A Peculiar Paradise
a History of Blacks in Oregon, 1788-1940
Chapter Ten - A Tough Spot with a Nice Climate
In the decade of the 1940's two unlikely events, a World War and a flood, became the catalysts for a minor revolution that was to usher in a new age for Portland's black community. In 1942 Americans were gearing up for war production, and Portland became a shipbuilding center. The shortage of available labor was so acute that the Kaiser Company recruited workers from the East and South, bringing them to Oregon on trains dubbed "Magic Carpet Specials". Many black people were recruited and came, attracted by the promise of good jobs and high wages. Estimates vary, but between 20,000 and 25,000 black people came to Portland in the early 1940% white migration into Portland was about 100,000.
Portland was unprepared for a mass influx of people, and more particularly for the numbers of black people who came. Overnight the black community was transformed from a nearly invisible minority to a large, visible one. In typical fashion, the white community resisted change. There was evidence of a racist backlash; the war period saw a distinct proliferation of jim-crow signs in restaurants and saloons. Mayor Earl Riley was quoted as saying, "Portland can absorb only a minimum of Negroes without upsetting the city's regular life.
The new black people were initially viewed with alarm by members of the settled black community. In many cases the two groups had little in common other than their racial identity. Blacks were fearful that the small gains they had made would be wiped out and that Oregonians would react by initiating more restrictive legislation. The new blacks represented a wider crosssection than was previously evident in Portland: there were a number of well educated blacks from the Midwest and East, as well as rural southern blacks who were unaccustomed to city ways and had never voted. There was also the inevitable fringe group of characters who came to Oregon for the ride and never picked up a blow torch or welding iron, prompting Bill Berry, Executive Secretary of the Urban League, to say.
The only Negroes the Urban League wants to help are the decent, hard-working and self-respecting colored people who want to earn their rightful places as good citizens in every meaning of the word.
Despite any mixed feelings the black community may have had, they quickly recognized that an increase in the black population represented a potential enhancement of their political clout. Both the NAACP and the newly formed Urban League became involved in voter education and registration programs in the housing projects at Giles Lake and Vanport.
Initially, job opportunities were a disappointment to the black workers. When they applied for jobs in the shipyards, they were told that nothing was available, and many help wanted notices specified "white only". Although the Kaiser Company had promised good jobs, local unions resisted integration, a prerequisite for skilled jobs under the closed shop system. One union leader, Tom Ray, boss of Local 72 of the Boilermaker's Union, said he would "pull the place down" rather than give black people equal job rights at the Kaiser Portland yards?
After pressure from the NAACP, the Kaiser Brothers, a federal inspection team and a reprimand from President Roosevelt, the unions compromised and more skilled jobs were opened to black workers, but only for the duration of the war. Blacks were allowed to work in union controlled shops and paid union dues, but were denied the benefits of union membership. The Boilermakers and Shipbuilders Union, which had control of 65% of the A.F. of L. shipyard workers, set up separate black auxiliary unions. Frequently, local union attitudes determined racist policies. The Longshoreman's Union, which had a national policy of non-discrimination, referred blacks to jobs in Portland only to have white union members refuse to work with them. After threats to call a general work stoppage, the black workers were removed from the job. A similar situation occurred in the A.F. of L. Laundry Worker's Union in Portland?
Black workers were able to earn good money during the war, but once the war was over they had no job security or seniority, and most were fired. In 1947, three months after onethird of the city's twelve thousand black workers lost their jobs, Julius A. Thomas, Industrial Relations Director for the National Urban League came to Portland, voicing the frustrations of the black community and classifying Portland as "just like any southern town . . . the most prejudiced [city] in the west?
After the war the black community, courtesy of war time economics and union policies, had new problems to deal with. Unemployment became a major concern, and those who could not find work had to subsist on welfare and unemployment payments. The Urban League took an active role in finding jobs for black people, negotiating with employers and sending out hand-picked qualified workers to jobs previously held only by whites.
