1940s 'Safe Spaces': The Man Who Tried to Save His Students From Internment

1940s 'Safe Spaces': The Man Who Tried to Save His Students From Internment

By Alex Furuya

University of California president Robert G. Sproul (left) with chancellor Glenn T. Seaborg and president Clark Kerr
SourceJon Brenneis/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images


Because not everyone follows cruel rules quietly.

By Alex Furuya

Berkeley’s Daily Gazette didn’t publish Sunday editions. So on Monday, December 8, 1941, area residents found something interesting in their newspapers. For the first time in years, the Gazette offered an extra section — one detailing the enormity of what had happened the day before: Japan attacked Pearl Harbor.

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Former University of California president Robert G. Sproul with new president Clark Kerr

Source Jon Brenneis/The LIFE Images Collection/Getty Images

One of the readers was University of California president Robert G. Sproul, and what he read alarmed him. Even before the attack, Sproul had been leading efforts to try and reduce prejudice against Japanese-Americans, many of whom had been labeled as complacent in the attacks on China during the Second Sino-Japanese War. And while he was concerned by the loss of life and injuries sustained in the attack, he was also scared that the bad news would impact the safety and education of his Japanese-American students. 

Groups like the Joint Committee on Immigration went so far as to oppose Japanese immigration, inciting xenophobia by framing Japanese-Americans as a threat to white Christians, according to Berkeley history professor Charles Wollenberg. “[The committee] was an establishment version of the so-called Yellow Peril concept, the idea that Japanese immigration, and Asian immigration in general, was a danger to the United States,” he says. While there were some economic motives behind this, it mostly stemmed from racism.

You have an administrator who — while not openly disavowing incarceration — is doing a lot behind the scenes to help these students get to somewhere they can continue their education.

Allan Austin, professor, Misericordia University

Several academics in the Bay Area, including Sproul, former University of California president David Prescott Barrows and Galen Fisher from the Pacific School of Religion, had already set up the Fair Play Committee earlier that autumn in 1941 — a testament to their level of concern even months before Pearl Harbor. It fought for the protection of civil rights of Japanese-Americans in California, helping ordinary citizens treat Japanese-Americans with “fair play.” 

February 20, 1942

The February 20, 1942, edition of the Berkeley Daily Gazette, included this political cartoon.

Source Gazette

The attack bolstered the worst of existing anti-Japanese sentiment in America. Life magazine even published an article called “How to Tell Japs From the Chinese” — complete with diagrams — on December 22, 1941. So-called “Jap hunting licenses” were passed around, asking folks to sign their names as hunters for a year-round season. Some people even sent licenses to President Franklin Roosevelt, according to Rudolf V.A. Janssens in “What Future for Japan?”: U.S. Wartime Planning for the Postwar Era, 1942–1945

Newspapers like the Los Angeles Times and the Gazette added fuel to the fire with exaggerated claims about the domestic Japanese threat. Walter Lippmann infamously wrote a column titled “The Fifth Column” in the Los Angeles Times on February 13, 1942, claiming that there have been “communication [taking] place between the enemy at sea and enemy agents on land” to bring “irreparable damage” to America. He was arguing that the government should evacuate and intern enemy aliens.

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The March 3, 1942, edition of the Berkeley Daily Gazette highlighting the military zones in California.

Source Gazette

Hatred soon morphed into policy. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, authorizing the removal from military areas any people “as deemed necessary or desirable.” The armed forces treated the entire U.S. West Coast as a military area, and Japanese-Americans nationwide found their funds frozen and faced curfews and travel restrictions. Some were bewildered by the order and many felt hopeless, but the worst had yet to come. 

Publicly, Sproul, like other university presidents, did not denounce the government’s exclusionary policy. According to Misericordia University history professor Allan Austin, Sproul in fact called incarceration of people of Japanese descent a necessary evil. But with Deutsch’s help, Sproul worked to postpone the removal of Japanese-American students from campus until the end of the academic year. When that didn’t work, he wrote to 32 universities and colleges in the Midwest — those located outside the so-called military zone — to ask that they admit the affected students. Sadly, only a few schools agreed to take the students. (University of Nebraska-Lincoln, for example, accepted 100 Japanese-American students.)


Sproul also took administrative actions to help these students by asking deans and faculty to meet and counsel the Japanese-American students. He also allowed students to withdraw right away if they needed to, and he put together loans to help the affected students move. “You have an administrator who — while not openly disavowing incarceration — is doing a lot behind the scenes to help these students get to somewhere they can continue their education,” Austin explains.

Sproul, with the help from the university YMCA and YWCA, also organized the Student Relocation Council, which helped Japanese-American students continue their studies by being relocated. The organization eventually expanded into the National Japanese-American Student Relocation Council and aided thousands of Japanese-Americans. By the time the organization closed its doors on June 30, 1946, the NJASRC had processed more than 4,600 applications and 3,613 Japanese-American students were relocated. Most Japanese-Americans along the West Coast, however, were not so lucky.

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People of all ages wait in a line for lunch at the Manzanar internment camp.

Source Buyenlarge/Getty Images

In fact, 120,000 people of Japanese descent were eventually forced into internment camps. Among them were 500 Berkeley students. On April 24, 1942, a week before Japanese-Americans were required to be in the camps, one of the 500, Tom Shibutani, wrote a letter to the editor of the Daily Californian called “We Hope to Come Back.” Noting how the evacuation order had just been announced, he wrote that “in the hard days ahead we shall try to recreate the spirit which has made us so reluctant to leave now … and our wish to those who remain is that they maintain here the democratic ideals that have operated in the past. We hope to come back and find them here.”

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Harvey Akio Itano was sent to an assembly center prior to his graduation at the University of California, Berkeley and could not receive his award as the University Medalist in 1942.

Source Public Domain/Wikipedia

Berkeley valedictorian Harvey Itano was missing at graduation that year. While his classmates gathered in their caps and gowns, Itano was at an assembly center in Sacramento. Despite earning the highest academic achievement of his class, he couldn’t be on hand to receive his University Medal. But that didn’t mean he was forgotten: Days later, Sproul visited the assembly, delivering Itano’s hard-earned medal in person.