Tuesday, February 19, 2013
I had the opportunity to visit with a small group of college students from Evergreen, Wash., last fall. They were visiting several communities in the Pacific Northwest to supplement their studies on human rights, discrimination and immigrant populations.
Three students had chosen Hood River because they were fascinated by Lise Yasui’s documentary “A Family Gathering,” required viewing in one of their classes. After a stop at the Hood River Library some kindly staff person suggested they go over to my office at the county courthouse and see what I could add to the making of the documentary.
It was one of those rare afternoons when I had no pressing appointments or reports to submit, which allowed me to spend several hours with the students. I encouraged them to read Lauren Kessler’s book “Stubborn Twig,” or any of Linda Tamura’s books on the Japanese experience in Hood River.
I was fascinated by one student in particular, Akiko, a young lady from Japan who was now studying at Evergreen State College. She had limited knowledge of the internment camps in the U.S. from her high school studies of World War II, obviously from a very different perspective since she was a native of Japan. But her interest in the camps was the same as mine, having family members who were interned.
Her mother had told her they had distant relatives who were interned in camps in the U.S. during World War II. Akiko was hoping to learn more about their experience and perhaps find them somewhere in this vast land, for the family had lost all contact with them after World War II.
I invited the young ladies to return the next weekend and visit my home where we could continue the conversation and I could share pictures and historic artifacts. Unfortunately, they were unable to arrange transportation back to Hood River. That brief afternoon conversation left me with a renewed desire to do more research from a different perspective.
Fast forward a few months and I receive a phone call from a professor asking if I would be able to come to Evergreen College in Olympia and continue the conversation with his students after Christmas break. I eagerly agreed to come.
I wanted to share more of the wealth of information amassed by many Yasuis over the years. And how a trip to the attic of the Annala homestead in 1958 was a parallel discovery to the historic treasure trove discovered in the old packing house on the Yasui farm in 1975. Perhaps I could pique their interest in their own story and how it brings history full circle, past, present and future.
As always, I refreshed my knowledge of names and dates of key historic players, but with a focus on the discriminatory practices legislated against the Japanese immigrant in Oregon, from the 1920s through World War II. Refreshing names and dates is important the older I get.
One of the strongest examples of discrimination against the Japanese was illustrated by a former congressman and Oregon Governor, William Pierce, who helped pass legislation in 1923 prohibiting Japanese land ownership. He was also an outspoken and influential advocate for the internment of people of Japanese ancestry and the prohibition of their return after the war was over.
Pierce’s prejudice drips viscously through this speech he gave in trying to keep the Japanese from returning to their homes, farms and businesses after World War II:
“Their ideals, their racial characteristics, social customs and their way of life are such that they cannot be assimilated into American communities. They will always remain a people apart, a cause of friction and resentment, and a possible peril to our national safety. They are an ever-present menace in our midst.
“Their presence here is definitely detrimental to our country. In the half-century they have lived in the United States, they have never been part of community life, but dwellers in miserable ‘Little Tokyos’ or slum farms. On Pearl Harbor Day there were thousands of them, born in the United States and living under the Stars and Stripes who could not speak or understand English.
“We are white and Christian. They are yellow and do not accept Christianity. We believe in democracy and individualism. They are totalitarian and believe in the divinity of their emperor. Japanese are aggressive and ever plotting for racial supremacy.”
This from a man whose elected positions were attained by support of the Ku Klux Klan.
Yes, Oregon was a hotbed for the Klan in the early 1920s. Ironically, as I was locating a picture of William Pierce for the presentation I came across a startling piece of information that I had never seen before.
Hidden within the archives was mention of a familiar name, Molly Kageyama, sister of Charlee Kageyama Omori, Mickie Kageyama Yasui and Bob Kageyama. The one and only Aunt Molly, who at 92 years young is still leading life as an activist in Seattle, Wash.
The article stated that Molly was working in the registrar’s office at Oregon State College (now University) in the spring of 1942. There had been a request by the American Legion of Corvallis to have her removed as a security risk.
The registrar at that time was a man named E.B. Lemon, who strongly defended Ms. Kageyama, and her work in the office. He stated that she was born in Hood River and as such an American citizen, having graduated with honors from Hood River High School and Oregon State College. There needed to be more research on E.B. Lemon for his stalwart support of Molly Kageyama.
In my 40-plus years of off- again, on-again research into the history of the Japanese in Hood River I had never come across this bit of information. I hurriedly sent off the article link to Molly’s daughter, Diane Sugimura, who also lives in Seattle. She, too, had never heard of this episode in her mother’s life but planned on asking her some poignant questions.
The presentation to the Evergreen students was fascinating, and I learned as much from their questions as I am sure they learned from my photographic presentation. It was in the search for historical references that we often find a connection to our own family stories. It can be a never-ending search.
The first pictures of the Japanese evacuating from Hood River at the train station were found in an OSU Extension file from a student’s project. The new movie images of the evacuation from Hood River were background shots from a wedding being held at a local hotel.
And the priceless morsel about Aunt Molly was found while in search of the name of the Oregon politician, in bed with the Klan, who helped pass discriminatory laws in the 1920s that restricted Japanese citizenship, land ownership and interracial marriage.
If not for a chance meeting with three lovely students, one of whom came to visit Hood River in search of her relatives experience a continent and a lifetime away, I wouldn’t have learned about Molly Kageyama’s defense by a man named E.B. Lemon. More research to come on this gentleman.