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Erna P. Harris: An African-American Champion of Equality

One part of the history of Japanese Americans that has been curiously neglected is the disproportionate support offered them by Black Americans at the time of their mass wartime confinement. Victims of racial injustice themselves, African Americans demonstrated different forms of solidarity to their Nikkei counterparts during those years. In particular, there are numerous examples of African American writers and journalists who spoke out in support of the rights of Japanese Americans in the wake of Executive Order 9066. The celebrated poet Langston Hughes devoted several of his columns in the Chicago Defender to opposing the government’s policy as racist and tyrannical. The novelist and critic George Schuyler not only supported the rights of Japanese Americans in his articles for The Pittsburgh Courier but offered funds from his own pocket to help found a New York chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (the organization’s first interracial branch).

Erna P. Harris. Women's International League for Peace and Freedom Records, Swarthmore College Peace Collection.

One outstanding dissident was columnist Erna P. Harris of the Los Angeles Tribune. Erna P. Harris born on June 29, 1908 in Kingfisher, Oklahoma, a small town about 40 miles northwest of Oklahoma City. After attending segregated schools in Oklahoma, she enrolled at Wichita State University, graduating with a B.A. in journalism in 1936. While at Wichita State, she served as a reporter and editor of the school's newspaper, The Sunflower (according to one source, she won a journalism award, but when the town newspaper came to take a picture of the prize-winning student and proceeded to discover that she was Black, they decided not to go ahead with the photo). Upon graduation, she had difficulty finding a position as a reporter, so she decided to start her own weekly newspaper, The Kansas Journal. It operated for 3 1/2 years. However, when Harris ran an editorial in October 1939 opposing conscription, she angered readers and advertisers, and was forced to close her newspaper.

In 1941, Harris moved to Los Angeles and was hired as a reporter for the Los Angeles Tribune, the newest (and least established) of the city’s three African American newspapers. Since the Tribune had a female editor, Almena Davis, it might have been easier for Harris as a woman to gain employment. Once at the Tribune, Harris wrote features and began an editorial column, “Reflections in a Crackt Mirror.” Outside of her newspaper work, she also was active with the local chapter of the nonviolent human relations group Fellowship of Reconciliation.

In Spring 1942, following the issuing of Executive Order 9066, the Los Angeles Tribune distinguished itself as the sole Los Angeles newspaper to formally oppose mass removal. Harris was particularly outraged. As she later recalled, “Ever since the evacuation of Americans of Japanese ancestry and Japanese along the Pacific Coast was proposed, I have pointed out that the issue was one of race and on that basis affected anyone who was physically distinguishable as ‘colored’” (“In a Crackd Mirror”, February 7, 1944). Worse, it was a government action which thereby gave official approval to prejudice.

As Harris wrote in spring 1942, “[T]o visit evacuation (sic) neghborhoods and talk with neighbors of the ‘evil, treacherous, fifth column menaces’ who are being summarily moved away, who have been adjudged guilty without any trial at which to claim innocence was to acknowledge an event with all earmarks of a legalized community lynching.” Harris was swiftly attacked for this position as naïve by the popular syndicated columnist Westbrook Pegler. Pegler’s attack on “E.P. H.”had the effect of publicizing Harris’s views nationwide.

Edna Harris at the Moscow Kremlin, circa 1964, Erna P. Harris papers, MS 54, African American Museum & Library at Oakland, Oakland Public Library. Oakland, California.

Once mass removal took place, Harris seems not to have spoken about government actions towards Japanese Americans, though she mentioned Nisei among the ranks of racial minorities deserving justice. In late November 1943, reports of rioting among “disloyal Japanese” at the government’s “segregation center” at Tule Lake brought anti-Japanese American sentiment in Southern California to a climax. Politicians and organizations called for a military takeover of the camps and for the end of resettlement. The Los Angeles Times published a reader poll on December 7, the second anniversary of the Pearl Harbor attack, in which a large majority supported confinement and postwar deportation of all Japanese Americans. In a column, Harris decried the hysteria over “disloyalty”, laying into the bigots and expressing sympathy for the rioters and other Japanese Americans who had been “set on” as part of the inflammatory campaigns of the Hearst press:

