In the throes of World War II, weeks after a 1942 presidential decree forced the withdrawal of all people of Japanese descent from the West Coast, UC Berkeley President Robert G. Sproul is went into action.
He sent a passionate letter to university presidents across the country, asking them to accept his displaced students, mostly US citizens and “excellent” academics. Other major West Coast universities have joined, including the University of Washington and Occidental College, to help around 2,500 Japanese American students.
There was one glaring exception: USC.
Then-USC president Rufus B. von KleinSmid – now dishonored for his legacy of supporting eugenics, anti-Semitism and racism – and other campus officials have refused to release the records of notes from Japanese American students so that they can study elsewhere. When some students attempted to re-enroll after the war, USC did not honor their previous classes and said they would have to start over, according to surviving family members.
Almost 80 years later, USC is backing down. President Carol Folt will publicly apologize to former Japanese American students on behalf of the university and award them posthumous honorary degrees. The university is asking the public for help in locating the families of approximately 120 students who attended USC during the 1941-1942 academic year.
The move comes nearly 15 years after Japanese American alumni first asked their alma mater to atone for his past behavior.
“It’s a stained part of our history,” said Patrick Auerbach, USC senior associate vice president for alumni relations. “While we cannot change what has happened in the past … the university can certainly still do good for their families and let them know that we are posthumously awarding them honorary degrees so that they may occupy this place in the family of Troy, which they deserve. “
Auerbach said USC has long had a policy against the awarding of honorary degrees posthumously, but that Folt recently ordered that an exception be made for American students of Japanese descent.
Since taking the helm in 2019, Folt has addressed several of USC’s troubling race and fairness legacies, including racial profiling by campus security guards, the treatment of underprivileged students. represented and Von KleinSmid’s past – leading him to order that his name be removed from a major campus. building.
Folt will apologize and award diplomas to an Asia-Pacific Alumni Assn. gala next April and greet the recipients when the academic year begins in May, USC officials said.
The surviving children of former students – most, possibly all deceased – said their parents would have been delighted with the honor.
Joanne Kumamoto said her father, Jiro Oishi, was a fourth-year business student who only needed to pass his final to graduate when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in December 1941. Oishi was arrested by them. law enforcement in what turned out to be a mistaken identity case and sent to a federal penitentiary in Montana, missing his exams. He was not allowed to pass his final or graduate, returned to Los Angeles after the war and started as a gardener again, Kumamoto said.
Yet he never expressed bitterness towards USC and, until his death nearly two decades ago, was a life-long Trojan fan and holder of a football and basketball membership. ball. He took the family to tailgate games and parties, decked out in his cardinal and gold sweatshirts, polo shirts and caps. Kumamoto said he didn’t reveal her past until she was in high school.
“I am happy for my father; he would have appreciated that, ”Kumamoto said. “But I also feel a bit bittersweet. He might have had an easier life if he had graduated.
USC’s decision also satisfied two main advocates of apologies and posthumous degrees: Jonathan Kaji, who began pushing for action in 2007 as chairman of the Asian Pacific Alumni Assn., And Lon Kurashige, professor of history and space science. Kaji has helped USC take small steps over the years, including giving alumni honorary alumni status in 2008.
But pressure increased to do more after a 2009 state law required California State University and California community colleges to grant honorary degrees to all Japanese American students, alive or dead. Regents at the University of California also lifted its moratorium on these degrees and awarded hundreds in 2010.
USC eventually agreed to award honorary degrees in 2012, but only to living students – nine of whom received them amid a sustained standing ovation at launch ceremonies that year.
Kaji and others were rebuffed in demands for a full apology and posthumous diplomas to all students.
“This should have been resolved a long time ago, but Dr Folt better understands the particular trauma these families have endured for too long,” Kaji said. “In light of the wave of anti-Asian violence… USC’s action sends a message to the entire Trojan family and the community at large that until historical inequalities are properly addressed, there cannot be to have progress in our society. “
The problem began to escalate on campus after the murder of George Floyd last year prompted many universities to examine their own racist heritage. USC law students Mirelle Raza, Sara Zollner and Jenna Edzant publicized the issue in a research project, “Forgotten Trojans,” and an academic Senate committee has also advocated for the cause.
George Sanchez, co-chair of the Senate committee, said USC’s apology and awarding of the degree was only the first step in the university’s calculation process. A major problem, he said, is USC’s continued lack of transparency regarding its decisions. Unlike most major research universities, it does not allow access to its presidential documents without permission from the current president – and access remains blocked despite years of requests from professors, he said. . Georgetown and Yale, for example, have fully opened their archives to allow researchers to probe their past involvement in slavery.
Sanchez said the university archivist told him that Von KleinSmid’s papers no longer existed in the archives and that he did not know how they came to be. As a result, the role Von KleinSmid played in adopting a hard line against Japanese American students may never be fully known.
Roger Daniels, professor emeritus of history at the University of Cincinnati who has done extensive research on the experience of Japanese-American incarceration, documented the dean of the USC dental school’s hostility towards students and said Von KleinSmid believed helping them “would reassure the enemy” even though they were US citizens.
Regardless of the documentation, USC officials say they believe the stories of how the university hampered the pursuit of its former students during the war.
For the most part, their family members say there is no grudge. Laurie Inadomi-Halvorsen said her father, Yoshiharu Inadomi, was a sophomore at USC in the spring of 1942 when he and his family were forced from their Fillmore home in Ventura County to be incarcerated in a desolate camp in Gila River, Arizona. He was eventually released to attend Drake University in Iowa and earned a business degree.
Like many other Japanese-American Trojans, he never lost his loyalty to USC. A former member of the Trojan Marching Band, Inadomi became a season ticket holder after returning to Los Angeles and rarely missed a game, her daughter said. While it was “heartbreaking” that her father never got to graduate from USC, she said, she was able to do so in 1983 – and he was there to witness it.
“It’s pretty amazing that they recognize what has been done,” she said. “It makes me proud to graduate from USC.”