The racist legacy of Oregon is not one of the most glorious chapters in its history. Lawmakers initially denied non-white people the right to work and own property, writing such rules into the constitution when the state was admitted into the Union in 1859. And through the 1930s, the Ku Klux Klan was a regular presence, directing public policy and even helping install Walter M. Pierce as governor in 1922.
In spite of the ugliness within our borders, African Americans still found their way here, looking for work and refuge from the even worse treatment they were receiving in the Jim Crow South. Some formed the backbone of the logging industry in Eastern Oregon and others were key to the war effort, living near Portland and helping build ships for the British Navy in the ’40s. Even in the face of segregation and fears from the white citizens, they persisted.
This troubled and troubling period of Oregon’s past forms the core of From Maxville to Vanport, a new album and multimedia performance led by the Portland Jazz Composers Ensemble. Composed by pianist Ezra Weiss and featuring lyrics written by author S. Renee Mitchell, the work explores the history of two settlements for Black families in Oregon.
Maxville was a logging town in Wallowa County where a few dozen Black men moved in the early ’20s, even before they were legally allowed to live there. Vanport, on the other hand, was a town that grew overnight and disappeared almost as quickly. Built by the city of Portland in 1943 in the area where Delta Park currently sits, the rough-hewn village housed thousands of families (many of them African American) who moved to Portland to work for Henry Kaiser’s Oregon Shipbuilding Corporation. Five years later, it was wiped away by record flooding.
The hardship and joys of this period of Oregon’s history, as viewed through the eyes of its earliest Black citizens, informs the work of Weiss and Mitchell. The music is austere and stately, evoking the landscape of the eastern part of the state and the period when Portland was more spacious.
“Just driving around the Maxville area, I would put music on in the car to see what felt most natural in that environment,” Weiss remembers. “Be-bop doesn’t really fit. But a lot of the classic ECM-type sounds really felt at home in that environment.”
Mitchell, working from documents culled from the Oregon Historical Society and the Maxville Heritage Interpretive Center, incorporated the rough language of the times into her libretto, and turning them into something elegiac and, at moments, biting. On the track “What Do Your Trees Tell You?” vocalist Marilyn Keller intones, “From Mississippi to Maxville/From hanging up to cutting down.” Mostly, the work speaks to the longing that so many of these people had within them to find a better life in an unknown place.
“What struck a chord with me,” Weiss says, “is the courage that it takes to just pack up and leave your home and start somewhere new. Back then, that’s a week on a train, not knowing where you’re going, in the face of incredible racism. I feel like those are the two themes within this piece: There’s a lot of a hope and optimism, but the struggle continues.”