Black United Front Oral History Project

Willie Mae Hart: Perspective on Oregon History

Willie Mae Hart's oral history highlights many important moments in Oregon history such as the Vanport Flood, the debate over the Public Accomodations Act, and presidential candidate Johh F. Kennedy's campaign visit to Portland in 1960, where he met Willie Mae at an event that she had organized.


Willie Mae on the Vanport Flood of 1948

[As the owner of Portland's first Black operated taxicab company, Willie Mae was in a unique position to help out those who had been impacted by the Vanport flood in 1948.]

"[T]hen Vanport flooded—I kept a lady with her grandchildren—three of them—at my house until they could find a place to stay. Her husband was working on the railroad, he didn’t know where his wife was, because he was on the railroad when the thing blew up out there—the water, you know. And we had the cab business at that time, and we pulled the cab out. We would not charge anybody that day, the next day, and we’d go out there. We only had a couple of cabs, wouldn’t give us any more—but we used those two cabs for twentyfour hours to take people where they could find a place—no charge. So, we’ve done our best. At least we tried."

Mark Hatfield and the Public Accommodations Bill debate 

"Mark Hatfield, a young politician—well he was just out of college, and he used to come to our meetings [NAACP] all the time.

            He said that they were going to have a debate in Salem, and he wanted us to come, be there—but we couldn’t say nothing and don’t move. So there were about twenty carloads of us that went down to Salem to hear this debate—it was all about the blacks that came here that had to get out. Those that helped, you know, so he said ‘People, they helped to save this country, they fought, some of them lost their lives over there,’ and Hatfield says ‘I am for them staying as long as they are doing okay.’ And so the big debate was on."


Jantzen Beach picnic with Senator and presidential candidate John F. Kennedy in 1960

[This excerpt follows Willie Mae's discussion with a woman at the picnic about John F. Kennedy's Catholicism and how it might impact the country if he was elected.]

"[Senator Kennedy] said: ‘Really, what did she say?’ And one of the sisters said: ‘Yeah, What did she say?’ And I said: ‘Okay, since you want to know—‘ and I just spilled it out, you know. And I say: ‘Since you guys are Catholic and we’re Protestant,’ I say: ‘You’re going to make everybody a Catholic.’ Well, he knew I had gone to Catholic school because I had told him that when we were talking about schools. So he sat up on his knees like he was in a half-prayer, and he said: ‘If I’m elected President, regardless of what your faith is—I just want you to vote for me. I am Catholic, and whatever you are that’s what you can be.’ (laughter) And everybody just—people standing around listening—and everybody started laughing. (laughter) So that was the joke of the day."

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