Portland Housing History Tour

“Housing is about access to opportunity” — opportunities such as healthy living, high level schools, parks, etc. This weekend the OMA participated in a tour of Portland pertaining to the city’s history of housing displacement, segregation, and discrimination. The 3 hour tour included a dozen stops, guest presenters who gave firsthand accounts of their experiences, and a lot of incredible information regarding significant events in Portland’s housing history. The tour was sponsored by the Fair Housing Council of Oregon, Race Talks, and the Portland Human Rights Commission.

Tour Map and Locations

Since the Fair Housing Act is about protecting people against discrimination based on race, sexual orientation, and gender, along with families and people with ADA needs, it’s fitting that the first stop on the tour was the statue of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. titled “The Dream” by artist and sculptor Michael F Dente. The sculpture includes MLK Jr. with a child, a worker, and an immigrant. As Dr. King stood for peace, equality, and justice, within the context of the tour, they can be seen as representations of groups affected by housing displacement and discrimination. The statue is located at the Oregon Convention Center and was dedicated in 1998.

MLK Jr. Statue “The Dream”

The next couple stops were the DeNorval Unthank Plaza and the Albina Neighborhood, specifically the story of the Emmanuel Hospital expansion. On the micro level of history is the story of Unthank having to move his family four times before he could live peacefully; he was a victim of housing harassment. On the macro level is the story of an entire community being displaced due to the hospital expansion among other urban renewal projects.

The Albina Neighborhood is a historically black area originally settled in 1887 by German immigrants; it was an area that began to absorb immigrants and consisted of mostly smaller homes. During the late 1800s and early 1900s there were railroad jobs and more people began moving to the area. The Albina area was 2 miles long and 1 mile wide. In the 1930s whites moved out as blacks moved in. Williams Ave was the center of African American community; from the Steel Bridge to Fremont there were businesses, groceries, nightclubs, etc. In the 1950s there were 11,000 people in a small area that was six times as dense as the city as a whole.

There were several Urban Renewal projects of the 1950s-1970s in which low income housing was taken away with expansion: 1950s Memorial Union/Plaza; 1960s I-5 expansion; 1960s and 1970s Emmanuel Hospital expansion – the hospital spent 10 years planning before talking to the community. There are vacant lots in the area because the expansion began but the hospital didn’t get the needed federal funds to complete the project. With all of these projects, more than 1,000 homes were lost; but not just homes: churches, businesses, nightclubs, organizations, etc.  – there was a loss of community for the people who were forced to move. The neighborhood was pushed further North and whites moved to the area; by the 1990s, 85% of African Americans lived in North/North East Portland.

Housing in Portland:

  • In 1919 the Portland Realty Board prohibited members from selling property in white neighborhoods to “Negros” or “Orientals.” A white neighborhood was defined as a 4 mile radius and realtors justified the segregation as maintaining property values.
  • During the 1920s-1940s the American Institute of Real Estate Appraisers/Appraisal ranked races regarding the value in housing.
  • Some historic homes had (and have as the language was never removed) covenants stating that housing owners/renters must be Caucasian. There is discriminatory language saying that people of color cannot live in the house (unless they are domestic servants).

The Former Site of the City of Vanport

In the 1940s Vanport (a combination of Vancouver and Portland) was a city of 40,000 people with 15,000-25,000 African Americans who came mostly from the South. It was the largest public housing project in the country and specifically developed by Henry Kaiser and the federal government in order for people to work for the Kaiser shipyards during WWII.

Vanport Area Special Presentation – Ed Washington

Ed Washington’s family immigrated to Portland from Birmingham in the summer of 1944; his father worked in the shipyards. At the time there was not much housing for anyone; people were living in tents, cars, and were sharing apartments. Kaiser made an agreement with the federal government to create housing and the city of Vanport began in the summer of 1941 and was completed in 1942. There were 500 units – each unit had 14 apartments; the area was full of identical houses of green and grey. Vanport was not an all-black city but a large portion of the population lived there. According to the 1940 census there were 2,500 blacks in Oregon and during 1940s the population increased to about 20,000.

Vanport Location

  • Eastern boundary is present day I-5; the PDX racetrack was East Vanport
  • Western boundary was the railroads
  • Northern boundary was Swift Blvd.
  • Southern boundary was Columbia Street

Growing Up as a Kid in Vanport. Washington explained that the majority of blacks lived in Cottonwood (street name) while the whites lived on Victory; the neighborhoods were named by streets. He stated that Vanport was not a slum. There were no broken down houses or rat infested homes. In terms of race relations, he recalled that the schools were not segregated in Vanport. The Portland Housing Authority managed the schools; it was not the federal government or Kaiser that segregated the community, it was the city of Portland that did so. Within the school district nothing was spared when it came to providing a good education. Dr. James Hamilton, the superintendent, refused to segregate the schools even though the Portland Housing Authority wanted to do so. The schools had band uniforms; it one of the first districts to have Junior Highs; and 24 hour day cares. Vanport was also one of the first schools to hire an African American teacher and black deputy sheriff; the theatre was not segregated. The city had a fire dept., post office, and hospital.