Another problem for both the settled black community and the war workers was the shortage of decent housing: predictions made by The Advocate in 1930 were becoming a reality? The Albina area, historically a white working class neighborhood, was gradually being transformed into a black ghetto. Before the war, black people had moved into Albina and northeast Portland for various reasons: the proximity of the railroad yards, a general shift of population to the east side, and the proximity of black churches and social institutions. In the 1930's definitions of non-segregated areas began to emerge: the rule of thumb followed by the real estate industry was that if there was a black-occupied residence within four blocks, the area could not be defined as a white segregated neighborhood.7 The policies of the real estate establishment and the indifference of the city housing authority fostered the patterns of segregated housing which emerged during and after the war.
During the war, housing was scarce for both black and white workers. A few temporary facilities and the companybuilt dormitories were inadequate; some black men were forced to sleep on billiard tables in taverns, or in churches. They were excluded from the city-wide housing market, and confined to the housing that was available in the Williams Avenue area and a dormitory in Vancouver. White citizens of the Albina area opposed construction of a dormitory on N.E. Flint Street intended to house black workers, claiming that the black population on the east side had increased from two thousand to more than five thousand, and that more crimes had been committed in the area than in the previous thirty years. Dr. Vern Wirtz, President of the Central East Portland Community Club was quoted as saying.
If it is necessary to bring in large numbers of Negro worker's, locate them on the edge of the city... It would be much better for all concerned. If they are allowed to fan out through the city, it will be necessary to station a policeman on every block to prevent what some Negroes are pulling around here?
William Greene, President of the Colored Republican Club, countered charges that attributed the increase in crime to black people.
We want to convey to the citizens of Portland that the influx of labor is bringing in undesirables of all races . . . The Negro population of Portland should not be criticized for what one or two Negroes do?
Other churches and social groups supported the position of Greene and other black people, and requested that the Portland Council of Churches petition the federal housing authority to provide adequate housing for the black defense workers. The Reverend J.J. Clow, pastor of the Mt. Olivet Baptist Church, pleaded for an open housing policy in the city. He warned that tensions in Albina between blacks and whites were approaching a dangerous level, and might result in serious consequences if not relieved. He claimed that anti-black sentiment was the result of "police hysteria" and "damaging newspaper publicity," and said that the police were arresting innocent people. Among white church leaders some reservations were expressed. The Reverend Charles Elrey, a retired Presbyterian minister, said that trouble resulted in cities where integrated housing was tried. He felt that black people would be "better off . . . if restricted to certain districts. Mayor Earl Riley felt that the situation was bad, but could be handled. Admitting that the city could only absorb a minimum of black people, he pointed out that in war-time conditions the community must forget some of [its] previous ideals.
Housing projects for defense workers were developed in the Vanport and Guilds Lake areas. By 1945, 5,808 black people found housing in Vancouver, Washington. Within the housing projects spot segregation was practiced. After the war, whites and some blacks hoped the black workers would go back where they came from, and many did. But many also stayed, and had the usual trouble finding adequate housing within the metropolitan area. The Oregonian published a report in 1945 speculating on the post war outlook - for blacks in Portland, quoting Mayor Riley, who again denied that a race problem existed. The article stated that integrated housing had been a success in Vancouver, with only a minimum of racial friction. Black leaders feared that with the end of the war, the remaining black people would be forced to live in temporary housing projects, or in restricted areas in Portland. The housing available for sale to black people in Albina was in areas steadily converting to business and commercial interests, making land values high and houses substandard. They were residential districts bound to deteriorate further, and poor investments. The housing shortage was universal and, as usual, the needs of black people were the last to be considered. The "do-nothing" policy of the housing officials, black people feared, would make Portland another "tough spot with a nice climate.
In 1947 the Urban League of Portland took the Housing Authority to task for not enforcing the official federal policy of non-discrimination in housing. The Housing Authority's local policy was to separate tenants according to race, making it impossible to serve people on a first come, first served basis, a policy unfair to both blacks and whites. Some vacant housing in Vanport and Guilds Lake were unavailable to white people, because they were in an area designated for blacks only. The Urban League urged the Housing Authority to modify its policies, but little change resulted.
