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When Oberlin Opened Its Arms To Japanese-Americans During WWII

Oberlin College took in about 40 Japanese American students in the early 1940s [photo: Stephanie Jarvis/ideastream]

On February 19, 1942, just 10 weeks after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt signed executive order 9066, which eventually allowed the U.S. government to relocate more than 120,000 people of Japanese ancestry to internment camps. The reasoning: Because they looked like -- and shared heritage with -- the enemy, they needed to be confined for reasons of national security. Two-thirds of those rounded up were American citizens.

Now, a national traveling exhibit chronicles 10 communities that went against the grain during that turbulent time by extending a helping hand to Japanese Americans.

One of those places was Oberlin, which opened its college, its city, and its collective heart to some students in need. The Courage and Compassion exhibition documenting the college’s attitudes and actions during the war is on display through March 18 in the Richard D. Baron Art Gallery on Oberlin’s campus.

Oberlin Steps Up:

Oberlin College took in about 40 Japanese American students over the course of the war. Many came directly from internment camps.

“Oberlin particularly as a community is one that has long stood up for moral causes and for doing things that they consider right and decent, even when government or the law says this is wrong,” said Renee Romano, a history professor at Oberlin. “And I think one of the things that happened in this community is the recognition Japanese American students were citizens. They were loyal, they were patriotic -- they came here and were welcomed, and then they were defended.”

On Discovering the College’s Connection and Response to Internment:

“Getting into these stories, discovering the connections, finding the documents that allowed us to tell this story has been so exciting,” said Romano. “Being up in the archives and finding the college admission essays, talking to people in conversation and discovering that what they experienced and what their life was like and some of the stories are really, incredibly powerful.”


Preserving History for Future Generations:

“These students deserve to be remembered,” said Mitch Maki, President of Go For Broke National Education Center, which organized the traveling exhibition. “Oberlin College deserves to be remembered and the people of Oberlin who welcomed them deserve to be remembered. It’s not just a great Japanese American story – it’s a great American story. It speaks to the very best of what our nation has to offer. And it speaks to America’s promise that in this nation, no one is to be judged by the color of their skin, the nation of their origin, the god they worship or the person they choose to love. This story represents that.”

Learn More:

Alice Imamoto Takemoto Recalls Her Journey From Relocation Camp To Oberlin Conservatory Student

History and programming schedule for the Courage and Compassion exhibit

Oberlin is the fourth stop for the traveling exhibit. Learn more about the other communities that helped support Japanese Americans during and after WWII.

stephanie.jarvis@ideastream.org | 216-916-6340