There’s a misconception that African American roots in the Pacific Northwest are recent or nonexistent, said historian Melissa Williams.
“People who relocate to the Pacific Northwest from other places in the country will say, ‘I had no idea there was a black community here. I had no idea there was history here,’ ” she said.
Williams, director of diversity, equity and inclusion at Clark College, was among a group of panelists who spoke about local black history Saturday afternoon at Fort Vancouver’s Artillery Barracks. The well-attended panel discussion was part of The Historic Trust’s educational Winter Chautauqua event, “Black Roots in the Lower Columbia River Basin.”
Williams, who is black, remembers being in Chicago a few years ago and telling a man at the time that she lived in Seattle.
“What? There’s black people in Seattle?” the man replied. Having been born and raised in the Portland area, Williams was surprised people in other areas of the country perceive the Pacific Northwest this way. “It never occurred to me that there are people who think we are nonexistent in this part of the country.”
The panelists addressed other misconceptions about Pacific Northwest black history.
Historian Carl Abbott, a professor at Portland State University, said there’s a belief that due to exclusion laws there weren’t any black people in Oregon for the first 50 years or so, but that wasn’t true.
“Black exclusion laws were enforced exactly one time,” Abbott said.
That one time was not because the man was black but because he was a successful businessman, and his white competitor wanted to get rid of him, said James Harrison, a historian who teaches at Portland Community College. Due to exclusion laws, however, some black people chose to settle in Washington rather than Oregon.
“The law had an effect in discouraging some people from being here, but it did not exclude anyone who wanted to be here” aside from that successful businessman, Harrison said.
Donna Sinclair, a historian who teaches at Washington State University Vancouver, noted that some people incorrectly think the Emancipation Proclamation meant slaves were completely free and enslavement was immediately over.
“And we also have this idea that there was no one who was enslaved who came to the Pacific Northwest,” she said.
Enslaved people were brought to Pacific Northwest and Vancouver Barracks and identified as servants in the census.
Abbott said a lot of people are familiar with the history of Vanport and the flood that destroyed the public-housing community built for wartime shipyard laborers on the north edge of Portland. However, Portland had another large World War II housing project called Guild’s Lake in what’s now Portland’s industrial northwest district. It was also a multiracial and segregated community with thousands of black residents.
“Nobody talks about that because Vanport was so big, so important and so dramatic in the flood and its destruction. Guild’s Lake was just kind of, you know, slowly dismantled and replaced by industrial uses,” Abbott said.
Decades later, the impacts can still be seen from housing developers enforcing racially restrictive covenants and real estate agents restricting the African American community to the Albina area of Portland.
“Once you put prejudice into the land — physically build it into a city — it takes a long time to change things,” Abbott said.
These practices had long-lasting consequences since homeownership sets up families for intergenerational wealth. The legacy is difficult to break down, Williams said. While families in Vancouver didn’t experience this overt racial discrimination, they still experienced more covert forms of discrimination.
“Although if you speak to people who lived in housing, you’re going to get different stories,” she said.
Some people remember living in mixed housing while others remember being more segregated. The Vancouver Housing Authority grouped people together by the states they came from, so black people coming from Southern states could have been lumped together, Williams said.
Lesser known are the stories about why black people moved north and west.
“We talk a lot about jobs. We talk a lot about educational opportunities, but we don’t talk about those all of the push factors that are influencing people to move out of the south. And some people also are reluctant to talk about those experiences,” Williams said, adding that for some it was too painful to share what they experienced. “That is a story that does not often get told, because it’s something that people are holding close to their hearts. But it is a really critical piece to remember when we’re thinking about these migration patterns and how demographics change throughout the country and why they changed.”
Some well-known black community members include Willard Nettles, the first (and only) black Vancouver city councilor who served in the 1970s.
“That started us getting involved in the politics of the city we live in,” said Claudia Carter, Vancouver NAACP official.
Val Joshua, who co-founded the local NAACP, is another well-known figure. YWCA Clark County named its annual racial justice award after her.
“She was just a dynamo in the community,” Williams said.
And, Joshua is one example of black families putting down local roots. After the black population peaked in the mid-1940s, employment opportunities dried up and people migrated elsewhere. Yet, some people chose to stay because they liked the area and wanted to raise families here.
“One of the things that families purposely chose to do in Vancouver was to live in different parts of the city because they did not want a black area of Vancouver,” Williams said.
This resulted in an integrated community, but it also meant the black community wasn’t visible.
Richard Burrows, spokesman for The Historic Trust, was thrilled to see so many people show up on a sunny Saturday afternoon for the Winter Chautauqua.
“One of the things I know about Vancouver, Fort Vancouver, Vancouver Barracks and our community in general is that over 40,000 years, this has been a place that is a crossroads for different people, different experiences and different times,” Burrows said. “And so there’s always been a trail that has led here, and now we’re just learning what the purpose of those trails were for people to come and stay and live and contribute to this community.”