Yesterday, three female priests of color called the Episcopal church to wrestle with its history as a church that actively underwrote, and underwrites, white-supremacy. The Revs Stephanie Spellers, Winnie Varghese, and Kelly Brown Douglas (also Dr.) called for truth-telling by region, telling the real stories of how we became, and remained, the establishment church. They called us to focus on local histories, local stories. Oregon, the only “Whites Only” state to enter the Union, has many such stories to tell. Here is one of them.

Header Image: Vanport Daily Vacation Bible School, 1943, Oreg. Hist. Soc. Research Library, OrHi 78867

Portland is supposedly the model of a (white) progressive city. A single sign tucked away at the entrance to a dog park is the perfect example of the story we tell, and the silence we keep.

Vanport Historial Marker at the West Entrance to Delta Park
Vanport Historial Marker at the West Entrance to Delta Park

Sitting at a somewhat obscure entrance to a park I remember primarily for the soccer tournaments I played in as a child is a historical marker for the city of Vanport. Vanport was, for a brief time, the second largest city in the State of Oregon, and by far its most culturally and racially diverse. 

Started in 1942, Vanport was built from scratch in 10 months, a full-service town with a 750-seat movie theater for entertainment, a 24-hour daycare that also provided “hot take-home meals for parents returning from shipyards” and “racially integrated” schools. Vanport Extension Center, or “Vanport College” became Portland State University, one the best community colleges around. Henry Kaiser’s shipyard workers were provided something “most Americans” didn’t have: “a prepaid health plan.” This health plan became the foundation of the Kaiser Permanente medical and dental program. My mother worked for Kaiser, and until I was twenty-six, I enjoyed the benefits borne from “pioneering aspects of Vanport’s child and health care programs” which, after the war, 

remained popular examples of what a private enterprise and the government could achieve when united in a common purpose—”an experiment in the full socialization of life.”

Experiments are good things, and there is no doubt that we need healthcare for all (the debate for how we achieve this notwithstanding). Schools (which were only partially integrated due to the strategic grouping of races by neighborhood), health care (which was openly segregated—blacks had to go to their own clinic), hot meals, entertainment (segregated), postal, and fire services, are all good things. But they weren’t being offered because they are in and of themselves goods that all human beings need to flourish.

They were built because social support creates a productive workforce. Innovation was inspired by, and underwritten by, corporate and government need.

Henry Kaiser, enterprising business man that he was, understood that cranking out ships for the war effort required 24/7 shifts in the yards, and 24/7 shifts required healthy, productive workers who were not distracted by the need to educate their children, prepare hot meals and eat together as families, or worry about their health. What sounds like noblesse oblige, the benevolent care of a business owner for his workers, was far more about their productivity than it was an innovative “experiment in the full socialization of life.” 

Why am I sure? 

Because once workers were no longer necessary, Vanport and its social projects were no longer necessary. Everything that made it a thriving, innovative, and partially-integrated experiment was swept away in the waters of the mighty Columbia. Literally. 

Since the end of the war, the city of Portland had debated closing the “great headache” and “municipal monstrosity” that Vanport, in the imagination of its white neighbors to the South, had become. Rumors of rampant crime and welfare recipients fed municipal hopes to replace “a troublesome blighted area” with industrial development.

The real “problem” of this urban blight was the color of the people who remained: they were black. As always in our history as a nation, the unenslaved, unproductive black body is criminalized. There was no evidence of higher crime rates in Vanport than in Vancouver to the North or Portland to the South. There was just a large, under-employed black population. Many former residents had either found housing in the surrounding cities or returned to their homes in other states. The African Americans who chose to remain were not welcome to live or work in Portland.

The Columbia River solved the problem. Hastily built wooden buildings, supported on wooden foundations embedded in swampy ground, disappeared in a mere 40-minutes on Memorial Day in 1948. 

Or at least, that is what the sign’s rather mixed messages say. The Columbia River, swollen due to rains, flooded in what the Federal government considered a “natural disaster.” And, of course, the building authorities could not be held responsible for a natural disaster, and so were not liable for the poor warning or the fragile houses. But under the picture of the flooded dike is a caption describing the “old railroad cut that had been filled in,” and which had given way in the flood. The river naturally rises and falls. But railroad cuts are filled in by people. 

One of the first stories I was told by a parishioner at St. Philip the Deacon Episcopal Church, founded in 1911 as “the Colored Mission,” was about her mother grabbing her and a picture of their family as they raced out of Vanport to higher ground.

There is so much to say about Vanport and the white-supremacist history of Portland, and Oregon. But there is particular importance in the story this sign tells, and does not tell.

While Oregon was never a slave-holding state, our economic success was significantly built on the labor of black and brown bodies. Innovations, like pre-paid healthcare, are developed when that labor is valued, and dropped when it is no longer useful. We should not forget that fact, that our progressivism often extends only as far as someone is valued for what they produce. Our progressive values and experiments are intimately tied to workers, not necessarily people. This is not just a problem of race, but the confluence of economic exploitation and race is particularly brutal.

The wealth of the Episcopal Church, like the wealth of all significant U.S. institutions, is built on labor. Whether it is endowments funded by family wealth flowing out of industry which used black and brown workers until they were no longer necessary, or property wealth guaranteed and handed down among whites who protected their property value by enacting sundown laws in small towns and drawing red lines in large cities, the wealth of our churches was generated by business owners and titans of industry, whose laborers were often expendable. The fact is that independent white Oregonians succeeded because of the labor of the black and brown bodies who built railroads and ships, who plant, harvest and transport food, the list goes on. 

As a church, we cannot rest on our progressive laurels without asking hard questions about the source of our wealth, and about the whiteness of our churches, about cultural uniformity of our churches. We cannot expect black and brown bodies befriend us and teach us, as if their bodies exist to enable our progressive wokeness. We cannot assume that because we don’t have people of color in our churches or town or neighborhoods we don’t have a problem with color.

So, fellow Oregon Episcoplians, how was your church built? Who funded the windows and the pews? Who was welcome, and who had to build their own church so that they could thrive? Who was displaced to create that wealth, to build the homes that housed our members? Who was never let in our towns in the first place, ensuring that our cultural way of worshipping God was just ‘the way’? Whose bodies are protected by the police, by our guns (we have so many of them in our state!), by our laws?

We can’t repent if we are unwilling to recognize what we have been a part of from the founding of our state. We cannot treat people of color as if they are simply a means to our white progressive values. If we do this, when we do this, we simply leave them to be washed away in a flood of calculated blindness so that we can tell a story of our own progressive values at their expense.

One thought

  1. Thank you for sharing. I live across the country and know nothing about Oregon’s history. I agree it is time to start looking at the whole history and not just the white washed version.

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