A chance encounter and a flood of memories

A conversation on a train takes a writer on a ride into Portland racial history and one woman's life of beauty, elegance, and endurance


By STEPHEN RUTLEDGE


Oregon, and Portland, its biggest city, are not very diverse. Many white people may not even begin to think about, let alone understand, the inequalities faced by the city’s black and brown citizens. Many people who live here in Portland have never had to directly, physically, emotionally, interact with people of color. As the city becomes more popular and housing prices rise, Portland’s tiny African American population (at 6.3 percent, Portlands Black population is still more than three times the state figure of 1.9 percent) is being displaced to far-flung fringes of the city, leading to even less diversity in the city’s core.


The Vanport Mosaic 2020 Virtual Festival, which commemorates the 1948 flood and celebrates Vanport’s historical connection to the drive in Portland to “amplify, honor, present, and preserve the silenced histories that surround us in order to understand our present, and create a future where we all belong,” continues through Saturday, May 30.
See the schedule of online events here.


From its very beginning, Oregon was an inhospitable place for Black people. In 1844, the provisional government of the territory passed a law banning slavery, and at the same time required any African American in Oregon to leave the territory. Any Black person remaining would be flogged publicly every six months until he left. Five years later, another law was passed that forbade free African Americans from entering Oregon.

As Cora Smith was growing up, Portland’s African American culture centered on the city’s Albina district. Above, children helping with the Albina Neighborhood Improvement Project, 1962. Photo: City of Portland (OR) Archives, A2010-003
The Civil Rights Movement also made its mark on the predominantly white city. Above, Black Panther Sandra Ford and others demonstate in support of repressed peoples at the U.S. Courthouse in downtown Portland on February 14, 1970. Photo: City of Portland (OR) Archives, A2004-005.2957

In 1857, Oregon adopted a state constitution that banned Black people from coming to the state, residing in the state, or holding property in the state. During this time, any white male settler could receive 650 acres of land and another 650 if he was married. This, of course, was land taken from native people who had been living here for centuries.

With the passage of the 13th, 14th, and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, Oregon’s laws preventing Black people from living in the state and owning property were superseded by the national law. But Oregon didn’t ratify the 14th Amendment, the Equal Protection Clause, until 1973.

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ON A COOL, RAINY SPRING WEEKDAY in 2012, I boarded the MAX train and found my usual seat occupied by a hipster. I took a moment to center myself and breathe, and then sat close to my favorite spot in case it should become vacant. I was joined in my seat at the next stop by a beautiful African-American woman of an indecipherable age, chic in her hat and gloves.

With my nose in my book so that I would not have to engage in conversation, this woman dared to ask me: ”What is that you are reading?” I showed her the cover of Just Kids by Patti Smith and prayed that this elegant lady would not ask me to explain Robert Mapplethorpe and Patti Smith.

I have always held that everyone’s story is interesting if you can get them to open up, and then really listen to them. I told my seat partner how lovely she looked. She introduced herself as Cora Smith and started in on her story at my urging.

Henk Pander’s painting “The Call,” depicting a Vanport interior scene before the flood, was exhibited with more of his Vanport paintings in the 2019 Vanport Mosaic Festival. Watercolor, 40 x 60 inches, © Henk Pander
Overturned cars and other devastation after the Vanport deluge of 1948. City of Portland Archives

Ten-year-old Cora moved to Portland from Texas with her parents in 1945. They lived in Vanport, at the time the largest public housing project in the USA. It was home to 40,000 people at its peak, about 40 percent of them African American, who moved there for wartime work in the Kaiser Shipyards. In a dramatic parallel to Hurricane Katrina/New Orleans, at 4:05 p.m. on May 30, 1948 a railroad berm holding back the Columbia River collapsed during a profound rainstorm and high waters, killing 15 people as a rush of water swept through Vanport.

Vanport was underwater by nightfall, leaving its roughly 18,000 remaining inhabitants homeless. As it would decades later with Hurricane Katrina, the government had misled the population into believing that the damage would be slight. Many attributed the poor response, in both cases, to the racist attitudes of officials who neglected to respond appropriately to the destruction of a largely Black community. Amazingly, I now live in walking distance of what was once Vanport, an area now called Delta Park.

Cora spent four days searching for her parents. She was eventually reunited with her mother and father at a church shelter in North Portland’s Albina neighborhood. Thats right; Portland is so white they named the Black neighborhood ”Albina.” Black people had no choice but to settle in that part of Portland, which was a stubbornly segregated city.

Cora eventually graduated from high school and attend beauty college. She found employment at a downtown Portland salon that catered to ”colored ladies.” She worked her way up to manager, and when the owner retired in 1965, Cora bought the place and gave it the name: Cora’s House of Hair.

Even more impressive in racist Portland of the late 1960s, Cora and her Cora’s House of Hair became illustrious enough that she was approached about having her own 15-minute local television show giving beauty tips to women of color. True Colors Of Hair aired at 3:15 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays on KPTV. The show lasted five years.

Portland Playhouse’s 2019 production of Regina Taylor’s musical drama “Crowns,” with Shalanda Sims (left) and Ithica Tell, was an apt depiction of the importance in the African American community of fashion and style. Photo: Brud Giles

Cora, I discovered later, was a civic figure in many ways: at various times a model, a fashion and beauty consultant, a cosmetologist, a member of the Oregon state Advisory Council for Career and Vocational Education and the Job Training Coordinating Council, a board member of the Portland Symphony Orchestra (what is now the Oregon Symphony) and the Oregon Historical Society.

And as far as fashion and beauty were concerned, she maintained high standards. By dressing in their finery, reporter Maureen Jenkins quoted Cora in Fashion in the ’90s: Breaking All the Rules, a 1993 feature for The Oregonian, “many blacks were taught, ‘That’s how you serve God. You give him your very, very best.’ ” Jenkins continued: “A woman who used to spend Saturday evenings coordinating her wardrobe for the next morning’s church service, Smith … finds today’s relaxed dress codes hard to handle. Baggy Cross Colours jeans and rugbys at the malls are one thing, but in the pews?”

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I WAS CLOSE TO MY STOP. I told Cora that I had not expected to have such an enchanting and engaging ride into downtown. I gave her my card and offered to buy her lunch sometime.

A year later, Cora had yet to take me up on the offer. But on the Max train, sometime in 2013, I glanced up from my book. Outside the window, standing at the station, was Cora, chic in hat and gloves. She caught my eye, smiled, and gave me a little wave.

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