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News / Life / Clark County Life

Clark County historians dig into Black history

Research, publications explore lives of local African Americans

By Scott Hewitt, Columbian staff writer
Published: February 26, 2023, 6:04am
11 Photos
The 1949 meeting of the Washington State Conference of the NAACP was held in Vancouver.
The 1949 meeting of the Washington State Conference of the NAACP was held in Vancouver. (The Columbian files) Photo Gallery

When Melissa Williams finished her master’s degree thesis on African American housing in postwar Vancouver, her faculty adviser at Washington State University Vancouver congratulated her for breaking new ground. The story of Black housing here had never been seriously researched before Williams’ 2007 paper.

Since then, more scholars, classroom teachers, filmmakers and genealogy researchers have deepened the field of local Black history.

“The body of literature has grown so much,” Williams said.

Much of their research debunks the reassuring myth of Vancouver’s race-blindness and easy housing integration during and after World War II.

“Sadly, one thing we’ve learned is that Vancouver has not been very welcoming to African Americans,” historian Donna Sinclair said.

That’s clear from both Williams’ data crunching and from the groundbreaking book “First Families of Vancouver’s African American Community.” Published in 2012 by the Vancouver NAACP, the 240-page volume draws from interviews with 35 local families to create a nuanced portrait of historical Black Vancouver.

Significantly, the interviewer and author of this first run at local Black history was Jane Elder Wulff, a white woman. Because of economic and educational disparities, there weren’t — and still aren’t — many professional-level Black historians in Clark County, Sinclair said. Wulff had the tools and training to do the job.

There may not be many local Black historians, but there’s lots of Black history yet to explore.

“Inclusive history is better history,” Sinclair said. “If you start asking questions about who’s missing from the story, you start to see a different narrative.”

The Clark County Historical Museum also seeks those missing pieces, said Katie Bush, public historian. The museum recently displayed a Black history timeline at Clark College (in collaboration with the local NAACP); an exhibit about 1960s urban renewal and downtown housing displacement at the Slocum House; and a digital exhibit about the multi-ethnic Fourth Plain community on its website.

The museum has amassed troves of local historical resources — from property records to newspaper archives to oral histories — awaiting curious researchers.

But much local Black history can still be found in the voices of living people, Bush said. “Nobody knows their own history better than the people who lived it.”

Melissa Williams

“Those Who Desire Very Much to Stay: African Americans and Housing in Vancouver, Washington, 1940 to 1960”

Moving to Vancouver at age 9 from Portland’s mostly Black Albina neighborhood was quite a culture shock for Melissa Williams. When she reached college, the biracial student started thinking about where she came from and how that fit into history, she said.

Completed in 2007, Williams’ master’s thesis in public history for Washington State University Vancouver delved into Black housing here during and after World War II.

“We know we had a draw of African American people and we know we lost them again,” said Williams, who still lives in Vancouver. “As war work sunsetted, folks were less able to secure jobs on the private market … and because of that, it was difficult to maintain housing as the city shifted from public war housing to private development.

“On paper there was no race-based housing, but people had experiences that counter that,” she said.

A survey by the Vancouver Housing Authority found that most Black families wanted to stay in Vancouver but couldn’t, Williams said. The local NAACP even lobbied major employers of the day, like Crown Zellerbach and Alcoa, to hire Black workers but with limited success.

“Now that the war is over, you people can go home,” is how it felt to Joseph H. Bailey, a Black shipyard worker interviewed later by The Columbian.

The city’s African American population plummeted from nearly 9,000 in 1940 to just 440 in 1960, according to the Civil Rights and Labor History Consortium at the University of Washington. Many relocated to the city of Vanport, which was destroyed in a catastrophic flood in 1948.

After earning her master’s degree, Williams assisted author Jane Elder Wulff on the Vancouver NAACP’s “First Families” book project.

“My master’s thesis got the policy pieces, but ‘First Families’ tracked down the voices,” she said. “Those voices are so important because they provide a fleshed-out, detailed, rich narrative of firsthand experiences. I consider those works a spectrum.”

Many are clamoring for a follow-up book that continues the story of Black families in Vancouver past 1960, Williams said.

“A lot of people in that generation were born here, unlike their parents,” she said. “They have their own very specific Vancouver story to tell.”

Williams finds the idea tempting, but her calendar is full. She’s a policy associate for Washington’s State Board for Community and Technical Colleges while working toward her doctorate in educational leadership at Portland State University.

