Make America White Again

Contemplating the Roots of Racism in My Hometown

My mother was no communist. There’s no evidence that she even flirted with the idea like so many did during the volatile period between the world wars. It was hard to find a communist in Yakima, Washington to flirt with. Unless you count William O. Douglas, the US Supreme Court justice, whom John Birchers dubbed “the only known communist in Yakima County.”

No, during my mother’s early life, the county was run by racist xenophobes whose mission was to Make America White Again.

In such a reactionary environment, how did my mother turn into a liberal? Trying to understand her politics, I’ve been investigating the history of her hometown, which is also my hometown. Yakima, on the dry eastern side of the state with a population of about 20,000, was a conservative place when my mother, Florence Wick, was growing up in the 1920s and 30s. Today, with about 91,000 people, it remains a red blot in a blue state whose population is concentrated on the west coast.

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Eastern Washington is desert without irrigation

Catholic missionaries had settled in the valley and white settlers followed in the 1850s as the US Army drove the indigenous population onto a nearby reservation. The Indians had fiercely resisted in what were known as the Indian Wars of the 1850s. The Yakama (the tribe changed to this spelling) Indian reservation is home to several different groups that were forced to settle there in what we call the Lower Valley, a few miles south of the town of Yakima. The sagebrush country with fertile volcanic soil was partly developed and irrigated by Japanese immigrant farmers who began arriving before the turn of the 20th century.

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Florence Wick at school in the 1920s

Researching what life was like in my hometown in this period, I found a book written by Thomas Heuterman, who was my journalism professor at Washington State U. The Burning Horse: The Japanese Experience in the Yakima Valley 1920-1942, documents discrimination against the Japanese community in Wapato, a town on the Yakama reservation where the farmers leased land. In emails Prof. Heuterman told me he had been surprised to find what his research showed: a long history of racism and exclusion in the Yakima Valley.

He wrote: “I went into the project predicting that the Valley Japanese were an exception among all the prejudice of the era.  That’s what I remembered as a child from my folks’ attitudes.  But, as you know, I found just the opposite.  Most of the Nisei (second generation) who have read the book also didn’t know that racism was going on; their folks had protected them from that too.”

Japanese farmers were persecuted relentlessly. Their houses, barns and crops were bombed and burned. Newspapers stoked the fires of racism. Prof. Heuterman’s research focused on stories in the local and state newspapers. Here is some of what he found. These were headlines in the Seattle Star during hearings to determine the fate of Japanese immigrants in Washington State in 1920.

WILL YOU HELP TO KEEP THIS A WHITE MAN’S COUNTRY?

JAPS PLANS MENACE WHITE CIVILIZATION

Japanese plans for expansion at the expense of the white race are a deeper menace to Caucasian civilization than were ever the dreams of Pan-German imperialists

In the 1920 version of fake news, testifiers at the hearings repeated lies about the Japanese and weird ideas about racial purity that were then amplified by newspapers across the state. A well-organized American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars and the Anti-Japanese League perpetuated the apocryphal threat of the Yellow Peril. Then the Grange took up the cause. Anti-alien laws passed in Washington were modeled on those of California, which in turn had been promoted by influential Southern whites. The goal in Yakima was to drive all Japanese out of the valley.

Anti-immigrant sentiment reached a peak in the 1920s and 30s in the Yakima Valley and in the entire West. As a child and young adult, my mother would have been aware of it. I was shocked to learn that the KKK held a rally in 1924, which drew 40,000 people to a field outside the town after the state refused to grant them access to the state fairgrounds in Yakima. A thousand robed KKK members marched in the parade.

Farmers welcomed migrant laborers when labor was scarce. But when the economic cycle moved from boom to bust, these workers were targets of violence, forced removal and alien restriction laws. American workers who saw their jobs being taken by immigrants who would work for less were some of the worst perpetrators of racist violence. Racist organizations gained influence after World War I. In the Red Scare of 1917-20, nativism swept the whole country. During that time Alien and Sedition laws were used to deport hundreds of immigrants deemed by the government to be radicals, the anarchist Emma Goldman among them.

