A Tale of Racism and Disaster Inspires a Triumph of Collaborative Community Storytelling

In this season of Harvey, Irma, Maria and the onslaught of other natural disaster, a multimedia project about a devastating 1948 flood near Portland has remarkable relevance.  The project, called the Vanport Mosaic, uses oral history and video to create a collective memory of the flood that wiped out the Portland-area  community of Vanport, destroying the homes of about 20,000 people and killing at least 15.   Librarians, both academic and public, played a key role in developing the Mosaic as it evolved into a digital portal.

The Vanport story begins as a remarkable tale of wartime enterprise, unfortunately offset by the shadows of racism.  World War II brought a huge expansion of shipbuilding around Portland, and the federal government joined with shipbuilder Henry Kaiser in building what became the world's largest public housing project, creating a community with housing for 40,000 people in 110 days.  Built on marshland next to the Columbia River, a system of dikes and embankments held back the water.   

A record snow melt and rain swelled the river, and the embankments broke on Memorial Day, 1948.   By that time, Vanport's population had dropped to about 20,000, including many African Americans who couldn't find housing anywhere else, and the area was suffering from abandonment and reduced upkeep.  Even as the waters swelled, authorities assured residents that they were safe.   The embankments broke and the entire community inundated and destroyed.

The Vanport Mosaic multimedia project is much more than a chronicle of the disaster -- through first person narrative, much of it from Vanport survivors, a growing archive of short video documentaries depicts the many deeply troubling aspects of the Vanport story.  It is a moving, very personal account of how racism and segregation determined the fates of so many people.

“We call it a mosaic because it is an incredible collective effort.Since the first public screening, we’ve never stopped.  Every time we do a screening, someone else wants to participate.  It was supposed to be six months, now it’s in its third year.”
— Laura Lo Forti, co-director, Vanport Mosaic

In contrast to Portland's current image as a progressive hipster paradise, the city and the state of Oregon were known through much of the last century as among the most segregated places north of the Mason-Dixon line.   When large numbers of African Americans migrated to Portland to work in war production, there was no room left in the city's one all-black neighborhood.   An estimated 6,000 blacks lived in Vanport at its peak.  And while Vanport was shaped by de facto racial segregation, its schools and community centers were integrated.  After the disaster, continuing racial segregation in Oregon vastly complicated resettlement of the survivors.

It was Portland's persistent lack of racial diversity that first prompted Vanport Mosaic co-director Laura Lo Forti to investigate the story.    "When I moved from New York, I found Portland unsettling because it's so white," she says.  "How could it become so homogenous."

Laura Lo Forti, co-director, Vanport Mosaic

Laura Lo Forti, co-director, Vanport Mosaic

To explore how the story of Vanport still informs Portland's racial identity, Lo Forti and her team set out in 2014 to find Vanport residents to tell the story of the community, how it was wiped out, and the aftermath.  “The idea of the digital portal is a recent development because of the amount of stories and artifacts we've been collecting," Lo Forti says. We had no idea it was going to happen when we started!"  She continues: “We call it a mosaic because it is an incredible collective effort. Since the first public screening, we've never stopped.  Every time we do a screening, someone else wants to participate.  It was supposed to be six months, now it's in its third year."

Librarians take note -- libraries have played a crucial role in the Mosaic's development.   Both Portland State University and the archive of the Multnomah County library contributed archival material used in the short oral histories and in the related traveling exhibits. Archival photos have played a crucial role in developing the oral histories.  "Most people had never seen the photos," Lo Forti says.  "We would bring whatever material we could get our hands on -- this was the initial memory mining process."
Last June, Lo Forti joined with Portland State Head of Special Collections Cristine Paschild at an archivists' conference in a forum, "How do we build a community-centered archive?"  (PSU, now Oregon's largest university, has roots in Vanport -- it traces its beginnings to an extension college in Vanport)

Vanport was the only war housing complex in the US with its own public library, which was opened with 1000 books borrowed from the Portland Public Library.  One of the Mosaic's most recent finds are the reports from Vanport's librarian, which were given to the project by Multnomah County archivist Terry Baxter.

The story of the library, including readings from the librarian's official reports, will debut at the Vanport Mosaic festival this coming Memorial Day weekend (May 25-29, 2018).