Eighteen months ago the evacuation of the Issei and Nisei was being called a matter of military necessity on threat of imminent invasion. In a few months it was called protective custody for their own safety—such cannibals are we, their erstwhile neighbors, alleged to be. But now, as the interests which have long wanted them eliminated from California in the hysteria of war-bred hatred dare to come out into the open, there comes the call for their permanent exclusion from California, for treating them as war prisoners, for depriving them of citizenship, and from a man pledged to enforce the law, [Los Angeles County] Sheriff Biscailuz, comes a plea for sending many of them to Japan in exchange for prisoners of war. Such a move would involve some American citizens. If citizenship is to become a matter of racial or national predeterminism or of periodic authoritarian changes, who will be safe from the whims of the powerful?” (Erna P. Harris, “Reflections”, Los Angeles Tribune, November 22, 1943.)

In the months that followed, Harris devoted several more columns to defending Japanese Americans. In her January 3, 1944 column, for example, she denounced as fascist an anti-Nisei Christmas cartoon by Los Angeles Times cartoonist Ed Leffingwell. Harris snapped, “Friends, this is how Hitler made little Nazis: by reaching the children and youth through stories and pictures, he taught them to fear and hate certain groups.” Harris explained her own insight into the question:

Through friends and newspapers I have maintained a fairly close contact with the evacuee-victims of our lack of confidence in American education and government agencies. On Christmas Eve it was my pleasure to have as a houseguest an old friend who is teaching in the relocation center at Poston. I hasten to suggest that Mr. Leffingwell could find among the Japanese and Nisei internees some real characters whose story, recounted by him in picture, would set before his small readers an example of courage, sensitivity, forgiveness and humility such as would set his cartoon aside from the petty humdrum of its fellows.

Harris’s concern over the treatment of Japanese Americans reflected her larger interest in the struggles against discrimination of other minorities, including Jews, Mexican Americans, and Asians. In an article in late 1944 in a new multiracial magazine, Pacific Pathfinder, she deplored the racial bias of white nativists such as the Native Sons of the Golden West, and scored John Sinclair, a California state official with the American Legion, who had made a speech in Santa Barbara calling for pressure on Japanese Americans to discourage them from returning to the Pacific Coast, in which he openly affirmed, “I would like to keep this a country for Caucasians”.

Harris warned of the dangerous implications of such attitudes for all minorities:“Americans of Chinese ancestry share in disproportionate measure the apprehension of other non-Whites with regard to the summary treatment of Americans of Japanese ancestry. Tightening of residential restrictions against them, for instance, in the neighborhood surrounding San Francisco’s ‘Chinatown’ gives basis for their fears.”

In February 1946 she complained in her Los Angeles Tribune column that all the events for Brotherhood Week that year were being hosted by whites seeking to reach out to blacks. Harris insisted that African Americans should hold their own events, and reach out to others: “Joint hosts on the negroes’ invitation would be Nisei, American Indians and other Americans whose physical characteristics make them detectable. I have heard of no such observance during Brotherhood week.”

Hisaye Yamamoto. Courtesy of the Densho Digital Repository.

During the postwar years, Harris was joined on the staff of the Tribune by a group of outstanding Nisei, including Hisaye Yamamoto, who started work for the Tribune as a columnist and editorial writer in June 1945, at the modest salary of $35 per week. She was later joined on the Tribune’s staff by other Nisei, including Sports Editor Chester “Cheddar” Yamauchi. and his then-wife, the future playwright Wakako Yamauchi.

In 1952, Harris left Los Angeles and moved to Berkeley, California, where she operated a print shop and continued to be active in a number of peace and civil rights organizations. She was appointed to the National Board of the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF) in 1956 and regularly traveled to WILPF congresses in Europe and Asia, including one in Birmingham, England in 1956. She was a member of the WILPF delegation that traveled to the U.S.S.R. in 1964 to participate in the U.S.-Soviet Women's Seminar in Moscow. Harris also grew active in many cooperatives in the Berkeley area, and in February 1983 was elected to a term on the board of directors of the Berkeley Co-op, the nation’s largest cooperative organization. Erna P. Harris died in 1995, and was subsequently honored by the naming of a public housing project, Erna P. Harris Court, in the City of Berkeley.

Although a less renowned figure than George Schuyler or Langston Hughes, Erna Harris was among the earliest Black critics of the treatment of Japanese Americans, and arguably the most forthright and brave. In the process she proved that African Americans, themselves victims of racism, could reach out effectively to other minority groups.

 

© 2019 Greg Robinson

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