At the time of the Vanport flood, there were about 18,500 people, including 5,000 blacks, living in the housing project. It had not been intended as permanent housing, and would have been closed had other housing been available. The flood occurred May 30, 1948, and turned Vanport into a lake. All available housing was pressed into service, and many of the black people who were left homeless were taken in by families in the metropolitan area. While many of the stranded white families were able to leave town, black families, many subsisting on welfare and unemployment, did not have the financial resources to settle elsewhere. The resettlement of the flood victims, in the absence of any direct action taken by the city housing authorities, reinforced the patterns of segregation. One black resident recalled.
We in the NAACP used to chide [Mayor Baker] about the segregated housing in Vanport. "Get the people in town!" "Where are you going to put them.., there's no place for them.
"Well, bless my soul, May 30, when that dike broke, they found a place for them. And what did they do7 They congregated right down on Albina, in that area?
The Portland Housing Authority did not integrate its operations until 1950, and even in 1957 was not offering housing to many black people. In that year it administered 433 temporary dwelling units, 137 of which were occupied by black families. Of 485 permanent housing units in the Columbia Villa and Dekum Court developments, only 30 units were occupied by black people. Meanwhile, living conditions in Albina were more crowded in 1957 than they had been in 1945, and the Portland Housing Authority was criticized for its indifference to the housing needs of Portland's black community. Beyond that, a Portland City Club study concluded:
. . . most white Portlanders are unaware of the social and economic problems which face the city's Negro population. Responsible public officials have made little effort to publicize the presence of segregated housing and general slum conditions which we have found do exist.
In the meantime, the Urban League addressed the problem of segregation as determined by the real estate industry. The official doctrine in the Realty Board's Code of Ethics that held that blacks depress property values had been abandoned in 1952. The practice of real estate agents remained virtually unchanged, despite claims to the contrary, such as one made in 1954 by an official of the Portland Realty Board:
Realty boards do not under any circumstances have anything to do with segregation... We have only one thing in our code of ethics and that is never to sell property so that it will reduce the value of other properties in the area, and there can be a variety of reasons. It is the residents of the neighborhood who make the ruling.
An Urban League study found that, contrary to widespread belief, property values were not depressed when blacks moved into a neighborhood. The findings were based on a study of five residential neighborhoods into which black people had moved and five areas that remained all white. No significant variation in the upward price trend of houses in the two groups was found. The study also explored attitudes toward integrated housing, and found that those people who had had the most exposure to minority groups were more in favor of integrated housing than those who had no personal contact with minorities in their neighborhoods. Those favoring integration also tended to be younger and the parents of school age children. Those polled were almost equally divided between those who favored integrated housing and those who favored segregated housing. On the basis of expressed prejudice, the study found that 35% of those polled expressed little or no prejudice, 32 % expressed moderate prejudice, and 33 % expressed extreme prejudice.
In 1961 the League of Women Voters of Portland published a study that focused on awareness of the Oregon Fair Housing Law among both blacks and whites and sampled attitudes toward integrated housing. The study concluded that many whites were still convinced that when blacks moved into white neighborhoods property values suffered, and while some black people were able to move out of the Albina area, many were still having difficulties moving into other neighborhoods.
In 1976 seven elementary schools had minority enrollments of over 50%, and school segregation, reflecting over thirty years of segregated housing practices, is an issue which is still being resolved?
Progress in other areas since the 1940's has been more encouraging. The state legislature, after defeating a fair employment practices act in 1947, passed a similar law two years later. In 1950 the city of Portland passed a comprehensive civil rights ordinance, but it was defeated in a general election. In 1951 discrimination in vocational schools was banned, and in 1953 a state public accommodations law was passed. In 1957 a Portland City Club Report noted that the public accommodations law had been "noticeably effective" in eliminating discrimination, but concluded:
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