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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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.

Last Year I Lost Two Dear Friends

I lost two dear friends last year, Alice Fialkin and Ruth Maguire. When the New York Times put out a call for 400-word essays about people who died in 2015, I wrote about my friends. Their stories didn’t make it into the Times, and so here they are. Just pretend you are reading the Times Sunday magazine section.

Alice Fialkin 1946-2015

Alice in the early days when women were issued men's uniforms. It took years to get women's uniforms.
Alice in the early days when women were issued men’s uniforms. It took years to get women’s uniforms.

Alice Fialkin and I reconnected just as she began losing her mind. The process of getting to know her again was fraught with misunderstandings and conflict. Our friendship taught me a lot about how to interact with a person with cognitive disability and helped me acknowledge my own cognitive limitations.

We had known each other in the 1970s as tradeswomen activists. I broke into the electrician trade. Alice was one of the first women in our generation to get a job as a city bus driver in San Francisco, one job category that has since been integrated by race and gender. Alice became active in the transit workers union and was elected president of the union local. Years passed and we lost touch. When we found each other again after we’d both retired, we learned that we had lived just two blocks from each other for 25 years.

We began walking and doing local precinct work together. When we learned that neighbors were losing their homes to foreclosure, we joined with others to form an Occupy group in our neighborhood, Bernal Heights. We went door to door talking to folks on the foreclosure lists and, in coalition with the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment (ACCE), saved the homes of many neighbors by occupying banks and foreclosed homes, protesting home auctions and renegotiating with banks for better mortgage terms.

Alice had survived three bouts of breast cancer, but she also complained of chemo brain, a condition finally acknowledged by the medical establishment. I began to see that Alice had trouble retrieving her emails and had difficulty using her smart phone. She became paranoid. She misinterpreted social interactions and felt that everyone was against her, and often she would confront me asking why I was mad at her. Still, she continued to participate in meetings and community events. Our Occupy group made room for her and valued her long experience as an activist.

As Alice was dying and suffering from worsening dementia, the movie Still Alice, about a woman experiencing Alzheimer’s disease, was playing in theaters. I was hesitant to see it, but was glad I did. The movie helped me to understand what life must have been like from her perspective. Just as Alice Fialkin had, the movie’s protagonist Alice did the best she could to continue to engage in life.


 

Ruth Maguire 1925-2015

Ruth at the climate action march in Oakland in 2015
Ruth at the climate action march in Oakland in 2015. I turned around and snapped her picture.

“A major influence in my life was my many years in the Communist movement,” said Ruth Maguire in a letter to friends and family on the occasion of her 90th birthday earlier this year. “I feel that becoming 90 is kind of a moment of reckoning.”

As a Boomer who has cultivated a romantic attachment to old commies, I was delighted to meet Ruth at a May Day celebration of Abraham Lincoln Brigade veterans. Her ex-husband of many years ago, Bill Bailey, had been an ALB vet. Then I got to know Ruth while recording her oral history. Her parents had emigrated from a shtetl in a small town in Poland a century ago. She grew up in Los Angeles and lived most of her life in the San Francisco Bay Area, raising three children.

Ruth joined the Young Pioneers, the Communist Party youth group, as a kid. “In the 30s and 40s, it was not outlandish to be a Communist. It was a legal political party; it ran candidates; it had a vision of a better life for struggling people everywhere,” she wrote. She left the party in the 1950s, but she never changed her core beliefs. She appeared in the 1983 documentary film Seeing Red.

The Communist Party taught people how to organize. Ruth and a couple of other single mothers started a pre-feminist organization, Mothers Alone Working, in the early 1960s. Their demands for childcare and programs to aid working mothers were echoed a decade later by my generation of feminists.

Ruth was most proud of her work helping to open and manage the first integrated housing development in San Francisco, built with the sponsorship of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union.

Until the end of her life, Ruth continued working for justice and against war and racism. She was right behind me in the Climate Action March in Oakland last year when I turned around and snapped her photo.

She wrote: “I didn’t do anything great in this life. I wasn’t an inspiring teacher, I didn’t cure cancer, I didn’t write a great book or compose beautiful music, I sure didn’t end our wars. But I did participate in the issues and struggles of my time. That gave my life purpose and meaning.”

Ruth Maguire died in December from metastatic breast cancer.