An Original Story by Naomi Hirahara!

by Jessica on November 14, 2014

A Tale of Tomodachi

By Naomi Hirahara

Even before the bombing of Pearl Harbor, people of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast were feeling pretty abandoned. Unions weren’t that thrilled with them. Even though the Northern California chapter felt differently, the national ACLU thought that the government had a case for creating these “military zones” to remove people who might threaten national security, however that was determined.

An exception to these groups were the Quakers, or the Religious Society of Friends. Friends. Tomodachi in Japanese.

When non-Quakers think of Quakers, Quaker Oats often comes to mind. At least it did for me for the longest time. The long wavy white hair. The black wide-brimmed hat and silky white scarf tied at the neck. Guess what? The Quaker brand was actually trademarked by businessmen who read an encyclopedia article on Quakers. The brand is now owned by PepsiCo, so there you go. American enterprise at work from beginning to end.

The real Friends, with a capital “F,” however, were damn serious. Back in 1917, during World War I, they created American Friends Service Committee to help conscientious objectors. Their goal later became to help race relations. These dudes (and I include women in that) weren’t playing around. They put their money where there mouths were.

So why am I talking about these Friends, these Tomodachi, here in the celebration of Vroman’s 120th anniversary? Because the bookstore’s founder Adam Clark Vroman’s wife, Esther Griest of Pennsylvania was a Quaker. I first heard this from Joel Sheldon, Vroman’s chair, on the phone yesterday, and he was indeed correct. She died two years after the couple moved to Pasadena from Illinois before Vroman’s, the bookstore, was established.

Adam Clark Vroman’s connection to Quakers did not end there. His best friend was devoted Friend, George F. Howell, according to Sheldon and the book, Historic Pasadena: An Illustrated History.

George Howell had worked for American Indians, specifically the Pawnee Agency, in Nebraska and Oklahoma before moving to Pasadena in 1902. After Vroman died in 1916, Howell became the new president elect. He remained in that position for four years.

Again, so what? What’s with all this Quaker talk, Naomi?

This goes back to the Facebook comment posted around 9 a.m. Thursday on my profile page. It was in response to a post about this very event. The comment was from Maria Kwong, the store manager at the Japanese American National Museum: “Grace Nakamura once told me that Vroman’s used to drive a book truck out to Manzanar during the war so people in camp could buy books. Ask about that. I think that would be a great story for something.” Liked by me and Elaine Yamaguchi.

The hair on my neck was standing on end when I read that. My hometown bookstore, the bookstore five blocks away from our house, aided Japanese Americans incarcerated in Manzanar? And sure enough, on the Vroman’s website, it states, “During World War II, Vroman’s donated and delivered books to Japanese Americans interned at nearby camps, returning on several occasions despite being fired upon by camp guards.”

Now, like I said, I had less than 36 hours to confirm this story. And to tell you the truth, I could not locate any historic documents or newspaper clippings reporting this in this limited time. But we do have testimony. Testimony from Grace Shinoda Nakamura, who has been living in Whittier for decades.

I spoke to Grace on the phone yesterday and her oral history transcript is on record with Densho in Seattle. Grace, who was reluctant to give me her exact birthdate because of fears of identity theft – smart lady – is in her late eighties.

In 1942, Grace was 15, ready to enter tenth grade. Her widowed mother and brother were living in Northeast Los Angeles – the front yard was in Los Angeles, the backyard, South Pasadena – and she attended Luther Burbank Junior High in Highland Park. And then, along with 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry, she was forcibly removed from her home and incarcerated in a camp in the nation’s interior. In Grace’s case, it was in Inyo County near Death Valley at Manzanar.

According to the oral history interview that was conducted by Sharon Yamato in 2011, “And then we did have textbooks, more than most of the other camps. Because Vroman’s bookstore in Pasadena was also the California State depository for state textbooks. And so Vroman’s made sure that all the kids in Manzanar got the state textbooks . . . Other camp schools were not so fortunate.”

In my telephone interview with her, Grace confirmed this. And she provided more details. According to Grace, it was actually a Quaker missionary, Herbert Nicholson, who drove a rickety old truck to deliver the books. Nicholson lived on 1554 Las Lunas Street in Pasadena, not far for where we are. I know this because of declassified war department correspondence, which stated that the American Friends Committee was being investigated by the FBI because “its interracial and international connections” left it “liable to manipulation by anti-American elements.”

According to a couple of books in Pasadena Public Library Centennial Room, Nicholson drove a truck that he had retrieved for a former Terminal Island grocery store owner, Tom Yamamoto. Yamamoto insisted that Nicholson use the truck to make deliveries to various camps, which he did. Not only Manzanar, but Poston, Gila, Topaz, Minidoka, Heart Mountain and Amache. Nichelson quickly put 25,000 miles on the truck. He delivered inmates’ property that had been in storage, took pets to hospitals outside of camp, transported ashes of a dead son and even attempted to dig up a buried treasure for an inmate – turns out he dug on the wrong side of the house.

Nothing was mentioned in these books about Vroman’s and its textbook delivery, but Grace insists that literally hundreds of textbooks came from Vroman’s to Manzanar on Nicholson’s truck.

Her mind is razor sharp, so I don’t doubt what she says.

From camp, Grace’s family took advantage of the opportunity to move – she actually characterizes it as escaped – into the nation’s interior, and resided in Grand Junction, Colorado.

From there, she was able to get a scholarship and partial funding from again the Quakers to the University of Redlands.

She was one of the first Nisei to become a credentialed teacher.

She first taught at a “segregated school” here in Pasadena, an adult school that served Latinos, Fremont School, and later worked at the Eugene Field School in Hastings Ranch.

She staunchly believes that she and her high school classmates would not have California textbooks if it weren’t for Vroman’s. “A whole generation of us would not have gone to college.”

Frankly, there needs to be more digging to verify all the facts. And I’m not sure about the camp guards firing at the Vroman’s deliverymen. Some of the answers may lie in the 31 boxes of Howell family papers – you know, George Howell, Vroman’s best friend and former Vroman’s president – archived at the Huntington Library. George Howell’s grandson, a conscientious objector, was sent to work in Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona, where many Pasadena-based Japanese Americans were incarcerated. There may be something there.

So, however those textbooks got there, I pretty convinced that they were facilitated by this place, Vroman’s. So, from one tomodachi to another, thank you.