Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center

‘From Maxville to Vanport’: redressing erasure through music

Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble project revives the stories of Oregon towns where African Americans created community in an otherwise unfriendly state

The story of African Americans in Oregon has too often been a tale of erasure. From the frequently unacknowledged racist origins of the state’s long legal exclusion of black immigration, to obliteration of neighborhoods and displacement of communities of color, to stifling of voices of protest, stories of African American Oregonians that don’t fit the dominant culture’s whitewashed utopian image have been suppressed, ignored, or forgotten.

As more Oregonians — and Americans in general — belatedly recognize the stubborn persistence of our legacy of racial injustice, calls for change grow louder. Yet it’s hard to move forward without knowing where you’ve been. And Oregon’s African American history contains stories of inspiration as well as intolerance. “Things have changed, but history is not erased by change,” wrote Zadie Smith, “and the examples of the past still hold out new possibilities for all of us.”

PJCE performing with Kalimah Abioto’s short film ‘Water’ in ‘From Maxville to Vanport.’ Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

From Maxville to Vanport resists Oregon’s racist erasure through music, stories and film. Premiered last spring and returning Thursday to Corvallis and Sunday to Portland, Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble’s production tells the story of two now-vanished Oregon communities with significant African American populations whose legacy still resounds today.

It’s the culmination of an extended collaborative process involving a team of Oregon artists and historical organizations that began with producer Douglas Detrick, executive director of PJCE, and Portland singer Marilyn Keller, a Jazz Society of Oregon Hall of Fame member who became what Detrick called “the face and voice of this project.”

“Having performed old time blues and jazz from the ancestors,” as lead singer in Black Swan Classic Jazz Band, Keller insisted that “it had to be a project that spoke directly to my African American heritage.”

Vanished Towns

Built in 1923, Maxville, a railroad logging town near Wallowa that operated until the early 1930s, included 50 or so African Americans and their families. Vanport, hastily created in 1942 to house workers who came to Portland to build warships, numbered at its peak 40,000 inhabitants, making it Oregon’s second largest city, according to the Vanport Mosaic project. (Read Bobby Bermea’s ArtsWatch feature about the flood and the project.) The city was wiped out in the notorious 1948 Memorial Day flood, drowning or displacing thousands of African American residents.

PJCE performing with video of the Vanport flood.  Photo: Kimmie Fadem.

“Both were places of refuge and opportunity to Oregonians of color, immigrants, African Americans especially, all coming to a state where they were not very welcome otherwise,” Detrick said. “We wanted to explore creatively why these places played outsize roles in the state’s African American history.”

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