One Street, Five Generations and Infinite Life Lessons

An abundance of history and personal stories are woven into the fabric of Portland. So, to make sure the stories are not lost as generations of our residents pass on and memories begin to fade, here is one family’s story and a bit of history with links at the end of this article to learn more.

Irene Shaw Wilson’s home at 2747 NE 7th Avenue at the corner of Graham Street. Photo from Google Maps

For many of the Black residents of Eliot, the family stories begin outside of Oregon. The great migration from 1917-1970 brought both Black and white residents of the South to states in the North, Midwest, and West. Looking for an opportunity and a better life, many people landed in Oregon during the swell of migration during WWII because of the rise of shipbuilding and other war-related industries. With the influx of people moving to Portland, the city had to find a place for all these new residents to live.

According to the Oregon Encyclopedia, “the Portland City Council created HAP (Housing Authority of Portland) on December 11, 1941, just four days after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. Its mission was to rebuild the city’s sprawl of rundown housing and to create new housing for the workers who were arriving from all over the country. In response to the housing shortage, shipyard industrialist Henry Kaiser purchased land on the Columbia Slough and worked with the U.S. Maritime Commission in 1942 to build apartment buildings in what would become Vanport City. HAP, left out of the initial negotiations, agreed to manage the project. In just two years, the agency reportedly provided housing for 72,000 people who worked in the shipyards and related industries.” Vanport was an integrated city and many of the Black residents were living with less discrimination than in the South.

The approximately 700 acres of low-lying land between the Columbia River and the Columbia River Slough to the north and south, and Denver Ave and Smith Lake to the east and west were initially called Kaiserville. Becoming Oregon’s second-largest city, Vanport was the largest wartime housing development in the United States. It was built in just 110 days. At its height, it housed 42,000 people in 9,922 apartments. When disaster struck, 15,000 people still lived within the city, which was vulnerable to floods.

Aerial view of Vanport. Photo courtesy City of Portland Archives

On May 30, 1948, the dike just east of Smith Lake broke causing the devastating Vanport flood. Residents were only given 15 minutes to gather any belongings and make their way out of the city before the waters rushed in. Many drowned, all lost their homes, and lives were disrupted and changed forever.

Now they had to find new places to live. Many of the Black families that lived in Vanport moved to the Eliot neighborhood as north and northeast Portland were virtually the only areas of the city where Blacks could reside. Redlining and restrictive covenants and discriminatory bank practices made for few options for Blacks that wanted to purchase homes. For clarification, redlining was a government sponsored rating system that predominantly prevented minority borrows from getting mortgages in their neighborhoods by deeming lending in those neighborhoods as “hazardous”. Restrictive covenants were enforceable language written on the title documents of property that prevented the house from being sold to people of certain races, primarily preventing black ownership.

The Oregon Historical Society’s quarterly review focused on these topics in their third issue of 2018. In Greta Smith’s article, “‘Congenial Neighbors’: Restrictive Covenants and Residential Segregation in Portland, Oregon”, she lays out the history of redlining in Portland and specifically in the Albina neighborhood where Eliot is located. A majority of Portland’s Black families already lived in Albina by 1939 because of redlining and these restrictive covenants so the city’s decision of Albina was an obvious choice for location.

Smith continues, “During the early to mid-twentieth century, racial restrictive covenants prevented people of color, particularly African Americans, from buying and owning property in Portland and other American cities. These restrictive covenants were written into property title deeds, their use supported by private homeowners, landowners, real estate boards, realtors, banks, and local neighborhood associations. Restrictive covenants commonly forbade multiple-use dwellings such as apartment houses; the manufacture, sale, or use of alcohol; the construction of commercial-use buildings; the raising of chickens and livestock; and property owners or inhabitants who were any other race than Caucasian.”

As Smith writes, “In Portland, restrictive covenants, along with later tools of residential segregation such as redlining and the cultivation by local realtors (by) the idea that the presence of a single Black family within an all-white neighborhood would cause property values to decline, have worked to influence who lives where and who has been able to accumulate wealth through property ownership. This has affected generations of people.”

“By withdrawing financing and making it impossible for neighborhood residents to qualify for loans, the Federal Housing Administration of 1934 served to economically devastate inner-city areas, such as Albina, where a majority of Black residents lived and owned property.”

“For the residents of Albina, the lack of access to capital made it next to impossible for people to keep up maintenance on their properties. As a result, their neighborhood entered into a period of slow decline. Like other red-lined areas in cities throughout America, Albina was ultimately subjected to slum clearance (the demolition of homes and buildings that city planners perceived as “sub-standard”), freeway building, and urban renewal projects that displaced residents and decentralized communities.” Approximately two to three thousand housing units were demolished with each unit housing more than 4 people therefore displacing thousands.

