One of Vancouver’s many claims to historical fame is the mighty shipbuilding effort here during World War II that drew many African Americans from the Jim Crow South and sparked the creation of the Vancouver Housing Authority. In 2012, the Vancouver NAACP chapter sponsored the researching and writing of a book, “First Families of Vancouver’s African American Community,” that told those stories.
Fewer students of local history know what happened to the generations of Black Vancouverites that followed those first families. The Clark County Historical Museum is now embarking on a project to gather and share those later examples of local Black history.
“It is about collecting the stories of the children and grandchildren of the African American families that stayed (or arrived) after WWII,” museum spokesperson April Buzby said in an email. “It’s about their experiences, the challenges they faced, and the community they built.”
Charles Simmons will lead the opening event, which is set for Feb. 3. Simmons is a lifelong Vancouver resident and educator. He said he was one of just seven African Americans in the Hudson’s Bay High School graduating class of 1967.
“I was the only guy in my classroom who looked like me,” he said. “But it was not awful. I know Vancouver was like any other place. There was ‘whites only’ and ‘coloreds only.’ But in the 1960s, when I was growing up, I knew how to get along with people and get my education.”
Simmons learned those lessons from his father, a hardworking Alcoa factory foreman who stood up for himself when he was passed over for the promotion he deserved, Simmons said.
“Sure there was racism and it affected me. That’s just the way of the world. But I had friends” on both sides of the color line, Simmons said.
Simmons went on to graduate from the University of Washington, to teach in local school districts and, eventually, to start a local summer program for African American youth called Rites of Passage. The program had just received a big grant when the coronavirus pandemic struck, he said, and everything came to a stop. Now, Simmons is hoping for a Rites of Passage relaunch.
Simmons will be joined by historian and doctoral student Melissa Williams for a 7 p.m. Feb. 3 session about recent Black history and Black life in Vancouver called “First Families: The Next Generation.”
The event was intended to be held live at the Clark County Historical Museum, but has been bumped to livestreaming because of the coronavirus pandemic. Visit www.cchmuseum.org for updated details.