The Flood ~ An entire city community displaced

By the Spring of 1948, in mid-May, the Columbia River was really heavy because of a lot of snow that winter. There was discussion of a possible flood and on Sunday, Memorial Day weekend, May 31st, a notice was placed on people’s doors, however, it said to not worry for 2-4 days and so residents remained in their homes. On the notice it said if the dike broke, there would be sirens that would go off to warn people. The dike did indeed brake and the police said that residents had about 40 minutes to leave. Washington remembers conversations between community members that thought the water would not be so bad and that they would return home, however, within 45 minutes, the entire area was flooded. There was a first wave and by the second wave, people knew they would not be able to return.

The Washington Family only packed a few items of clothing, important records, and selected photographs. After the floor there was a church on Rodney and Russell that was one of a few that would accept people of color; the family stayed there for three weeks. In 1948-49 the family lived in a trailer and in 1950 they moved to NE Cook Street to finally resettle.


  • 1/3 to 1/2 of the African American community unemployed; 8% unemployment for whites and 50% for blacks and on government assistance.
  • About 12,000 left while about 11,000 stayed but there was no work; those that remained moved to Albina or another housing district.

Exposition Center Memorial for Japanese Americans Interred during WWII

The Japanese moved to Oregon in late 1800s and early 1900s for railroad jobs; other jobs were in agriculture in rural areas if not in Portland. Sadly, the Japanese endured many acts of harassment. In Hood River whites were threatened by Japanese success; the Alien Land Law meant the exclusion of non-citizens from owning land; and in the 1920s there were various anti-Japanese incidents aimed at immigrants. By 1941 Japanese in Oregon owned farms (bought via their children who were citizens) and were getting resentment from white farmers. On February 19, 1942, Executive Order 9066 declared the removal of Japanese Americans when 2/3 were US citizens by birth. Japanese Americans were relocated to the Portland Expo Center from May 2 – Sept. 10, 1942, in Expo Building C.

Japanese Americans in Portland Special Presentation – Marleen Wallingford

Wallingford’s parents were born in Oregon; her father in Portland and mother in Hood River. She began by explaining that the Memorial Gates to Japanese Americans look like Torii Gates from Japan which were usually meant to be at the entrance to a sacred place like a temple. The chimes represent the tags that people had to wear for the government to keep track of them; there are 3,700 tags to depict the number of people removed from their homes.

Within days of the Executive Order Japanese Americans had to leave their homes – licenses for business were revoked and all Japanese banks were closed – and they were relocated to the Expo Center. Wallingford described the area. It was the livestock area; it was cleaned and covered but it still smelled. The bathrooms were one long hall; no doors so some women used cardboard boxes. There was just one communal sleeping area and no doors so people used blankets to set up some privacy. There were curfews from 8pm-6am, no weapons, no radios allowed, and restricted travel areas. The FBI had lists of “dangerous” people, especially those in leadership roles; some were arrested and moved to camps; most were men that were removed from the community. Most of the people left over were women and children – they were not empowered to protest. Wallingford gave her perspective on the situation saying that it was not in the culture to fight back; it was in the culture to follow orders, a part of the Buddhist philosophy of acceptance. And she reiterated that removal was not just a threat; people had no choice. Soon after the incarceration, recruitment for agricultural work began because there was a shortage of workers in states across the Pacific Northwest, especially for sugar beets workers because the sugar was used for bombs.

Wallingford’s family’s post WWII experience included housing discrimination. There were ads in papers stating that Japanese Americans not welcome in Hood River. Her and her parents moved to Portland but could not find work. Some Jewish families were more willing to hire nonwhites but paid them less. The family tried to buy house in 1959 but they were not welcome by neighbors so they moved to South East Portland.

The last half dozen stops of the tour included:

  • The New Columbia / Columbia Villa neighborhood which includes the Charles Jordan Community Center; Jordan was the first black city commissioner in Portland. Currently there are 22 countries represented and 13 languages spoken in the area.
  • The site of the Chinese Garden Community from the early 1900s which was shut down by the city – OHS OrHi 12176
  • Romani Round Up: during the 1940s the Portland Mayor received federal funds to remove the Gypsy community.
  • Golden West Hotel: a hotel built for African American railroad workers; it was the largest black owned hotel west of the Mississippi.
  • Chinatown Gate: the gate was dedicated in 1986.
  • Site of Seraw Murder, a hate crime in 1988. Special speaker Jan Ferguson explained that in the 1980s there was a wave of immigrants from Ethiopia and at the same time Portland developed a racist skin head movement – East Side White Pride was a hate group. The area near Belmont was a violent area. In November of 1988 an Ethiopian man, Mulugeta Seraw, was coming home from work when he came across a group of skin heads. A fight broke out and Seraw was beaten with a bat. Three men were charged with hate crimes based on the hate crime law. Since 1997 Portland designated a hate crime agent to prevent and investigate hate crimes.


Current Efforts regarding Fair Housing Issues

  • ½ of fair housing issues are related to disabilities; the types of disabilities have increased in recent years.
  • Post 1990s, in terms of design in construction, buildings are required to meet certain standards for new homes for ADA compliance i.e. doors cannot be too narrow and there can be no barriers to certain areas of the building.

Purpose of Tour

People sometimes don’t choose where to live; discrimination and displacement tell a lot about the social history of a city. As community members we need to be vigilant for others’ civil rights in addition to our own.

For more information about the tour be sure to check out the Fair Housing Council of Oregon tours webpage

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