25 February 2019

Pittsburgh and Japanese-American Internment Camp Refugees

In reaction to the Japanese invasion of Pearl Harbor, on 19 February 1942, President Roosevelt signed an executive order relocating 112,000 Japanese-Americans (the vast majority of whom were  American citizens) from their homes and farms to internment camps. The order was couched in national security rationales but was in reality driven by fear, racism, and lobbying by economic opportunists on the West Coast who resented competition from Japanese farms.

In July 1945, following the 'Ex parte Mitsuye Endoa' US Supreme Court decision on the unconstitutionality of incarcerating loyal citizens without cause, Roosevelt's order was rescinded.

But after three years in the camps, life could not return to normal for those who had been incarcerated.

Most newly-released Nisei were homeless because of forcible relocation and seizure of assets, and many were wary of trying to rebuild their lives by returning to hostile West Coast communities. They sought refuge in other cities, living in communal hostels or camps set up by churches under auspices of the War Relocation Authority (WRA).

Many communities welcomed these Japanese-Americans, but there were also those who disapproved. In some cities, Pittsburgh included, they mobilized to protest.

Pittsburgh's Gusky Hebrew Orphanage and Home at Riverview and Perrysville Avenues had been sitting empty since its closure
two years earlier. The campus had operated since 1891 as Pittsburgh's first Jewish orphanage. In June 1945 Pittsburgh papers announced that the local War Relocation Authority office had approved the Gusky site as temporary lodging until the end of 1945 for relocated Nisei.

Pittsburgh thus became "the last big city away from the Pacific Coast to start a relocation movement." Reverend Dr. John Coventry Smith of the Mt. Lebanon United Presbyterian Church, chair of the local Citizens Resettlement Committee, stated "All we want to do is to smooth the way for these people so they may take their place in the community without friction, and without being denied the right to earn their own living and resume their lives as loyal Americans."

The Gusky board of directors had offered their site free of charge for this purpose, and stood to make no money on the deal. The proposal was modest: less than 200 Japanese-Americans were expected, with stays lasting no longer than a month at a time, until they were placed on farms or other employment sites.

But, you know, there's always that one NIMBY guy. Actually in this case, there was a group of them.

Chaired by resident David A. Hendershaw, the hastily-organized 26th Ward Citizens Committee
complained about potential property value degradation because of the new usage planned for the vacant orphanage.

Headline, Pittsburgh Press
27 June 1945
Hendershaw stated “We agree that it is a good idea to relocate these Japanese-Americans, it is all right to bring them to Pittsburgh—but why do they have to be housed in the 26th Ward?” The group’s attorney and spokesman, Warren H. Van Kirk, Sr., elaborated: “The Japs are mostly to work on farms, so why put them here?”

When the first family arrived in August, Van Kirk tried various tactics in local courts to push through injunctions, zoning violations, and property condemnations due to plumbing and sanitation issues.

He was unsuccessful on all counts.

Meanwhile, throughout August, Pittsburghers piled on with letters to the editors. Most shamed the 26th Ward protestors. Several area servicemen, after reading stories in the Stars and Stripes about Pittsburgh, sent letters to local papers protesting discrimination back home and lavishing praise on Nisei combat units. The local American Legion, which had been used by the 26th Ward Citizens Committee for a rally, wrote to disassociate itself from the committee's efforts and claimed it did not endorse intolerance.

Both of Pittsburgh’s daily newspapers weighed in with editorials supporting the resettlement program. (This was back when Pittsburgh had newspaper owners and editors who consistently took the lead in recognizing and articulating morally responsible stances).

Editorial, Pittsburgh Press, 20 August 1945

The press support did not go unnoticed: the Post-Gazette printed a letter from the WRA's Acting Relocation Supervisor complimenting local media for taking the lead "in the fight against race discrimination."

All sound and fury; little use of the facility seems to have actually been made. Only two Nisei families were documented in the papers as having resided at Gusky. The twelve-member Fujihara family stayed one night before moving to a farm in Centerville; the Ishimotos, a family of 6, similarly had a brief stay. 

Photo with accompanying story, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette 20 August 1945

Writer Brian Deutsch followed up on an epilogue about the Fujihara family by bringing to wider attention a 2010 series in the Titusville Herald which detailed one local resident's attempts to follow up on the family. The family subsequently moved to Cleveland, living there for 13 years before returning to the West Coast. (Links to those articles: 1, 2, 3)

Meanwhile, back in Pittsburgh, in January 1946 homeless veterans were offered the use of the Gusky home.

There was no community protest.

A version of this article was posted to my Facebook page in February 2019.

1 comment:

  1. Found your post today after decades of wondering what my Mother meant when she talked about Japanese internees living in Riverview Park, across the street from her home in the early 40s. Thanks for explaining. If you ever get a chance, do visit an internment camp like Manzanar in CA. A shameful chapter in our history.