Generations follow first black families
By Jane Elder Wulff
After Pearl Harbor, when Henry J. Kaiser built his shipyards in Vancouver and north Portland, workers poured in from all over America to restore the Navy’s Pacific Fleet. Among these were the first African Americans to establish a presence in Vancouver.
Portland already had a settled black population, and connections with Portland were strong from the start, but the African-American newcomers across the river found themselves breaking ground.
“We never saw so many white folks in all our lives,” some of these new residents recalled in interviews for the book First Families of Vancouver’s African American Community: From World War Two to the Twenty-First Century (published last March by Vancouver NAACP #1139). “And they never saw so many black folks, neither! But we got the job done.”
By war’s end, 9,000 African Americans were living in Vancouver.
Mrs. Ida (Oliver) Jones, who turned 104 last year, was one of those shipyard workers. A welder, she was going onto the dock one morning when she heard loudspeakers announce the war was over.
“We went home and wondered what we were gonna do,” Jones said. “A lot of people left, but we made up our minds we were gonna stay.”
While most of the black workers did find it easier to leave the Vancouver area for other pursuits, for Ida Jones and others, Vancouver was home by then. They formed a local NAACP branch in 1945 and have worked ever since on supporting housing and job opportunities for current and future generations.
“I was brave enough to say I’m not moving,” Jones said. “I’m a citizen of Vancouver now. I worked hard here, we all did, and I’m not leaving. We went down to the courthouse – that’s everybody’s home. I wouldn’t let ‘em push me out.”
Jones joined the Vancouver Avenue First Baptist Church in Portland in the early days, before the first black churches in Vancouver took hold. About 10 years ago, she moved near Seattle to be with family.
Vancouver Avenue’s Rev. J. W. Matt Hennessee led the celebration in Vancouver for Ida Jones’s 100th birthday in 2008. The church helped her celebrate again last summer in Portland when she turned 104.
Mrs. Bertha (David) Baugh also built Portland connections early. A schoolteacher in Alabama before she and her husband came to Vancouver in September 1945, she was told by school officials that Vancouver “wasn’t ready for colored teachers.” She started teaching in the massive north Portland housing project called Vanport.
After Vanport went down in the flood of May 1948, Bertha Baugh became one of the first black teachers hired by Portland Public Schools. She and her husband made their home in Vancouver, but she spent 26 years teaching in Portland, mostly at George Elementary School. In 1972 she was named an Outstanding Elementary Teacher of America.
Baugh and Jones worked together with many more Vancouver citizens, black and white, on NAACP causes and events through the 1950s. The two friends still keep in touch by phone, taking turns calling every few weeks.
Through their church, school, service and family associations, they are known to hundreds of people in Portland as well as Vancouver. Ties like these have continued to develop along with the stories of Vancouver and Portland’s distinct African American communities.
If each settlement has deep roots, as the First Families book show, the connections between them have by now become a wonderfully tangled root mass – a supreme challenge for historians, a playground for genealogists, and a source of wonder for the rest of us.
Jane Elder Wulff of Vancouver is the author of First Families of Vancouver’s African American Community, From World War Two to the Twenty-First Century.