In Yakima, terrorism was directed at other groups as well as the Japanese. In 1933, the Industrial Workers of the World (the Wobblies) led a strike for higher wages of white migrant farmworkers that was put down by orchardists with pipes, clubs and bats. Then the strikers were marched five miles to a stockade that had been constructed in the middle of downtown Yakima. Some of those arrested were jailed for six months, and the stockade stayed up as a deterrent for a decade. In 1938, 200 men set upon blacks in Wapato, beating them and setting fire to one of their houses. Filipinos also became targets of harassment.

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Congdon Castle

I grew up near the Congdon orchard where the 1933 strike took place. The owner’s summerhouse mansion was called Congdon Castle and as kids we thought it was haunted. No one really lived there except caretakers. The wealthy owners had always lived in another state. I have a vague memory of my mother telling us about the “battle of Congdon Castle.” She surely knew about it. The primary industry in Yakima, then and now, was agriculture and agriculture was always big news.

Congdon Orchards label

Probably my mother already knew which side she was on by the time these events occurred. Her parents, immigrants themselves from Sweden and Norway, can’t have felt completely safe. Family lore has her father enduring taunts for his foreign accent from students at Yakima High School where he taught commercial arts. Her father’s thinking surely influenced young Flo. She told me she remembered his troubled reaction to the execution of Sacco and Vanzetti, Italian immigrants whose incarceration lasted from 1920 to 1927. She was 14 years old when they were executed by the US government. Flo’s Norwegian father took the side of the immigrants, who most agreed had been falsely accused. My grandfather was let go from his teaching job at the height of the Depression in 1932, I believe because of his work in the Democratic Party. After that, the family struggled to survive.

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My mother’s family in about 1922. She is the one on the right with glasses.

This was the Yakima of my mother’s youth, a place where, if you read the newspapers, you could not escape the dominant paradigm. But by the time I was growing up in the 1950s and 60s, this history escaped us. Our family often visited Fort Simcoe, the restored Army fort on the Yakama reservation, but I never learned about the Indian Wars as a child. Indians and revolution were scrubbed from our textbooks and xenophobia persisted.

My brother Don remembers as a freshman in high school in 1967 defending the rights of Native Americans in history class. The popular teacher launched into a diatribe against him in front of the whole class. She said Indians had an inferior culture and deserved to be conquered. She said they were dirty, barbaric and uncivilized. She believed it was right of a superior culture to war against them and subjugate them. This was the inevitable march of history, she said. When Don told Flo about it she was outraged. She and the teacher had been friends but that killed their friendship.

The xenophobes in Yakima and elsewhere were able to successfully construct a racial identity, the “white race,” made from hundreds of diverse cultures, people who spoke different languages and dialects, people who had themselves been the victims of oppression, as a way to successfully divide the population. In his book, Irish on the Inside, Tom Hayden posits that Irish immigrants had more in common with blacks and slaves than the white rulers who starved and oppressed them. Before epigenetics became a thing, Hayden made the case that we have all been affected by the plight of our ancestors. “That the Irish are white and European cannot erase the experience of our having been invaded, occupied, starved, colonized and forced out of our homeland,” he wrote.

Hayden wanted to break the assimilationist mold among Irish Americans.“If Irish Americans identify with the 10 percent of the world which is white, Anglo American and consumes half the global resources, we have chosen the wrong side of history and justice. We will become the inhabitants of the Big House ourselves, looking down on the natives we used to be. We will become our nightmare without a chance of awakening from its grip.”

