On Memorial Day in 1948, the Columbia River, swirling fifteen feet above normal, punched a hole in a railroad embankment that served as a dike, starting a flood that would leave 18,000 people homeless and alter race relations in Portland forever.
For eight years, the embankment had kept the river out of a newly developed 648-acre complex called Vanport, then the largest public housing project in the United States. Originally meant to be temporary, Vanport was shipbuilding-magnate Henry Kaiser’s answer to a lack of local housing in the early days of World War II, when he was importing men and women from across the United States to work in his Portland-area shipyards. At the height of the war in 1944, close to 40,000 people lived in Vanport, including 6,000 African Americans, three times as many as had lived in all of Portland two years before. Continue reading