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News / Clark County News

Exhibit explores the African American experience in Vancouver, Northwest

Panel helps kick off local commemoration of Black History Month

By Calley Hair, Columbian staff writer
Published: January 25, 2020, 8:16pm
3 Photos
Attendees take in an exhibit honoring the history of African Americans in Clark County, part of an event to kick off a commemoration of Black History Month, on Saturday at the Vancouver Community Library.
Attendees take in an exhibit honoring the history of African Americans in Clark County, part of an event to kick off a commemoration of Black History Month, on Saturday at the Vancouver Community Library. (Calley Hair/The Columbian) Photo Gallery

Marcus Lopez, a crew member on the Lady Washington, landed at Tillamook, Ore., in 1788. He’s thought to be the first black man to ever set foot in the Pacific Northwest — kicking off a long, rich, complex and occasionally fraught history of African Americans in this corner of the country.

To commemorate Black History Month, the Vancouver chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is imparting that legacy through an exhibit at the Vancouver Community Library.

The exhibit, titled “The Lost Ark of African American Art, History & Experience in Vancouver and the Northwest,” kicked off with a four-hour presentation at the library Saturday afternoon.

The exhibit will remain in the building through the end of February, with different pieces spread across each of the library’s floors.

The opening day of the exhibit also featured a five-member panel of people from prominent local African American families that included Major W. Harris Jr., Charles Simmons, Sharon Nettles, Tanisha Harris and Angela Jenkins.

Claudia Carter, the exhibit’s curator, said the panel was part of the program’s emphasis on oral history.

“We want to provide an opportunity for families of all races and cultures in our community to hear these stories and engage in conversation with the speakers,” Carter said. “Attendees are sure to leave with some memorable stories and an enhanced knowledge and understanding of the black experience and how it has evolved over time in our community and region.”

The panelists shared stories of growing up in Vancouver. Many of them first came to the area because their relatives had gotten work building ships during World War II.

“What brought my folks here was the shipyards,” Major W. Harris Jr. told the assembled crowd. “That included the time that we lived in the projects, which were across the street from Park Hill Cemetery to the north. It was quite interesting. It was quite a diverse group of folks living in those projects, and we all helped each other back then.”

His strongest memory of the time was the family sharing a big pot of popcorn on the back porch during hot weekend nights in the summer, he said. That, and the family’s collection of World Book Encyclopedias.

“All of the older kids, all of the neighbor kids, would come over and borrow the encyclopedias to do their reports for school,” he said, “because we just did not have the internet.”

Nettles recounted her experience as a member of a family largely isolated from the community.

“All the black people I saw were family members,” Nettles said. “My earliest memory related to being black in Vancouver, Wash., is that we were coming home from church, and we were crossing the I-5 Bridge, and another family of black people drove by in their car. And I begged my dad to follow those people and see where they were going. He wouldn’t, and I couldn’t imagine, because it was like, they’re getting away!”

She laughed.

“I thought there were no other black people in Vancouver except my family, but obviously there were.”

Lining the walls was a collection of prints from Coors Brewing Co. depicting various historic African American figures in the area.

Andrew Cainion, a Vancouver local, purchased and donated the prints to the exhibit. They’d been commissioned by the beer giant in the 1970s as part of an anti-discrimination settlement agreement with the company.

The exhibit also included a tribute to Valree Joshua, a teacher at the Washington School for the Deaf as well as a leader at the NAACP and other various local organizations, who died in 2012. Along the back wall were pages from the Aug. 31, 1944, issue of The People’s Observer, a historic black newspaper printed in Portland.

Connecting the census to history

This marked the third year that the local chapter of the NAACP put together an exhibit at the library for Black History Month. This year, there’s an extra urgent element, said Bridgette Fahnbulleh, the chapter’s president.

The upcoming 2020 United States census will be crucial in getting an accurate count of Clark County’s population, and therefore an equitable slice of the resources from federal programs.

“Nationwide, we’ve been undercounted,” Fahnbulleh said. “We have to kind of prove that we are here.”

Saturday’s exhibit drew a direct line from the first census in 1790 — when most of the black people in the country were enslaved — to now. Even just the language used to describe African American people in the census has changed so much, Fahnbulleh said.

It’s a crucial historic record, she added.

“It tells the truth. About how many slaves there were, who owned them, the part of the country it was. Although it was sad, due to the census, we have that historical proof,” Fahnbulleh said.

For more information about the upcoming census, visit 2020census.gov.

The NAACP exhibit will remain on display at the Vancouver Community Library, located at 901 C St., through the end of February.

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Columbian staff writer