Dru Holley

“Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts”

Filmmaker Dru Holley and his young daughter were at the 2018 Langston Hughes Juneteenth Festival in Seattle when she yelled, “Ooh, horsies!”

“I turned and saw these brothers galloping up the hill, costumed in these Union outfits, like they were riding straight out of history,” Holley said.

The riders were portraying Black U.S. Army soldiers of the late 1800s, when such regiments were formed and sent to the American West to protect settlers and fight Indians. The reenactment was a powerful moment for Holley, who was eager to learn more and to make sure his daughter would learn more.

“She wasn’t going to be taught that history in school,” he said. “Nobody else was going to do it, so it was important for me to do it.”

Holley, who lives in downtown Vancouver, spent four hard years raising $450,000 to make the film. This area’s diverse community came through for him, he said, from individuals to local philanthropic organizations like the Murdock Trust and the Cowlitz Tribe’s Education & Arts Fund.

Holley and his team interviewed historian Quintard Taylor of the University of Washington, black studies scholar Darrell Millner of Portland State University and Greg Shine, former chief ranger and historian at Fort Vancouver.

“We were fortunate to have such great resources available in the Pacific Northwest,” Holley said. “Personally, I was amazed to learn … the complexity of the story.”

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His hourlong film is an unflinching look at the way Black soldiers were put to use on behalf of an expanding nation, doing everything from roadbuilding and guarding the U.S Mail to protecting westbound settlers.

“The daily work would have ranged from the mundane to the terrifying,” Shine explains in the film. “They were almost like a police force.”

The film’s central storyline follows Moses Williams, who is buried in the Vancouver Barracks Cemetery. Williams was honored for his bravery during the military campaign to force tribes onto reservations.

“The Buffalo Soldiers were used as a tool to subjugate Natives in the West,” Holley said. “As hard as it was to learn such things, I wanted to tell the true story.

“Black Americans have been fighting for this country and participating in the development of this country — good, bad or indifferent — all along,” he said. “We should honor and spread their stories. And not hide certain history that’s tough to hear.”

“Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts” is making the rounds of festival and educational screenings. It will appear on OPB-TV and the World Channel this year, Holley said.

Donna Sinclair

National Park Service studies of Vancouver Barracks and Fort Vancouver; “Black Woman in Green: Gloria Brown and the Unmarked Trail to Forest Service Leadership”

Her research about Vanport convinced Washington State University Vancouver history and anthropology major Donna Sinclair to question the conventional wisdom that Black people found a warm welcome in Vancouver during and after World War II.

Vanport is the small Oregon city where many local Black worker families relocated after the war. It was destroyed by a flood in 1948 and never rebuilt.

“Everybody knows about Vanport now, but in 1994 they didn’t,” Sinclair said. “This story about Vancouver being so welcoming, it didn’t really gel.”

Sinclair, who lives in Washougal, earned a master’s degree in environmental and cultural history and a doctorate in urban studies from Portland State University. Today she teaches at Western Oregon University.

Along the way, Sinclair wrote several definitive histories of the Vancouver Barracks and Fort Vancouver for the National Park Service. Those detailed, scholarly works were published in the early 2000s and remain posted on the Fort Vancouver website.

Sinclair’s assignment was to examine the relationship between military and community, she said. Among the many matters she pursued were race, class and gender. What were the untold stories of the fort community’s women, Blacks and other diverse workers?

Sinclair has been asking the same questions throughout her career. In the mid-2000s she went back to work for the National Park Service on two encyclopedic “resource studies” of all properties, artifacts and stories connected with the fort and barracks. Those documents, now approaching publication, will become the foundation of all interpretive services — tours, placards, brochures and websites — offered to visitors, Sinclair said.

“I have written 1,200 pages of this stuff,” she said. “It’s basic history of the barracks but I also wanted it to be an inclusive history. Where were the people of color? Where were the women and the Natives?”

For example, Sinclair said, while we think of slavery as a Southern problem, some military officers arriving from elsewhere brought personal servants who were barely distinct from slaves. Slavery may have been illegal in the West, but many laws and customs still segregated and diminished Black people, she said.

Sinclair, a specialist in oral history, also worked with retired U.S. Forest Service official Gloria Brown on her memoir. The book describes the Black woman’s decades-long climb, despite opposition and bias, from transcriptionist to diversity trainer to supervisor of Oregon’s coastal Siuslaw National Forest.

“When we teach stories of discrimination, we are helping students understand where we are today,” said Sinclair. “Leaving the ugliness out is historically deceitful. When my students find out how much they’ve been lied to or how much was left out, they’re mad about it.”