The Vanport Flood & Racial Change in Portland

VanportFlood1948P260On 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

Big Joe Turner

Big Joe Turner

One of the key figures, the vehicle we took from R&B to Rock N’Roll, was Big Joe Turner. Born in 1911 in Kansas City, Big Joe’s dad was killed when he was 15. To help his family, Joe worked at a variety of odd jobs..from shining shoes to running liquor. In 1929 he began to play boogie-woogie with Kermit “Pete” Johnson in clubs around the Midwest. They were discovered and brought to New York to play Carnegie Hall.

The next week they began recording for a label and a star was born. Joe was characterized by his incredible deep singing voice. He didn’t play any instruments, his voice was all he needed. New York Times music critic Robert Palmer said: “…his voice, pushing like a Count Basie solo, rich and grainy as a section of saxophones, which dominated the room with the sheer sumptuousness of its sound.” Big Joe died of kidney failure in 1985..

Crispus Attucks

Crispus Attucks

A runaway slave who believed fiercely in freedom commanded the people of Boston “do not be afraid,” as he struck out against the redcoats and became the first hero to die in an attack that spurred the American Revolution.

On the night of March 5, 1770, five citizens of Boston died when eight British soldiers fired on a large and unruly crowd that was menacing them. Boston’s patriots, led by Sam Adams, immediately labeled the affray the Boston Massacre and hailed its victims as martyrs for liberty. The troops had been sent to Boston in late 1768 to support the civil authorities and were themselves subject to the jurisdiction of the local courts.  Continue reading

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin

Bayard Rustin was active in the struggle for human rights and economic Justice for over 50 years Born in 1912, he was reared in West Chester, Pennsylvania where he excelled as a student, athlete and musician. He attended Wilberforce University, Cheyney State College, the City College of New York, and the London School of Economics, earning tuition at odd jobs and singing professionally with Josh White’s Carolinians and Leadbelly.

A Quaker, Mr. Rustin placed his religious conviction above his musical interests, and in 1941 began a long association with the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR). Serving as its Race Relations Secretary, he toured the country conducting Race Relations Institutes designed to facilitate communication and understanding between racial groups.

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Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Paul Lawrence Dunbar

Poet and author Paul Lawrence Dunbar was so talented and versatile that he succeeded in two worlds. He was so adept at writing verse in Black dialect that he became known as the “poet of his people,” while also cultivating a white audience that appreciated the brilliance and value of his work.

Majors and Minors (1895), Dunbar’s second collection of verse, financed by several white friends, was a remarkable work containing some of his best poems in both Black dialect and standard English. Melodic and rhythmical, his lines in this and other works often sing and swing along gloriously.  Continue reading

Marjorie Joyner

Marjorie Joyner

Marjorie Stewart Joyner had a strong message that she carried throughout her life. Be proud of who you are and treat yourself as if you care. This strong belief in pride led her to being an avid supporter of young men and women throughout her life. It also led her to an invention to help the women who came to see her feel better about themselves.

Born in 1896 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, Marjorie did not stay long in the state. She moved early in her life to Chicago where in her teens she studied cosmetology. She quickly became associated with the famous beauty expert Madam C.J. Walker who had been made famous by Josephine Baker’s adoption of her products.  Continue reading

Alex Haley

Alex Haley

Author of ‘Roots’. Journalist, writer. Alexander Murray Palmer Haley was born in Ithaca, New York, on August 11, 1921. He grew up in Henning, Tennessee, and graduated from high school at age 15. Haley studied at State Teachers College in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, for two years, and joined the Coast Guard in 1939.

He started out as a mess attendant, Third Class, and in 1952 became the first to hold the title of Coast Guard Journalist. Haley’s friends quickly discovered his writing talent and began requesting his help when writing their own love letters. Haley also used his talents to recount the old tales of sea captains, which turned into his first published story.  Continue reading

Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback

Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback

(b. May 10, 1837, Macon, Ga., U.S.–d. Dec. 21, 1921, Washington, D.C.), freeborn black who was a Union officer in the American Civil War and a leader in Louisiana politics during Reconstruction (1865-77).

Pinchback was one of 10 children born to a white Mississippi planter and a former slave–whom the father had freed before the boy’s birth. When the father died in 1848, the family fled to Ohio, fearing that white relatives might attempt to re-enslave them.

Pinchback found work as a cabin boy on a canal boat and worked his way up to steward on the steamboats plying the Mississippi, Missouri, and Red rivers. After war broke out between the states in 1861, he ran the Confederate blockade on the Mississippi to reach Federal-held New Orleans; there he raised a company of black volunteers for the North, called the Corps d’Afrique. When he encountered racial discrimination in the service, however, he resigned his captain’s commission.  Continue reading