My grandparents had a strong immigrant identity, but the advantage they had is that they were, in the language of the American Legion, of the “white race.” The Legion, the KKK and others demanded to make America white again. I’ve no clue how the xenophobes felt about Southern Italians, but it seems that if you came from Europe you were ok with them. In Yakima, they reserved deepest hatred for Japanese. But they also scorned anyone not of the “white race.” The irony was that these invading whites had themselves displaced indigenous people and it’s difficult to understand how they failed to see this giant contradiction. The trick, of course, was to make them subhuman.

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Flo with her precious books

That Flo’s parents identified as immigrants rather than white informed her understanding of the world. Flo was also a voracious reader and certainly was influenced by what she read. She spent hours at the Yakima public library, receiving her first library card at a young age and migrating to the adult section before children were allowed. She was one of those kids who took a flashlight to bed and often read under the covers at night.

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Flo’s library card

She was also active in the YWCA, quite a progressive organization during that period just as it is today. Besides championing racial integration, the YW also lent support to Japanese families who were incarcerated during the war. Her involvement in the YW got Flo out of Yakima to meetings across Washington State and in the big cities of Chicago and Columbus, widening her worldview.

Flo’s father, Ben Wick, overlapped with William O. Douglas for a year in 1921-22 when they both taught at Yakima High School. Flo may have known Douglas as a child. She would have been nine years old when he got fed up with teaching school in Yakima and and left to make his fortune in the East. Flo admired Douglas greatly and I believe she shared his politics, which were shaped by class. He grew up fatherless and poor. When discussing how his personal experiences influenced his view of the law, Douglas said, “I worked among the very, very poor, the migrant laborers, the Chicanos and the IWWs who I saw being shot at by the police. I saw cruelty and hardness, and my impulse was to be a force in other developments in the law.”

He was no communist either but he did defend the concept of revolution in a 1969 screed. He is famously quoted in Points of Rebellion: “We must realize that today’s Establishment is the new George III. Whether it will continue to adhere to his tactics, we do not know. If it does, the redress, honored in tradition, is also revolution.” He survived two impeachment attempts.

When I asked my civil rights lawyer friend Judy about Douglas she said, “Legal standing for trees!” He was famous for defending nature and the environment, often in dissenting opinions. She added, “I wish he was still on the court. God help us now.”

Douglas returned to our hometown later in his life and Flo and I ran into him and his wife Cathy in the 1970s. We had decided to splurge on lunch at the Larson Building, the town’s only high-rise, an elegant Art Deco architectural gem built in 1931. She spotted them as we walked into the lobby. “Justice Douglas, Justice Douglas,” my mother entreated as she ran up to him. He graciously remembered her father.

The wartime internment of Japanese did not happen in a vacuum. Finally, after decades of domestic terrorism, the American Legion and its ilk got their way. In June 1942, 1061 Japanese were evacuated from the valley, sent by rail to a processing center at the Portland livestock grounds, and then incarcerated at Heart Mountain, Wyoming for the remainder of the war—800 miles from home. Only a few resettled in the Yakima Valley.

One of my heroes, the labor organizer Sister Addie Wyatt said, “If you don’t know where you come from, you don’t know where you’re going.”

This is where we come from. I fervently hope it is not where we’re going. I’m so glad people like immigrants and Americans of color, the Wobblies, my mother, my grandfather and William O. Douglas found the will to resist.

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Redux 2018
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Lunching at the Berkeley Women’s Faculty Club

wfcWhenever I visit my friend Madeline Mixer in Berkeley, we usually lunch at the UC Women’s Faculty Club on the campus. Madeline has been a member for decades, although she was never an actual member of the UC faculty. She was invited to join when she worked there as a statistician in the 1950s. No one can argue that Madeline is not a Bears fan. She was active in student government and served as vice president of the student body when she was a student there in the 1940s. Later Madeline worked as the regional chief of the US Dept. of Labor Women’s Bureau where she supported and defended tradeswomen. That’s where we met in the 1970s.

