The story of black people in this part of the world is longer and richer — and more delightful and more difficult — than most of us ever learn.
“The deep-rooted history of African Americans in the Pacific Northwest ranges from tragic racism to inspirational contributions,” said Richard Burrows, spokesman for The Historic Trust, a Vancouver nonprofit.
If you’re curious about the complicated backstory of local black life, don’t miss the trust’s educational Winter Chautauqua event, “Black Roots in the Lower Columbia River Basin,” set for Feb. 22 and 23 at the Vancouver National Historic Site’s Artillery Barracks.
That’s where you can view historical artifacts, learn the story of the Vancouver NAACP, explore exhibits about the 1948 Vanport flood and the Buffalo Soldiers, and check out a Buffalo Soldiers documentary film preview. An afternoon panel discussion on Feb. 22 will feature experts on local black history, including scholars from Washington State University Vancouver and Portland State University and the president of today’s Northwest Chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers.
“The exhibits and panel discussion will greatly illustrate the historical contributions African Americans made in this region and the impact they are making today,” Burrows said.
Buffalo Soldiers probably remain the best-known emblems of black history in the American West, thanks to enthusiasts and re-enactors on horseback who keep that heritage vibrantly alive. The original Buffalo Soldiers were all-black Army regiments, organized in the wake of the Civil War and dispatched west to enforce order and protect settlers, wagon trains and railroads. Today they’re considered examples of duty, honor and bravery despite racism, but the Buffalo Soldiers’ central mission was fighting indigenous peoples — which surely complicates the picture.
“History is never simply black and white,” Burrows said.
A company of 103 Buffalo Soldiers from the U.S. Army’s 24th Infantry, sent to Vancouver in 1899 to take charge of the military base here, was demoted from its leadership position as soon as white replacements arrived, said panel moderator and adjunct WSU Vancouver professor Donna Sinclair. Black troops here were treated with suspicion and hostility by at least some of their white Army superiors as well as Vancouver’s white citizens, according to the writings of Greg Shine, Fort Vancouver’s former chief ranger and historian.
“It’s easy for us to say Vancouver has been an open and welcoming place when it’s really been so homogenous,” Sinclair said. “The reason we have a smaller African American population in Vancouver today is because … so many left here and joined the larger black community in Portland.”
But life south of the Columbia River was just as complicated for African Americans. Look no further than the 1948 Vanport flood, a natural disaster that destroyed Oregon’s second-largest city. The Winter Chautauqua features an extensive exhibit about the flood, on loan from the Oregon Historical Society.
Vanport was a vast public-housing community, hurriedly built for wartime shipyard laborers on the north edge of Portland (where Delta Park and Portland International Raceway are today). It’s been hailed as an early experiment in racial integration, but the complicated reality in Vanport neighborhoods, community centers and medical clinics was de facto segregation. Most whites moved out after the war, and the remaining majority-black community got notoriously inadequate warning before the swelling Columbia River destroyed dikes and wiped all of Vanport away on May 30, 1948.
Thousands were left homeless, and the official death count of just 15 people is still questioned by some.
“We need to work harder to understand each other, in the past and today,” Sinclair said. “If we do that, we can alleviate existing tensions.”
What’s “Chautauqua”? It’s an adult-education movement that emerged from New York State in the late 1800s, as summer vacationers flocked to an idyllic lake by that name and took in improving talks and performances by cultural celebrities of the day: scientists and philosophers, lecturers and preachers, musicians and thespians. President Theodore Roosevelt famously called Chautauqua “the most American thing in America.”
The Historic Trust adopted the Chautauqua model a few years ago when it started highlighting local history with an educational week every August. It’s begun adding shorter winter, spring and fall Chautauqua events too, Burrows said.
Save the dates of May 23 and 24 for a Chautauqua weekend focused on the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, he said. A yet-to-be-determined October weekend will feature a traveling Smithsonian exhibit on “Patriot Nations: Native Americans in Our Nation’s Armed Forces.”
“We are trying to broaden and diversify the kinds of presentations The Historic Trust does,” Burrows said.