as they came through and ripped them off the foundation, tossed them up in the air and shattered them into pieces. The poles and light beams that were in the city snapped like twigs in between those flood waters as it made its way through the city and turned over vehicles. And when it was all over in a matter of mere moments just minutes, Vanport our home, was washed away completely wiped off the face of the earth.

And there we sat thousands just thousands of people who’d moved there. Now helpless, hopeless and homeless and in a city that didn’t know what to do with us or want us.

Now had it not been for some kind folks, the Red Cross and some churches, Jane and I wouldn’t have had temporary houses before we eventually moved over to Larrabee in the Albina district where many blacks live. But now they’re telling us that my house, my neighbors and the barbecue joint or some other places like the church are all in the way of this urban renewal for this road or interstate that they’re putting through our neighborhood.

I’m not quite sure what other folks are going to do. I’m not quite certain what Jane and I are going to do. All I know is that no matter where we are or what we do, we’re part of a community that’s on the move.

Urban Renewal and Vanport, Oregon in the 1940s