I love our lunches at the Women’s Faculty Club partly because of the great food. You don’t have to order the “salad bar” but I always do because it’s so tempting. I’m the kind of eater who wants to taste every dish, and the bar has so many choices, mostly vegetarian, with free range and locally sustainable everything. My compliments to the chef.

Madeline Mixer
Madeline Mixer

I’ve copied the short history of the club from its web page. The page also includes bios of some of Berkeley’s female faculty leaders. My heroine is Pauline Sperry, the first female professor of mathematics, who stood up to the state and refused to sign the anti-Communist loyalty oath in 1950. For that she was fired. http://www.womensfacultyclub.com/history.html

Women's Faculty Club menu
Women’s Faculty Club menu

The Women’s Faculty Club is the only women’s faculty club in the nation with its own building. It was conceived and formed through the initiative of Dean Lucy Ward Stebbins, the second Dean of Women on the Berkeley campus. In the fall of 1919 Dean Stebbins circulated an invitation to all women faculty to attend a small organizing meeting to discuss forming a group where “we might know all our colleagues better and have more opportunities to discuss our common interests.” This meeting was held at the Cloyne Court apartment of Dr. Jessica Peixotto, first female full professor at Berkeley.

At the time women were not allowed into the Men’s Faculty Club and the women members of the faculty felt the need “for a place of their own, as a refuge from the bustle and confusion on the campus.” After the first meeting the group held an organizing dinner and invited seventy-six women who were either faculty, worked in the University Library or held positions of administrative responsibility. No minutes were taken of this first dinner meeting but the seeds for the club had been planted. By December of 1919 a constitution and by-laws had been adopted and a seven-member Board of Directors elected. Dean Stebbins was elected the first President and the women began work on a financial plan to build a permanent club house.

Photos of groundbreaking female faculty hang on the walls
Photos of groundbreaking female faculty hang on the walls

The women met for meetings and tea in a variety of locations and began to meet with both the representative for the Regents and the campus architect John Galen Howard. Howard was selected as the architect for the building and presented a number of plans. The Finance Committee and the Executive Building Committee were jointly responsible to raise the money and sell stock.

The building was completed in 1923 and after years of hard work the women now had a permanent home.

Chuck Cannon 1927-2016

img_9430Chuck and I bonded on a walk of the Fort Point Gang along San Francisco’s waterfront. The Gang was remembering dead communists and labor leaders whose names are inscribed on wooden benches at Fort Point, and also observing May Day, the workers’ holiday commemorating the birth of the eight-hour-day. We fell into an easy pace and Chuck told me he was a retired piledriver and carpenter. I learned that Chuck was a long-time member of the Piledrivers Union Local 34. I’m a retired electrician and so we talked about construction work. Chuck was the only black person in the group of old Reds. He, along with many in the Gang, had been a member of the Communist Party USA. Along with most of his comrades, Chuck left the party, but the FBI kept on surveilling him for years.

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Some of the Gang on the commemorative benches at Fort Point

It was my first walk with the Gang. I’d been angling for an invitation to join and was delighted to be invited by a friend I’d known in the labor movement. It had really been started as a walking group, a way to get some exercise, by the seaman Bill Bailey and some of his pals. Since sometime in the 70s, the group had been meeting every Thursday near the St. Francis Yacht Club and walking to Fort Point and back, a distance of about four miles. Afterward we would adjourn for lunch at the Seal Rock Inn near Land’s End.

Chuck Cannon grew up in a small all-black community, Lake Como, in Fort Worth, Texas, and some years ago he started a blog about his hometown. By his account it was a wonderful childhood in a place where everybody knew everybody, although racism loomed large. He told me about hunting rabbits and squirrels and recalled vivid memories of the Texas prairie. He named the blog “ Warm Prairie Wind.”

