'Intelligent discontent is the mainspring of civilization.' -- Eugene V. Debs

Saturday, February 13, 2010

A Few Did the Right Thing 

While many seized upon the internment of Japanese Americans to grab farms in the Sacramento and San Joaquin valleys at bargain basement prices, as they did up and down the West Coast, a few recognized how they were being victimized, and took over their farms until the war ended:

One crisp, bright morning last week, two old friends gazed lovingly at a scruffy field in south Sacramento. A few gnarled walnut trees and a thick pine are all that's left of Marielle Tsukamoto's lush family farm in what was old Florin town.

Once filled with roses, persimmons, strawberries and sweet flame Tokay grapes, the field is Tsukamoto's monument to all that's good about the human spirit.

That spirit's name is Bob Fletcher, a lanky 6-footer who stepped up to save three Japanese family farms – including this one – when 3,000 Sacramentans of Japanese descent were sent to internment camps in May 1942.

Most were U.S. citizens. After the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, many lost everything – their homes, farms, jobs, dignity and pride in being Americans.

Fewer then 200 came back to Sacramento, and Florin became a ghost town.

But Fletcher, an agricultural inspector and University of California, Davis, grad, couldn't stand to see their hard work go to waste.

"I did know a few of them pretty well and never did agree with the evacuation," said Fletcher, now 98. "They were the same as anybody else. It was obvious they had nothing to do with Pearl Harbor."

So he quit his job and worked 90 acres belonging to the Tsukamotos, Nittas and Okamotos until they came home from camp in 1945.

I have a friend whose uncle did something similar. Such actions by whites were not without risk, as Fletcher discovered:

Fletcher was called a "Jap lover" and was nearly hit by a bullet fired into Tsukamoto's barn.

"When my dad asked about the bullet hole after the war, Bob said it was a hunting accident, but my dad said, 'You don't shoot pheasants with a .22,' " Marielle Tsukamoto said.

"We don't want Japs back here–EVER," read one sign posted at a local business.

The scars of the internment run so deep in California that, on the night on 9/11, former Secretary of State Warren Christopher, a Californian, warned against doing something similar to Arabs and Muslims. I still remember what another friend told me about how the internment unfolded in South Berkeley, a segregated neighborhood of African Americans and Japanese Americans where her father, grandmother and grandfather lived in early 1942 before being sent to the camps: the only people who came by to express sadness were black people. Whites, even those from families for which her grandmother and grandfather had worked, were nowhere to be found.

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