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Japanese-American detainees to "feel the warm friendliness of the people of Pittsburgh"; papers tell story of wartime Japanese-American relocation to Pittsburgh - Part 1

The archives of local newspapers trace the brief history of Pittsburgh’s involvement in the imprisonment and forced relocation of Japanese Americans during World War II. These articles show that an old orphanage on Perrysville Avenue in Perry North doubled as a temporary home for Japanese-Americans forced out of their homes elsewhere. It was a source of some controversy, mostly because neighbors were afraid Japanese American laborers would damage property values, though the program of incarceration and forced relocation ended before Pittsburgh could fulfill its potential as a home for 100 to 200 families.

Prior to anything in the Pittsburgh papers about Japanese detention facilities in the area is a brief write-up in the Manzanar Free Press, a newsletter published at the Manzanar concentration camp by imprisoned Japanese Americans. From the January 8, 1944 edition, Volume 6, No 57, “Pittsburg [sic] Citizens Gather To Aid Nisei”:

PITTSBURG [sic], Pa. — Wholeheartedly endorsing the program to assist evacuees in getting established in Pittsburg, a group of 40 leading residents met in the Western Pennsylvania Committee on Resettlement, the War Relocation Authority disclosed.
Among the committee members were representatives of labor, industry, social and welfare agencies, governmental bureaus and churches of several denominations. Also a member is the wife of the mayor of that city.
Outcome of the meeting was the appointment of a nominating committee which was empowered to formulate sub-committees on housing, public information, community participation and employment.

Click to enlarge

Copies of that publication are available from the Densho Digital Archive. Based on what would follow, it looks like aiding Nisei was not on the minds of the gathering Pittsburgh citizens.

The first appearance in a local newspaper was in late 1944, with a November 19, 1944 Pittsburgh Press article titled “A Source of Workers—Move Launched to Bring Nisei to Pittsburgh,” with a subheading “Loyal Jap-Americans May Be Moved Here”:

A movement has been launched to bring some loyal Japanese-Americans into the Pittsburgh district.
Backed by the Executive Committee of the Council of the Churches of Allegheny County, the War Relocation Authority plans to open an office here soon.
Employers who want to hire Japanese-American workers will apply at this office, which will contact relocation centers where the eligible Japanese-Americans are quartered and try to recruit men or women there to meet local needs.
A committee of community leaders is formed to assist the WRA in obtaining housing facilities for the evacuees, and in making them a part of the community.

Two days later the Pittsburgh Press wrote “Relocated Nisei Aid War Effort,” saying that Japanese Americans from the west coast “have aided the war effort in cities with industries similar to those of Pittsburgh.”

Regional WRA officials now are planning to establish a Pittsburgh office, backed by the Executive Committee of the Allegheny County Council of Churches, to receive applications from employers who want to hire Japanese-Americans.
Pittsburgh is the last big city away from the Pacific Coast to start a relocation movement and all relocated Nisei in Pennsylvania are now in the eastern part of the state, totaling 430 in all, with 262 in Philadelphia and 26 in Swarthmore. Others are in rural and semi-rural areas.
WRA said the available evacuees include mechanics and factory workers, as well as skilled truck farmers and hotel help, and that many of the Jap-Americans, whose loyalty has been checked with FBI and other Government agencies, are used to machine operations in industry.

A December 21, 1944 Pittsburgh Press article “‘Open Door’ Asked for Japanese”:

The War Housing Authority today had asked Pittsburgh to swing an “open door” to the residence of Japanese-Americans in the city from relocation centers in which they have been restricted for the last two years.
According to Robert M. Cullum of Cleveland, representative of the War Relocation Authority, approximately 60,000 of the Nisei—second generation Japanese—are free to leave the relocation camps now with nowhere to go “and the necessity has arisen to spread them throughout the country.”
Mr. Cullum spoke to a meeting of nearly 50 persons in the Roosevelt Hotel at which a Citizens Committee was formed to help loyal American-born Japanese to establish residence and find employment in Pittsburgh’s industrial plants.

. . .

