By Nancy Varekamp | CNews Editor
Vanport isn’t history to Ed Washington. The 84-year-old Concordian’s four years there helped lay his foundation for embracing education, civil rights and civic engagement.
In 1944, when he was seven, Ed’s family moved from Alabama to Vanport to join his father who was employed at Henry J. Kaiser’s Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation. Oregon’s second largest city was filled with apartments, schools, community centers and clinics.
“What I remember most about it was just the number of people there, though it wasn’t like we were all crawling all over each other. There were so many activities in Vanport, particularly in summer. There was never a lack of things to do.
“The schools were so wonderful.” One vivid memory was his class planting gourd seeds in early May 1948, in preparation for September harvesting, drying and painting. The flood took the garden, the entire city, most personal belongings and the lives of at least a dozen people.
From one of many evacuation buses on Denver Avenue, he witnessed the berm give way to the wall of water.
His family slept that night in a school cafeteria, then two weeks in a church before a longer stay in converted Army barracks on Swan Island.
Ed attributes much of his commitment to community to his mother. She raised seven children in those uncertain times. And she taught him the importance of family and community. While in Vanport – and even after the family’s stay on Swan Island – George H. Oberteuffer served as Boy Scout mentor to Ed.
Obie told him, “Things are not what they should be for you and for people that look like you and your brothers. But Eddie, I don’t want you to ever get discouraged, because things are going to change. When those changes start, I want you and your brothers to be prepared.’”
Two moves later, Ed attended Irvington Elementary School, where his teacher led field trips to the Legislature, county courthouse, city hall and elsewhere.
“I learned how government worked from Mrs. [Hazel] Hill. I used to take kids on trips like the ones she took us on to experience much of what I had.”
Ed began practicing what she taught him during his successful campaigns for Grant High School class president, and much later to the Metro Council.
His dedication to civic involvement and civil rights – including presidency of the local NAACP – grew over the years. He’s still going strong, serving as director of Community Outreach and Engagement for the Portland State University Office of Global Diversity & Inclusion, among a flurry of other commitments.
Editor’s note: Space here doesn’t allow for many of Ed’s memories. For additional details, visit ConcordiaPDX.org/EdWashington. For oral histories from him and fellow Vanport survivors, visit VanportMosaic.org/the-living-archive/ category/Oral+History.