First Families Project Captures History of Vancouver’s Black Community

Pictured from left: Joe Harrison, Bertha Baugh, Lacey Steele, Valree Joshua, Perry Johnigan, and Virna Canson at the NAACP Northwest Area Conference in Pasco, Wash. on June 7, 1975.
Photo Courtesy of NAACP Vancouver Branch

Dayton and Cornetta Smith of Vancouver both hail from the same small town of Mexia, Texas, but their courtship began in Portland. His family came to Vancouver as part of what’s often called “the first great migration” of African-American families to the Pacific Northwest. The couple met after she was recruited to teach in Portland Public Schools.

When Clark County writer Jane Elder Wulff interviewed the Smiths for her ongoing series of local personality profiles in the Senior Messenger, a monthly newspaper published by the City of Vancouver, none of them imagined where it would lead.

As that 2005 interview led to other stories of African-Americans in Vancouver, Wulff began talking with Cornetta Smith about weaving them all together. The idea soon blossomed into an ambitious effort, sponsored by Vancouver NAACP Branch #1139 and involving hundreds of volunteers and donors, to identify, locate, and interview African-American families who settled in Vancouver during the wartime shipyard era and stayed to build a strong community there.

According to Cornetta Smith, who serves as project director, the primary goal of “First Families of Vancouver’s African-American Community: From World War II to the 21st Century” is to publish a book based on these interviews. The project was officially launched as a Black History Month event at a public reception last February at Community AME Zion Church in Vancouver. The book’s release is scheduled for Black History Month 2010.

The Baughs, one of Vancouver's First Families. Bertha and her husband David Baugh moved to Vancouver after World War II. She was a school teacher in Alabama. When she tried to get a teaching job locally, a school official told her that folks here were "not ready for colored teachers." She began teaching in Portland in 1954. Eighteen years later, she earned national recognition as an "Outstanding Elementary Teacher in America." Pictured from left are: Laura, David Baugh, Rita, and Bertha Baugh at Lewisville Park; Battle Ground, Washington. Photo Courtesy of NAACP Vancouver Branch

“Our volunteers have identified about 50 families so far,” Smith said. The search continues for other Black families who settled in Vancouver during and after the war. As project writer, Wulff is interviewing family members. Other volunteers are recording Wulff’s interviews for preservation at the Clark County Historical Museum. Besides having permanent access to these archives, the public will be informed of project activities through presentations, exhibits, and sponsoring websites as the work proceeds.

Wulff said that in writing Messenger profiles that reflect Vancouver’s diversity, she has been fortunate to meet many people who were willing to share their experiences. One of these was the late Carl Flipper, a Clark College administrator and president of the National Buffalo Soldiers Historical Society, who told her the story of his great-uncle Henry Ossian Flipper, the first Black officer to graduate from West Point. He introduced her to the Smiths and helped inspire the First Families project before his untimely death in November 2006.

In their own words, Smith and Wulff talk about the significance of the project and its progress thus far.

Cornetta Smith, Project Director

I moved to this area in 1970. I spent many years watching Portland change. As an African-American, I believe it’s always very important, wherever we are, that we can document from our points of view and tell our stories, told through our eyes.

This project is significant to me because the population of African-Americans here in Vancouver is very sparse. I felt that we have only a minute portion of information about us and our journeys, contributions, who we were, and what has happened to us since we’ve been here. It became very important to me that I get a chance to be part of telling the story of what happened.

I like the words “pioneers” and “settlers.” We may think we’re a small population now, but we were really a small population prior to World War II. We’re creating a community family tree – identifying root families – from the time of the war up until now. Our goal is to recognize and credit the contributions of these “first families” in helping make the city and the area become what it is. That’s a story that’s worth telling.

In my experience, it is important to get the support and blessing of the community, or success could be limited. We set out and talked to numerous people about this project, to get their input about whether there is value in doing it, if they believe that it should be done, if they have an interest in it, and whether they would be willing to support it. The answer was an overwhelming “Yes!”

Jane Elder Wulff, Project Writer

When I tell people that we’re doing a project on the history of Vancouver’s Black community, the standard response is: “What do you mean? Vancouver doesn’t have a Black community!”

The fact is that Vancouver has a strong Black community that began during the war and worked hard to put down roots. The goal of First Families is to bring this community to light. Its story starts in the 1940s, when the Vancouver Housing Authority was organized to provide housing for the great influx of people seeking jobs here.

After the war ended and the shipyards closed, some people decided they liked Vancouver and chose to stay. These first Black families also made a deliberate choice not to settle in just one part of town. In spite of resistance, they made this happen with help from several people in key positions. D. Elwood Caples was a longtime resident who served as postmaster and also as president of the VHA board of directors. Mark Smith, an African-American who came to work as a radar technician for the Navy, was a tenant adviser at VHA and founding president of the local NAACP chapter in 1945. Their working relationship epitomized the cooperation that helped build the community, with help from churches, schools, and other local groups.

Because of these early decisions, Vancouver has no ghetto. The downside is that our African-American community has almost no visibility, even though it has been an important part of Vancouver all these years. People have known each other like family, and many of them have contributed not only to the Black community, but to the Vancouver community at large. Wider recognition of their lives and contributions will benefit us all.

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How Can You Help?

Volunteer on a Subcommitee:

Family identification and contact

Budget and Fund-Raising




If you have information about an African-American family that should be included in the project, contact Cornetta Smith, Project Director, at 360-695-7179 or or Jane Elder Wulff, Project Writer, at 360-687-9872 or Donations for the project are appreciated


The "First Families" support network includes representatives of the City of Vanciuver; Clark County; Community AME Zion Church; Washington State University; YWCA Clark County; Center for Columbia River History; and Clark County Historical Museum.





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