"In White America" seasoned with local recollections

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian social issues & neighborhoods reporter

Published:

 

What's it been like for blacks to live in Vancouver and Portland — that is, "In White America"?

At an early rehearsal of the play in January, three local people started testing out some recollections. Several more should be ready with their stories when "In White America" premieres on Feb. 15. Different storytellers will join different performances during the run.

Kenneth Smith and Haurleen Bane both said attending high school in Vancouver in the 1950s and 1960s was just fine — especially if you were a skilled athlete.

"I thought it was great," said Bane, who excelled in football and basketball — which made for guaranteed popularity at Fort Vancouver High School, he said.

Smith, who attended Hudson's Bay, was more measured: "I got along. I didn't make waves." Smith was a good student and "star athlete" also, he said. But Smith added that it was impossible to come of age during the Civil Rights era and not feel the anger of the day. He appreciated the peaceful, patient preaching of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., but Smith identified more with the fury of militant black activist Malcolm X; "The Autobiography of Malcolm X" still tops the list of books he recommends that every American read.

"Things were so extreme in the 1960s," said Smith, who was a college freshman in 1965, when Malcolm X was gunned down in public by members of the Nation of Islam, a militant group he had joined but eventually left in disgust, as his own thinking evolved beyond black supremacy and an idealized return to Africa.

The idea never resonated with Bane. "Let's all go back to Africa?" he repeated. "I'd never been there. This is home and always will be."

Predating both Bane and Smith was Belva Jean Griffin, who moved with her parents and siblings to Vanport, the makeshift Kaiser shipbuilding town on the north bank of the Columbia River, in 1944 -- and then to Vancouver after the disastrous Vanport flood of 1948. Vanport, like Vancouver's shipworker housing, was a magnet for diverse laborers who came from all across the nation; the official response to the flood is widely regarded as too little, too late -- and an example of institutional racism that failed to protect an entire population. Fifteen people died in the flood and the whole community was erased from the map.

Griffin remembers little notes being stuck to everyone's door at Vanport — reassuring residents that dikes were holding and there was little to worry about, she said.

Not long after, Griffin said, her family's two-story home was flooded well above the second floor.