Courtesy of the Portland Oregonian, May 30, 1994
Flood of Memories
A narrow escape from the 1948 Memorial Day flood, a fruitless search for housing and the kindness of strangers mingle in a Portland woman's recollections
Vanport flood survivor Edna Pittman of Portland visits site where floodwaters destroyed her home May 30, 1948.
By Julie Swensen
Of The Oregonian staff
It was bright, sunny and 76 degrees outside on that Memorial Day 46 years ago, and 6 year-old Edna Mae Pittman wanted to go on a picnic outside and play. But instead, she was stuck packing her things in their Vanport apartment with her cousin, Louis, and sister, Eleanor, as her grandmother had told her to do.
There would be no picnic for her that day. The flood waters were coming, and there was no time to waste. It was only a matter of time before their apartment in Vanport, located on a flood plain on the Oregon side of the Columbia River between Vancouver and Portland, would succumb to the rising river. Vanport, designed to house workers building Liberty ships for World War II, was the largest U.S. housing project at that time, with about 17,000 residents.
That May had brought heavy rains, and a river gauge in Vancouver, Wash., placed the rising waters at 28 feet, which was 13 feet above flood stage. And although their neighbors all had received reassuring letters from the Housing Authority earlier in the day, saying that everything was safe, Pittman's family felt differently. A friend of the family who had been working on the railroad dike told them it wasn't going to hold much longer, and that they'd better get out.
He was right. And when the 125-foot-wide railroad dike gave way a little after 4 p.m., people panicked. Bells and horns sounded. Vanport residents scrambled to get up the hill, and people tried to escape in their cars; some didn't get out in time, and their cars sank. Buildings broke apart, and families watched helplessly as their homes were destroyed. People formed human chains and used boats to rescue people trapped by the flood waters. Aided by floodlights, search crews continued looking into the night for any survivors-or bodies.
Pittman's family tried to leave Vanport by bus, but the buses kept driving right by. Finally her grandmother, Henrietta Mitchell, sat down in front of a bus, and made the bus driver stop and let her family get on.
Moments later, the flood waters slammed into the back of the bus. Pittman screamed, and a woman held her in her lap to comfort her. Only later did Pitman's grandmother realize that the bus was the last one to leave.
Others weren't so fortunate; the Multnomah County coroner's office listed the death toll at 15, with the acknowledgement that the bodies of others may been carried downriver into the Pacific. Some people say the death toll was much higher.
"It was many years before I could even look down over there in Delta Park," Pittman said recently. The sight of the flood waters hitting the bus was traumatic for her, and she tried to block it from her mind.
Luckily, Pittman's parents, Lucille and Leroy, still were in Louisiana and had not yet made the move to Oregon; Pittman's grandfather, Roosevelt Mitchell, was away working as a porter on the Spokane, Portland and Seattle Railroad.
Her family was safe, but, like the 17,000 other evacuees from Vanport, temporarily homeless. And, because they were black, they had a harder time finding housing than their white counterparts.
Housing segregation was alive and well in Portland of the 1940s. And blacks recruited to work in the shipyards during the war found themselves limited in where they could live. Even in Vanport, built to house the shipworkers, there were white areas and black areas, and some whites wouldn't live even on the edges of the black areas.
The Kaiser Shipyards had recruited thousands of blacks to Portland to build Liberty ships. In 1940, the black population of Portland was about 2,500; six years later, it was estimated at about 15,000.
When Vanport was flooded, white people were reluctant to allow black people to move into their neighborhoods. Although some white people offered blacks temporary places to stay, black citizens couldn't find permanent places of their own where they wanted: There were restrictive covenants in the all-white "nice" neighborhoods. The Portland Realty Board worked to confine blacks to Albina and the run-down areas of Northeast Portland, where they couldn't negatively affect property values. Property values were higher in all-white neighborhoods.
No room to rent
After spending Memorial Day night in one of the many schools opened as shelters, Henrietta Mitchell and her three grandchildren set out on the streets to find a place to stay. It was an exhausting process. Because the grandchildren were small, Mitchell couldn't even find a room to rent.
Their luck changed when they approached a cab stand of the only black-owned cab company in the area.
"We had decided to let the cabs run for free that day, because of the flood," remembers Willie Mae Hart of Portland, who helped operate the business. "A lady with three grandchildren came. She said 'I am so tired. Can I have a drink?'"
Although Pittman or Hart don't know how long the four had been walking, Pittman remembers her grandmother saying that if she took her shoes off, she would never be able to get them back on.
"I felt sorry for her. Her feet were swollen," Hart said of Pittman's grandmother. "I said: 'You don't have to look any farther. I'm going to open my house for you, and you are going to stay as long as you need to stay'
"Blacks here opened their hearts and doors to Vanport victims," Hart said. "Many of them had money, but they could not have bought a home."
Pittman's family stayed about a month with the Harts in their two-bedroom home. Then they moved into a house on Northeast Lawrence, in an all-white neighborhood: Pittman's grandfather, Roosevelt Mitchell, had a fair-skinned black woman from the Urban League pose as a white woman and buy it for him.
The new house came with its own set of troubles. Their new neighbors didn't welcome them; Pittman remembers she could only play on the steps and sidewalk in front of her granfather's house, as the neighbors didn't want black children playing in front of their property.
Pittman grew up not knowing the name of the family that had taken her in, and never thought to ask her parents or grandparents about them. She remembered a bicycle, and that they had close living quarters in the house. But because the family's house had been torn down to make room for the Memorial Coliseum, and because her parents and grandparents had since died, she thought the family's identity would remain a mystery.
"It means so much because she just took us in, and had no idea who we were," said Pittman, 52, now a student services specialist at Whitaker Middle School. "People extended the hand of friendship then.
"When something like this happens, it often crosses your mind-those were such nice people," she said. "Who were they? How can I ever repay these people?"
And while she was wondering during the past few years, Pittman was serving on the Portland section of the National Council of Negro Women committee. Hart was another committee member; and the two even shared a hotel room when they attended a convention in Washington D.C. Neither knew then that they had shared a house after the Vanport flood; Hart had last seen Pittman as a 6-year-old child, and Pittman was too young to remember Hart.
The connection was finally made after Pittman's grandfather, Roosevelt Mitchell, died in 1992. Hart had known Mitchell, but had not learned until later that Mitchell was Pittman's grandfather.
When Pittman encountered Hart in a hospital parking lot in January, Hart asked her about the Vanport flood.
"I said 'Do you remember going to the cab stand and a cab taking you to a lady's house?" Hart recalls "Edna said 'Surely you're not that person.'"
Pittman picked up the story:
"Willie Mae said, 'Edna, you stayed with us during the Vanport flood,' I said 'Oh my God. You've got to be kidding.' I said: 'Are you serious? I wondered for years who that was.'"
Pittman was shocked. She and Hart had lived in the same city for 46 years, belonged to the same organization, shared a hotel room and still hadn't made the connection.
Now that she's found the family, Pittman hopes to have a reunion with them and her cousin, Louis, and her sister, Eleanor, to talk about how they lived together after the Vanport flood of 1948.
And 46 years later, Hart maintains that her taking them in was no big deal. "This is the way we were brought up," Hart said "If someone said they needed a place to stay, we provided it.
"I was blessed," Hart added. "I was not in the flood."
But "it could have been me," she said "We helped on another, and to this day, this is my philosophy."