A few weeks ago, NP staff had the opportunity to join other non-profit organizations on the Fair Housing Council of Oregon’s bus tour of historic housing discrimination. We knew it would be educational, full of insights, and also difficult as we journeyed back in history to better understand the legal and illegal tools and strategies Portland and Oregon have used over time to isolate and oppress people of color.
Our journey ranged through many parts of the city – north and northeast Portland, southwest Portland, and southeast Portland. It also ranged from many years back to the very recent past – from exclusion laws to redlining to the KKK to internment camps, the flooding of Vanport, all the way to the rise of neo-nazism and the brutal killing of an immigrant in the late 1980s. Both Portland and Oregon, along with many other cities and states, have a deeply problematic history full of legal discrimination, exclusion, and violence.
One thing that struck many of us on the tour was the strange sensation of seeing and being in places every day that have huge historical significance that we were totally unaware of – from standing in the parking lot of a golf course that was once the site of the thriving community of Vanport, to driving by the MAC club where Chinese immigrants used to farm, to driving past what is now the Timbers stadium, but what used to be the site of KKK rallies. Histories of oppression and violence are all around us.
I’ve briefly spoken to my goddaughter's grandpa about living in Vanport in the 40s, but it was in passing and felt like a distant story without any immediacy. That changed when I stood in the physical space. The value of those stories came to life when I heard Mr. Ed Washington speak about how important that community, and community in general, was to him as he pointed out significant landmarks and talked about the Vanport reunion that happened earlier that weekend. History was no longer so distant.
My goddaughter is the most important person in my life and being in Vanport made me feel more close to her own history. It also reiterated how important it is that I do what I can to make sure she (and children all across the state) have a stable place and community to call home. - Jessica Junke, Director of Economic Opportunity
I've heard a lot about the Vanport flood but I had not before heard how unique a community Vanport was or much about the interesting and progressive things that were happening there. The free child care, the hiring of teachers of color and integrated classrooms, how vibrant the community was. When we tell the story Vanport I think we need to start there and understand that it wasn't just the physical loss of housing but the loss of unique community. - Jill Winsor, Engagement and Development Director
One stop we made along the tour was the Expo Center parking lot, near the MAX station. There we heard from Marleen Wallingford, who shared with us the significance of two gates that stand near where the MAX stops. The gates are traditional Japanese style, and from them hang 3,700 metal tags. Each of those tags represents a Japanese-American who was forced to be interned during World War II by the US Government under Executive Order 9066.
— NeighborPartnerships (@NPartnerships) May 31, 2016
Prior to Pearl Harbor, the majority of Oregon’s farms were owned by Japanese families, but during internment, many lost everything. Ms. Wallingford shared a story of people who experienced internment who had to start over very late in life. Japanese Americans in the Portland and Oregon area were held at the Expo Center, in the animal barns, before being transferred to internment camps throughout the west for the duration of the war. Since that time, we’ve recognized the harm and suffering this caused, and this year, in 2016, the Oregon Legislature recognized the contributions of one Japanese American, Minoru Yasui, who protested the internments and eventually fought them all the way to the Supreme Court.
— Anna J (@sunnyanna86) May 31, 2016
We have made progress since the flooding of Vanport and the internment of Japanese Americans. We’ve outlawed the practice of redlining, we’ve passed laws banning discrimination in housing based on race, color, religion, sex, sexual orientation, national origin, marital status, familial status, or source of income. We have made much progress, and it’s important to consider the ways in which we might be able to use public policies as a tool to right past wrongs, rather than to oppress as we’ve done in the past.
— Jessica Junke. (@jessjunke) May 31, 2016
As a state and as a nation, we still have more to do – we still hear stories of tenants facing discrimination because of their race, their family size, and more. Our national dialogue sometimes borders on unbelievable with discussions of banning whole groups of people from our country. And while everyone in this country now legally has the right to marry the person they love, LGBT people can still be fired from their jobs or denied housing in some parts of this country, and as the events of this week have shown, are still targeted by acts of violence because of their identity.
We’re grateful to have had the time and opportunity to learn and to reflect. And we’re grateful that our work at Neighborhood Partnerships brings us together with all of you in work to create a better Oregon. Together, we can work towards laws which protect all of us, and seek to address and redress the inequities that linger as remnants of our history.