Book tells stories of Vancouver's first black families

By Stephanie Rice, Columbian Vancouver city government reporter

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Growing up in Vancouver, Jackie Webster never had another black child in her class. Maybe there would be a black student in the grade above or the grade below, but never in her class.

When her family moved to another neighborhood, residents said their property values would go down with the arrival of a black family.

“We kept that yard up,” Webster said Wednesday, adding she hated those outdoor chores, but her parents didn’t want to give neighbors any reason to complain.

At 18, Webster, a 1970 graduate of Hudson’s Bay High School, was in J.C. Penney’s -- back then it was downtown -- and was picked up for shoplifting. She told the officer she had money to pay for her items, but was dragged over to the police station. She was humiliated at the thought she’d be spotted by friends who would no doubt be hanging out at Burgerville or cruising the streets.

She was ordered to appear the next day in court.

“Judge (Tom) Lodge said, ‘Why are you here?’ and I said, ‘There’s prejudice.’”

Lodge apologized and dismissed the case.

In 1982, Webster was hired at the Clark County Sheriff’s Office.

“And now look at her,” said Rekah Strong, Clark County’s diversity coordinator. “She’s the chief. She’s in charge of the jail.”

Webster, whose mother, Val Joshua, served for years as president of the Vancouver chapter of the NAACP, was one of seven speakers Wednesday during a lunchtime presentation for county employees on a new book, “First Families of Vancouver’s African American Community: From World War II to the Twenty-First Century.”

A book release party will begin at 3 p.m. April 14 at Gaiser Hall at Clark College, 1933 Fort Vancouver Way.

The book was written by Jane Elder Wulff, who worked on the project with Cornetta Smith. Wulff interviewed members of 35 families, and the recordings of the interviews will be kept at the Clark County Historical Museum, she said.

The book, sponsored by the Vancouver chapter of the NAACP, was paid for in part by a $10,500 county historic promotion grant.

The grant money comes from a fee paid to record a document in the county auditor’s office.

Proceeds from the book will support the NAACP.

The idea for the book came after Wulff, a freelance writer, met with Cornetta and her husband, Dayton, to write a feature story for the Senior Messenger.

They decided there would be a great value in recording the history of the families who came west to work at the Kaiser Shipyard during World War II.

Several families initially lived in Vanport, a housing development at what now is Portland’s Delta Park. They moved to Vancouver after the Vanport flood of 1948. After the war ended and the shipyard closed, the NAACP worked with a few local companies, including Crown Zellerbach, Alcoa and Hidden Brick Co., to hire black employees, Wulff said.

Wulff said at the peak of the war, there were close to 9,000 black people in Vancouver.

From the 1940 U.S. Census to the 1950 U.S. Census, the city’s total population grew from 18,788 to 41,664.

According to the 2010 Census, the city has 161,791 residents, and 4,763 residents (2.9 percent of the population) are black.

Along with Webster, speakers included Smith and her husband, Cora and Andrew Davis, Belva Jean Griffin and Ken Smith.

Andrew Davis, whose family moved from Alabama, recalled that the men would come first to see if the stories they’d heard were true, that they could make a good living and not have to live under the Jim Crow laws. His father’s sawmill had been burned down five times.

“That was his motivation” to move west, Davis said.

Cora Davis, 72, said she remembered her father coming out to take a job at the shipyard, then sending for his wife and children. She remembers the days and nights on the train.

“It seemed like it was such a long, long ride,” Davis said. Her father worked nights at the shipyard while her mother worked days.

Her older brother was friends with her future husband.

“We’ve been married for 54 years now,” she said.

Griffin, 84, said her father died when she was 2, and her mother was earning $1 a day doing domestic work in Oklahoma. In 1942, one of her aunts moved up to Vancouver, and in 1944 her mother brought Griffin and her other two children. The Vanport flood was the second time the family lost their home; it had been burned down in Oklahoma.

Griffin said she told her mom she missed her friends.

“I kept begging her, ‘Let’s go back to Tulsa,’ But she said, ‘No way.’ She’d found what she’d been looking for,” Griffin said. After years of referring to Tulsa as her home, Griffin came around.

“This is my home,” she said. “I love it here.”

And Webster, while she still remembers how angry and humiliated she felt at J.C. Penney’s 32 years ago, loves Vancouver, too.

“Yes, I love Vancouver now. And we have grown, and we have survived,” she said, looking at the other speakers. “And we survived because we had each other.”