Expressing his confiction that the people of America will see the problems of the Japanese-Americans “in our light,” Rev. [Shunji F.] Nishi said, “Americanism doesn’t depend on your color or the slant of your eyes, but on the color of your thinking and the slant of your ideas.”

The article continues, rather ironically:

Dr. [A.B.] Kinsolving [of Calvary Episcopal Church] stressed the point that prejudice is always worse than the thing it is directed against and urged that the Citizens Committee do everything possible to fight off this prejudice, aide in obtaining housing facilities for the evacuees and in making them a part of the community.

A Pittsburgh Post-Gazette article from July 3, 1945 talks about the commitment to using their chosen Northside site as one such “housing facility,” in spite of protests by local residents. Protests about using a former orphanage, not about forcibly relocating American citizens:

Officials of the War Relocation Authority and the Pittsburgh Citizens’ Resettlement Committee yesterday stood firm in their plans to house loyal Japanese-Americans at the Gusky Orphanage. The proposal had been protested by a group of Northside residents.

. . .

“We will continue active participation in seeing that those in this group of loyal Japanese-Americans who choose to come to Pittsburgh will have their constitutional rights preserved and feel the warm friendliness of the people of Pittsburgh will be extended during their stay in our midst,” the committee declared in a formal statement.

Gusky Orphanage was out of service in 1945, having closed in 1943. In 1950 it was razed, and in its place today stands the campus of the Byzantine Catholic Seminary on the corner of Perrysville and River View Avenues.

These protests are an interesting tangent and one that will take more research, I think, for me to fully grasp. On one side are the residents, protesting the introduction of Japanese to their Northside neighborhood because of racism, or concerns over property values, or worries about the building’s structural integrity. *cough* On the other side are those who ostensibly “aid Nisei” and “have their constitutional rights preserved” by giving them the opportunity to live here and work in the region. The prejudice, of which Dr. Kinsolving and others spoke, was not imprisoning and moving Japanese, but in prohibiting the imprisoned Japanese to settle in Pittsburgh. Nevertheless, though they take up a lot of column inches, other sources suggest the protests by Northside residents was insignificant. This government document (pages 88 and 89) puts the number as relatively small:

Like the north central area, the Great Lakes area, including the States of Michigan (excluding upper peninsula), Ohio, Kentucky, West Virginia, the western part of Pennsylvania and the western part of New York, offered excellent opportunities for resettlement of Japanese Americans. Employment offers were plentiful and community acceptance was present from the beginning.

Instances of discrimination and prejudice were few in number and not important, and in no case did they represent the attitude of any appreciable segment of the community. In one case, in Pittsburgh in June 1945, a controversy was touched off by a press announcement that a vacant orphanage had been donated as temporary quarters for a hostel. A small group of residents of the neighborhood held a protest meeting, circulated a petition, and tried to get an injunction to prevent use of the orphanage as a hostel. The case was dismissed with the ruling that “common pleas court had no jurisdiction in the matter.” During the summer, while court action was pending, the hostel was used without incident. It had also been learned that only 36 residents of the ward had signed the original petition, although the population of the ward was 24,982.

On July 5, 1945, we find more news about the protest in “Court Asked to Decide If Nisei Get Gusky Home”:

The 26th Ward Citizens Committee today made good its threat to take court action to keep Japanese-Americans from being quartered in the old Gusky Orphanage.

The committee filed a bill in equity in Common Pleas Court, charging presence of the Nisei would be “detrimental” to the neighborhood, and would “depreciate” property values. The bill asked that legal costs be assessed against the Pittsburgh Committee for Resettlement of loyal Japanese-Americans.

. . .

The action climaxed a controversy that developed when the War Relocation Authority announced plans to bring more than 100 Nisei here. The WRA, and its supporting Pittsburgh committee, said the old Gusky Orphanage on the North Side was the only “suitable” building to be found.

The 26th Ward Committee today denied the building was suitable, and said its use would violate a zoning ordinance forbidding large multiple-unit dwellings in the neighborhood.

Part 2 >>


* This article was originally published on the blog Pennsylvasia at the intersection of Pennsylvania and Asia on March 10, 2013.

© 2013 Brian Deutsch

newspapers Pennsylvania pittsburgh racism resettlement War Housing Authority World War II WRA