Vancouver’s African American community tells its 70-year story
By Mindy Cooper/The Portland Observer
Despite a growing population and strong presence throughout the Vancouver area, the African American community in Clark County has been historically overshadowed and consequently, often taken for granted.
In an effort to shed light on the positive contributions and perseverance that has made the city it is today, Vancouver residents came together last week for a ‘first families’ reunion to celebrate the African American community and the release of their 70-year story in the recently completed book First Families of Vancouver’s African American Community: From World War II to the 21st Century.
Local author Jane Elder Wulff interviewed 35 families who migrated to Vancouver in the 1940s to work in war-related industries and chose to stay and make their homes here.
With the families’ approval and several community partnerships, NAACP Branch #1139, which was chartered in 1945, agreed to sponsor and help publish their stories that became the historical thread of the newly published book which illuminates what is known as a “hidden history.”
Throughout the past four years, Wulff, a resident of Washington State for more than 60 years, interviewed black families whose lives she amerced herself within throughout the duration of the writing project.
“There is a whole community story,” said Wulff. “The book is letting children know the larger story they are a part of and not just the bits and pieces.”
Although the people who told their family histories were not the very first residents of the area, Wulff said they were primarily the first African American families who made Vancouver their permanent home.
“The point is,” she said, “they came and established themselves, and they are still here, and nobody knows it.”
After a steering committee of NAACP volunteers contacted dozens of original family members for recollections and photos, Wulff set out on a mission to conduct interviews in an effort to weave the voices of Vancouver’s community, which is seldom recognized.
“Relationships get pretty complicated sometimes. I had to figure out who married who, and that kind of thing,” she said. “I knew why they came, but I wanted to know why they didn’t want to leave.”
In an effort to capture as much detail of their stories and build real relationships with each of them, Wulff said she conducted hundreds of in person and phone interviews, and attended church services at AME Zion Church and potluck gatherings regularly.
“I feel so grateful,” she said. “Everyone was so welcoming. I was amazed.”
Although Wulff, in the beginning of the project, received help from “the matriarchs,” whom accompanied her to the interviews with the families, she said, “They spoke to me like it made perfect sense for me to be there.”
According to Wulff, the majority of the families migrated to Vancouver to work in the shipyards, and then after the war—they stayed.
The larger Vancouver population often doesn’t realize this community exists, she said. “This book is not only for Vancouver, but also for the community itself.”
Before World War II, Vancouver was practically an all-white town. There were too few African Americans to even count within the city at the time,” she said.
As more men left for the war, and more people migrated into Washington to work in the ship yards, old time residents began to get used to having more diversity around them.
“The war took over, and everybody was suddenly working on the same thing,” she said.
“But Jim Crow was still in force after the war,” she said. “Although they didn’t want to leave, they felt shut out.”
Wulff said there were 9,000 African Americans in Vancouver at the end of the war. “But that went down really quickly because Vancouver didn’t make it easy to stay,” she said.
Still, she said, African American migrants saw something special about the surrounding city.
It was individual determination for a better and more just future, which catalyzed them to make Vancouver their home, she said. “I found out it was their persistence, inventiveness, optimism and their sense of community and family.”
Wulff said, however, the African American community deserves to be recognized for their brave actions, which are responsible for growing tolerance throughout history.
“They gave up the comfort of close association,” she said. “And they decided to live anywhere they could find a house and convinced neighbors diversity is a good thing.”
Although she said there were several roadblocks throughout the writing process, which felt sometimes extremely difficult, in the end she believes the book turned out great.
At Clark College, NAACP Vancouver Branch #1139 hosted a reunion event on Saturday for the narrators to speak and celebrate the publication.
Assistance from the original families, as well as from Clark County Historical Museum, Clark College, Washington State University, Clark County YWCA, USDA Coalition of Minority Employees, and several local churches, contributed to the project’s success.
“We hope this book will encourage others, especially young people, to preserve their cultural heritage for the benefit of future generations,” said Cornetta Smith, First Families project director and original family member.
She said part of the initial mission of the project was to create a model for other communities to tell their stories through.
“These families stayed here after the war because this place felt like home to them,” Wulff said. “Their determination to settle throughout the city, rather than all in one place, was a compliment and a gift to Vancouver. It’s time this gift was acknowledged.”
First Families of Vancouver’s African American Community: From World War II to the 21st Century will be available through several local volunteer distributors and online.
For more information, visit naacpvanc.org or email firstname.lastname@example.org.