During World War II a black guard at a Japanese internment camp in Arkansas received a tip. An interned Japanese American told him that in California the camps paid better, and that guards got to live in the homes of evicted citizens. So he moved to Oakland, and 60 years later, he still lives in the house of a formerly interned Japanese American.
A woman who works at a Buddhist peace organization told me this story, which is about her neighbor. It made me wonder what Oakland felt like before WWII, and if this man’s migration wasn’t unique to him.
According to Wikipedia, black Americans accounted for 3% of the population in Oakland before WWII. After WWII, that number rose to 12%. Internment camps were not the only wartime industry booming in Oakland, and laborers from the south came to the area in search of a place on one of the many production lines.
The same article points out that Jim Crow Laws did not exist in California, so relations between black and white residents were unremarkable before the influx of southerners. Japanese Americans were not so lucky. On October 11, 1906, the San Francisco, California Board of Education passed a regulation whereby children of Japanese descent would be required to attend racially segregated separate schools. The law remained in place until 1947.
It may not be surprising then that in 1913, the state of California passed the Alien Land Law, forbidding Japanese immigrants from owning land. The law was eventually challenged in 1918 by a law that allowed the children of Japanese immigrants to own land, but when WWII broke out, many Japanese Americans in California were still tenant farmers. When incarcerated, they lost their claim to these lands, and along with it, their livelihoods — just one devastating blow in the decimation of life as they knew it.
But not all Japanese Americans rented land, and their nationally mandated internment offered the state of California a window of opportunity to repeal the progress made in 1918. In 1943 California Governor Earl Warren signed a bill to expand the Alien Land Law, and then signed two more bills that allowed the state to seize land owned by incarcerated Japanese Americans.
The law was not deemed unconstitutional until 1956, and if the story of this man from Oakland is indicative of the reparation efforts made by the state, then it’s clear this was too little too late. Whatever the intention of the United States when all three branches of its government ignored the Bill of Rights and interned thousands of Japanese American citizens, they wrongly assumed that taking a life away would be just as easy as giving it back. I don’t know who lived in the home of this eighty five year old Oakland resident, and I don’t think he knows, either. Of that life, he’s all that remains.
Once it is removed from its home, taken from the bonds of a family whose arms held it together, and stolen of its work, a life no longer exists. Our country would do well to remember this once and for all.