Bit of HiStory: Color Blind
Bit of HiStory is a new monthly column celebrating the rich history of Clark County.
In Fort Vancouver’s 19th century glory days of the Hudson’s Bay Company, the trading post was a cosmopolitan spot in the great dense forest. So many races, nationalities and ethnic groups were here, including Chinook, French, Hawaiians, Canadians, that for a time the official language was Wawa, the Chinookian trade jargon.
Fast forward a hundred years or so, and Vancouver’s previously ethnically diverse population had changed to almost exclusively Caucasian. The exceptions were a few Klickitat villages scattered along the Lewis River, an African American blacksmith in Battle Ground, and a black man named Robert Kimbrough who ran a shoe shine and shoe repair business in the Evergreen Hotel.
In February 1942, as the dark clouds of war hung over Europe and Asia, Henry Kaiser announced that he was building a shipyard on the Columbia River. By July of that year, Vancouver’s population of 18,000 had swelled to 85,000. The city’s single verified African American resident had been joined by over 2,000.
Vancouver was bursting its boundaries, so a Housing Authority was formed to provide living space for the incoming residents. Portland formed a comparable coalition to build homes for their shipyard workers. However, there the similarities between the sister cities ended.
In Portland, housing availability and location was determined by race, creating ethnically sectioned neighborhoods. By contrast, D. Elwood Caples, Vancouver’s city attorney, made a simple decision as legal counsel for the new Housing Authority: the next people to arrive got the next available housing. The queue was neutral to other considerations. Consequently, Vancouver’s neighborhoods organically grew in diversity as individuals and families of various races immigrated to Southwest Washington. Kids of all races went to the same schools, and people attended the same churches.
Read the rest of this article in the digital archive copy below.