Contemplating the Roots of Racism in My Hometown
Mom 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.
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.
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 must 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.
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 Flo 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.
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.
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.
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.
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. In any case, 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 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. We 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.