Ironically, today these are some of the more desirable neighborhoods in Portland, where much investment has been made and where, now, very few Blacks reside and own property. Many stories have emerged from these challenging circumstances.  Here is the story of one family in Eliot.

Family stories go back numerous generations, but the Oregon chapter of the Shaw-Harris-Clark family story starts during World War II in Texas. They ultimately purchased three houses on the same block of Graham Street in northeast Portland and members of the family remain in Eliot after five generations. Francine Clark-Tessitore and her oldest son, Shalamar Clark, were interviewed for this article.

As the great-great-grandson, Shalamar explained, “the neighborhood has changed, but this is a great opportunity to tell our story.”

Map of redlining Eliot/Albina. Photo from Digital Scholarship Lab: Mapping Inequality – Redlining in New Deal America

Shalamar’s great-great-grandmother, Irene Shaw-Wilson, was living in Marshall, Texas in 1940 when she received a letter from a friend who had moved to Oregon to work in the shipyards. There was a great opportunity for a good job and a better life. Irene packed up and moved to Portland, Oregon. She started working at the Kaiser shipyards and was able to secure an apartment in Vanport.

About six months after arriving, she, in turn, wrote a letter to her daughter and her son-in-law, Eva Shaw-McKee (known as Fang) and Jessie McKee. Irene said they should move to Oregon too and with her prompting, they packed up and headed west with their daughter, Dolores, in tow.

Then in 1948, after losing everything in the Vanport flood, the family had to move again. It took a couple of years before Fang and Jessie were able to purchase their home on NE Graham Street in 1950. Francine said, “Lucky my grandparents were introduced to a couple named Chriss, (the husband was) a longshoreman, who owned 608 NE Graham. My grandparents made payments of $100 a month and bought (the house) outright from the owner because a lot of banks would not finance houses or businesses to Black people.”

After the shipyards closed, Francine says, “Irene, my great-grandmother was a live-in nanny for Gretchen Fraser, a world-class skier, and helped raise their son.” Irene was able to purchase her house in 1955 at 2747 NE 7th Avenue at the corner of Graham Street and owned it free and clear.

Francine was born in France while her dad, Ernest Clark, was stationed at the U.S. Army base. In 1962, when she was three years old, Francine moved back to Portland for a while. Being a military family, they again left Portland and moved around the country which allowed Francine to meet a lot of people. She got to see how different people live, and, as she stated, “it opened me up a lot.” After moving back to Portland, Dolores  met Jhon Howser and they purchased their house at 542 NE Graham in 1970. Since Francine attended private Catholic school for her whole education, it was quite an experience to attend Madison High School and witness direct discrimination. This was the era of bussing. Black students were bussed to schools far from their neighborhood. Police were frequently on campus to mitigate fights between the white and Black students in the halls of the school. Francine remembers, “It was traumatizing to see people fighting in the hallways because of people’s color.”

After raising her kids here in Portland, Francine decided to stay despite the discrimination since there were five generations of family that lived here. Even today the discrimination continues and Portland, unfortunately, continues to have the distinction of being one of the most segregated cities north of the Mason-Dixon line according to Smithsonian Magazine’s article on the history of Vanport.

Mississippi Avenue and Alberta Street were two areas where Black people lived and had businesses back in the 1990s. Francine relates, “Now, as a Black person today if you go to Mississippi (Avenue) you hardly see any Black people and now you are looked at by white people like ‘What are you doing here? You’re invading OUR territory.’” She remembers feeling, “NO, you’re invading OURS. I step out with authenticity and am looked at like I am not supposed to be here.”

Shalamar remembers when he was young and developers would stop by, sit and talk in Fang’s living room, and try to convince her to sell her house. Her house had a reverse mortgage on it and developers were known for coming in with low-ball bids offering pennies on the dollar to buy houses and then flipping them to sell at much higher prices. But, if she sold she couldn’t buy anywhere else in the neighborhood or afford to buy another house in the neighborhood. Fang owned a double lot which she eventually sold. That second lot is where two modern wooden houses are today at 614-618 NE Graham. When Fang passed away Francine would have had to pay back the debt from the reverse mortgage to keep the house. Unfortunately, she wasn’t able to do that and the bank took possession.

Dolores’ house also had a reverse mortgage and she was also approached by developers. Difficult financial situations often enticed Black homeowners to sell to the developers to cash out. Shalamar said, “when I saw my mom go through the process of losing the house because she wasn’t able to pay back the debt, I made a plan to buy Nana’s house from her before she passed. Nana (Dolores) inherited Irene’s house that she used as a rental back in her day. Nana taught me how to run and manage the property as a kid. I eventually inherited it from her and began managing the property full-time when I was in college. After graduating in 2008, I used the money we received from Fang’s passing to invest in my first renovation at the rental. Over the years, I worked and saved as much money as I could and bought Nana’s house from her in 2015. It was just the two of us at the dinner table and we signed in front of the notary.”