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Chuck and Yvonne

In 2010, soon after we met, Chuck fell from a ladder while working on his house, breaking his right leg when it got stuck between the rungs. He was 82 then and never fully recovered. Over the years Chuck had remodeled the family’s 1910 Craftsman-style home, upgrading bathrooms, kitchen, bedrooms, building a basement garage and driveway and adding a deck off the kitchen. He was a handy guy with a full shop in the basement. And he didn’t let his poorly healed leg stop him. He rebuilt the deck, rigging it so he didn’t have to get on a ladder to do the work.

But by the time I came along, he and everyone else were too old and slow to make the whole walk with the Gang. By the time he died, at the end of 2016, he had not been walking far but, at 89, he kept walking. His wife of 64 years, Yvonne, a remarkable poet, would always be with him on the walks and I feel so lucky to have become friends with her as well. Yvonne became my writing teacher when I joined her group at a local senior center. Yvonne and Chuck raised three daughters together and found acceptance as a bi-racial couple in their Inner Richmond District neighborhood.

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Lunch at the Seal Rock Inn

The deaths of the members of the Fort Point Gang mark the end of an era. The old commies represent a generation of people who sacrificed much in the service of justice and equality. They inspire me to fight the good fight.

The Blue Album

It is massive, about the size of a small suitcase, with a dark blue padded leather cover now, 70 years later, quite beat up. It weighs 25 pounds. Throughout our childhoods my brothers and I pulled it out, looked through it, listened to our mother’s war stories. The scrapbook is filled with photographs, newspaper clippings, letters, travel paraphernalia and it tells the story of Mom’s two years as an American Red Cross (ARC) “donut girl” in Europe during World War II. With a crew of three other women she drove a clubmobile, a truck retrofitted with a kitchen, near the front lines, making and serving coffee and donuts to soldiers of the Third Infantry Division in Italy, France, Germany and Austria.

Mom was a scrapbook maker and for that I am now grateful as I try to piece together the events of her life. Perhaps she had the idea for the album even before she sailed to Europe on a hospital ship in May 1944. I do know that the act of putting it together when she returned home after the war in 1946 salved her sadness at the deaths of so many and helped her readjust to life stateside where it seemed compatriots had moved on and no longer thought about the war.

When my mother, Flo, died in 1983 at the age of 70, I claimed the album and it’s been stored in garages and closets ever since, occasionally brought out for perusal by relatives or friends with an interest in World War II. For a time it lived in the mold-infected storage room and so it was infected along with other archives. I’ve exposed each page to sunlight in an effort to reduce the mold and that’s helped, but when I really want to examine the book I don a respirator to avoid breathing in clouds of invisible mold spores.respirator

In trying to understand the World War II era, my ongoing research includes reading about this historical period and the books I know Flo was reading during the 30s and 40s. Her saved scrapbooks from the 1930s give many clues to what she was thinking and reading, setting the stage for the advent of the 1940s and the war. I’ve found useful artifacts in boxes saved by my brother Don and my cousin Gail. Don dug out a box of Flo’s essays and letters-to-the-editor from the 1960s to the 1980s that I had thought were lost. We have precious few of her personal letters, but my cousin recently found two letters written to her mother, Flo’s sister Ruth, from Europe in 1944! Don, the family historian, has helped me track down information about Flo’s clubmobile comrades. They are now all dead, but I’m in touch with one of their daughters, who is providing another perspective on the “donut girls.” I’ve read accounts of their experiences, although I haven’t found one that mirrors Flo’s particular journey. And I’ve read the stories of men who served in the Third Infantry Division, to which Flo’s clubmobile was attached.

I’ve dreamed of traveling to Europe to trace Flo’s route through towns and battlegrounds. Someday I may do that but I’m thankful that now I can take a virtual trip right here on my computer.

