The most visible signs of change in the Pacific Northwest involved the two principal centers of war manufacturing. In the Seattle-Tacoma area, the Boeing Company employed 50,000 people in 1944, its peak production year. Three big Kaiser shipyards operated to the south in Vancouver, Washington, and in Portland: the Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation on the Willamette River near Portland's St. John’s Bridge; another shipyard upriver at Swan Island; and a third in Vancouver near the Columbia River Bridge. The huge, federally subsidized operations employed as many as 120,000 workers at peak production, with another 40,000 people in related jobs.
To alleviate the housing crisis caused by the sudden influx of people, industrialist and ship-building magnate Henry J. Kaiser used federal loans to purchase 650 acres of floodplain land along the Oregon shore of the Columbia River. Kaiser’s company constructed housing for 35,000 residents, making Vanport City Oregon’s second largest city. Supported by wooden blocks and with fiberboard walls, the instant residential city was the nation's largest wartime housing project. The future would prove, however, that its location made the city vulnerable to the unpredictable forces of nature.
Vanport was home to a mix of people, including a sizable percentage of African Americans who had made the move west to work in the shipyards. By war’s end, African Americans made up 35 percent of Vanport’s population, a much larger percentage than anywhere else in the state. During the devastating flood of 1948, the Columbia River breached a railroad dike and pounded Vanport to kindling.
Long-time Portland residents greeted the new people moving into the city during the early 1940s with open skepticism. When the Kaiser shipyards and other local defense industries began to bring in significant numbers of black workers in 1943, the newcomers encountered a wall of deeply ingrained suspicions and discrimination in housing, public transportation, union membership, and access to recreational facilities. There were openly offensive eating establishments such as the infamous Coon-Chicken Inn Restaurant on Northeast Sandy Boulevard. Early in the war, a former Portland city commissioner urged local officials to discourage shipyards from recruiting minority workers, and Mayor Earl Riley worried that the incoming groups would threaten the city’s “regular way of life.” The 1940 census listed fewer than 2,000 African Americans out of a total population of 340,000 people in the Portland area. Although only a small number of blacks had arrived in Portland by September 1942, the Oregonian printed a front-page article under the headline: “New Negro Migrants Worry City.” Historian Rudy Pearson describes the relationship between the city and the new groups arriving during World War II: “By any measure, Portland responded with prejudice and insensitivity to the wartime immigration of African Americans.”
© William G. Robbins, 2002