It demolished everything within its path. It shattered the homes of thousands, it destroyed the lives of many, and it ended the lives of few. It was known as the Vanport Flood. On Sunday, May 30th, 1948 the Columbia River poured through the city of Vanport without any warning to the residents who lived there. Stuart Mcelderry described within his article “Vanport Conspiracy and Social Relations in Portland, 1940-1950,” that a railroad embankment serving as a levy gave way. Within 45 minutes the entire city of 18,500 people was under several feet of water and gone for good. The city of Vanport was home to many white and African American families who then became homeless. As devastating of a tragedy this was, the flood of Vanport was a stepping stone for racism within Oregon and the Portland area.
Due to the fact Vanport was temporary housing built in just a couple months, it lacked foundation and sturdiness. The fragile apartments caused the majority of the buildings to be swept away in the wave of water that was 15 feet above the actual city. (Oregonian). The surprisingly low number of casualties, along with the multiple day wait for the river levels to go down so that the city could be thoroughly searched, allowed time for rumors to be created about the flood due to the extent of the natural disaster. It had many people wondering whether or not HAP lied about the actual number of deaths that occurred. Theories consisted of the government secretly loading the dead bodies on ships, to the bottom-floor apartments being “clogged with bodies,” or that a school bus had been seen with limbs of children trying to escape through the windows. (McElderry) The aftermath of the flood left the thousands without a home, food, or for some, no material objects whatsoever.
The city of Vanport was constructed to be temporary local housing during World War II for housing of the men and women building the war ships. Within the first year of the city’s establishment it was home to nearly 40,000 people, making it the largest public housing unit in the nation. The establishment of Vanport corresponded with the arrival of African Americans in Oregon. As discussed in “Vanport” by Manly Maben, the state of Oregon had less than 1,800 blacks in the year 1940 and increased to 15,000 within six years. The majority of the African Americans lived within the city of Vanport making up forty percent of the city’s population and was the Northwest’s largest concentration of blacks. As the war ended, many of the wartime workers left the area reducing the population by nearly half. Most of the African American families stayed within the Vanport community because housing was difficult to find due to the segregation of the African American populous.
Increased African American presence in the city did not occur without white hatred. As early as 1942, there were attacks in the local newspapers against defense industries in the area, mentioning that they were actively recruiting...