Shalamar reminisces, “I was able to be at the dinner table with my great-great-grandmother which is amazing.” What a gift for a family being able to share so much of their lives together on the same block, pass on knowledge, beliefs, and family history. “Those three houses on Graham Street are the only spot where I have been. There’s never been a family reunion outside of that area. So to lose that means more to me, so I work to preserve that.” So just like Dolores inherited Irene’s house,  Shalamar then inherited that same house from Dolores. This is a perfect example of how generational wealth gives to the next generation by passing on assets that they can begin with to create sustainable assets.

Shalamar concludes, “That’s the hook. Not only did we beat redlining and the restrictive financial policies that placed us here, the poverty, drugs, and crime in the area growing up, and then gentrification, but I figured out the financial system and beat the reverse mortgage to save the house.” Shalamar is so glad his family has been able to hold onto two of the houses they worked so hard to acquire.

So, just as in many neighborhoods across the country, change started happening and gentrification slowly drifted in. After college in 2008, Shalamar recalls seeing a white woman with a jogging stroller run by the house. “I knew that things were changing. We never saw that in the neighborhood before.” This experience motivated him to start investing in the rental property to earn more money to buy 542 NE Graham.

When Shalamar was young his mom, Francine was working at Legacy Good Samaritan as a nurse. His grandmother and great-grandmother helped take care of him. Life with five generations in one small block of Portland creates some amazing bonds between family members. Shalamar remembers his childhood fondly. Sure there was the neighborhood wino, Bubba, who would wander around the neighborhood, sure there were drugs, but he learned such important lessons like work ethic, appreciation of homeownership, and family helping each other through life’s challenges.

Every summer Shalamar’s great-grandmother would pay Shalamar, his older sister, and his younger brother each $100 for cleaning up her yard. That money was to be used to buy school clothes in the fall. Funny enough, each summer Shalamar thought that he would get the chore finished within a few days but every summer it took the whole summer vacation to complete the task. However, he says, “Those moments were because she would want to spend time with you. You would get up in the morning, we would eat breakfast and then go out in the yard and within an hour everybody would be coming over, you know Nana’s coming over, and John’s coming over, and Mom’s coming home from work, and then Bubba might walk past and he comes in, and it was a great time. We would talk for hours on the porch.”

“We didn’t go to preschool, We’d go to my great-grandmother’s house and she would hold preschool in her basement and we’d have to do the ABC’s front and back. They instilled the work mentality and since they come from Texas they’re tough as nails. And it was ALL women. My great grandfather passed before I was born. Fang, lived in that house all by herself and it made her a strong woman,” says Shalamar.

Shalamar’s best friend since the first grade was Jake, a white kid from Sauvie Island. When he stayed over, Jake’s dad would get them up at 6 am to feed the chickens and start the farm’s daily chores. Shalamar to this day still gets up at 6 am after having instilled in him the lesson of working hard. Jake and Shalamar are still friends today and the times they shared in the city and on the farm informed both of their lives and have made them more open-minded people learning from each other’s families.

Living in Portland may not be easy for Black residents. There is still a lot of racism and hurtful behavior. However, sometimes taking the higher ground is one way to step forward.  Francine says, “It don’t matter what a person calls you. A person can call you any derogatory name. Yes, it’s hurtful for a minute but what’s important is what you answer by.” She continues, “It’s important to learn to be open-minded. It doesn’t matter what it is. We are all here to learn from each other. We may not agree. I may not agree with your lifestyle but I can at least respect you and learn your truth. Learn your authentic self. Get to know that authentic person for yourself and let them show their truth.”

So look around you. Is there a person whose story you don’t know? Are you curious? This family’s story would not have been shared had I not started talking to Shalamar at a friend’s memorial last year. Let’s start with story-telling and understanding where people are coming from and what they can teach us. “Everybody has a story and everybody has value to them. Everybody has some good in them and you can learn something from everybody. You have to be willing to learn.” Thank you, Francine, for those wise words that we can all take to heart.

Check out these articles and videos for more information on Vanport and the history of Portland:

Lee Moore, historian, and Documentary on Vanport:

Smithsonian Magazine: How Oregon’s Second Largest City Vanished in a Day

Oregon Encyclopedia – Vanport

Oregon Encyclopedia – Housing Authority of Portland

Vintage Portland

OPB: Oregon Experience –Vanport

Oregon Historical Quarterly vol 119 no. 3

City of Portland: Historical Context of Racist Planning

Transforming Anthropology 2007 Vol 15(1): Bleeding Albina: A History of Community Disinvestment 1940-2000

Mapping Inequality: Redlining in New Deal America