Florence E Wick dogtag

A Modern and Depraved Mephistopheles

At Dachau at war’s end my mother photographed stacks of corpses left by the fleeing Nazis. She was focusing on the bottom layer when she caught the movement of a human hand through the camera’s viewfinder. Her screams brought others, but of course, nothing could be done to save these victims of the Nazi holocaust. She later wrote: “…I wondered how many potential Mendelssohns and Einsteins there were among those wretched skeletons, and if, perhaps, the great Goethe might be turning in his grave about this modern and depraved Mephistopheles, Adolf Hitler, and what he had done to Goethe’s Germany.”

Mom in uniform
Mom in uniform

The question has haunted both my mother’s generation and my own post-war generation: How could a culture that produced such artistic and intellectual genius fall to such depths of depravity? And how do we keep it from happening to our own culture?

I know. Heavy, right? But I can’t help it. This is what I can’t stop thinking about in the emerging Trump era as I examine my mother’s scrapbook from her time in Europe during World War II. How did ordinary Germans ease Hitler’s rise to power? Why do people vote for demagogues?

My mother never found the answers to these questions, but she never stopped searching for them. I believe she would say that we must keep imagining a better world and remain active and involved citizens. In that regard she was a good role model who believed that knowledge of history can help us navigate our present. Although she was constantly disappointed that history was so seldom consulted by our leaders and policy makers.

I want to learn how the war affected my mother’s thinking. I’m also interested in what influenced her to become the person she was, a liberal thinker in the sea of conservative backwardness of Eastern Washington. I aspired to become my mother’s daughter. But what made her that way? Who was she, really?

I know she didn’t always tell me, her only daughter, everything. What secrets did my mother take to her grave? How did her experiences in the war shape her life and the lives of her generation and how did that history shape me and my generation? These are some of the questions I hope to explore as I attempt to tell about her two years in Europe during the war working as a Red Cross “donut girl.”

Mostly I’m just interested in my mom’s story. It’s a good one.

Flo's dog tag

New Year New Theme

Dear Readers,

Thanks for hanging in with me in the two years since I started this blog. When I first started I was expecting to stick to a theme—the history and also the current status of the tradeswomen movement. I’m a long-time tradeswoman activist and acknowledged as the institutional memory of the movement in the San Francisco Bay Area (even though my poor memory is legendary). I figured if I didn’t write our history, no one else would and then it might be lost. In my years of organizing in the anti-war, civil rights, union, feminist and tradeswomen movements I/we have learned much from mistakes as well as successes and I regret that we have been able to create so few institutional paths to pass along our knowledge. We have continually asked the question: how can we help young activists learn from our mistakes and keep from having to reinvent the wheel with every generation? That has been one goal, to tell the history of my generation of women who broke into nontraditional blue collar trades, to share tactics, strategies and also philosophy.

Even after this disastrous election I remain an optimist because I, and my whole generation of feminists, can see how much we have changed the world. Whole new vistas have opened for women in my lifetime, and as a result I’ve been able to choose a life where I’m happy and content and doing what I want to do instead of how I might otherwise feel obligated to live. I emphasize that we did this ourselves. We women. And I take credit for my part in it. I helped change the world so that my own life could be better. That doesn’t mean we needn’t fight like hell to keep what we’ve got and expand the reach of our movement.

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With Flo’s World War II scrapbook

I do intend to write about these things. But first, my mother. If you’ve been reading my posts, you know that I’ve been discovering all sorts of interesting things while going through Flo’s old scrapbooks from the 1930s. It’s been so much fun to think about what my mother was like as a young woman, to parse out her dreams and the evolution of her thinking. The 30s was an interesting decade with many parallels to our present period in history. I want to keep exploring the 30s through Flo’s eyes, and now I want to move on to the 1940s. I’m about to embark on a most daunting project—telling the story of my mother’s time working as a Red Cross “donut girl” in the European theater in WWII. Flo left a giant scrapbook, which I’ve always been planning to document. Now is the time.

Just as I want to draw lessons from the history of the tradeswomen movement, I also hope to learn from my mother’s own personal history as an informed person engaged with the world of her time. I invite you to come with me on this journey.