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For Japanese Americans, Housing Injustices Outlived Internment

On the second weekend of May 1946, more than 500 Japanese-Americans arrived at a dusty, ripped-up corner of Los Angeles County adjacent to a Lockheed Corporation bomber factory. Their bags were unloaded and piled next to bulldozers still planing the dirt outside their new homes, a cobbled-together assortment of used federal housing trailers in glistening silver and bland shades of green.

As the children — who made up nearly two-thirds of the new tenants — played, their parents and grandparents inspected the homes of the new Winona trailer camp. Fewer than a fifth of the trailers had working stoves, and those that did were in such disrepair that four fires ignited in one day. Broken windows and unlockable doors were common. The only phone was protected by a guard whose stated duty was to secure only the property of the site’s contractors, not its residents. There was no food, electricity or heat. Toilets were housed in a communal building, and not connected to the sewer.

“The trailers were so filthy that an animal should not have been expected to live in them,” said Seldon Martin, a Social Security Board official responsible for overseeing the well-being of the occupants, after visiting the camp. “Undoubtedly it was worse than any housing the Japanese had to put up with during evacuation.”

A year earlier, those same people had sat in internment camps across the American West. As they searched for their bags in the trailer camp a year later, county officials scrambled around them to arrange meals from a nearby tuberculosis sanitarium. Similar situations played out up and down the West Coast, as tens of thousands of Japanese-Americans returned after more than three years of incarceration. But they weren’t returning to the world they left.

After President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 paved the way for their removal, Japanese-Americans sold their homes, farms and businesses, often for pennies on the dollar. While incarcerated they worked menial jobs for $12 or $16 or $19 a month — hardly enough to survive on, let alone save for a new beginning. Unable to return to their farms — restrictive covenants and alien land laws often banned Japanese-Americans and their Japanese parents — many who worked on or owned strawberry or lettuce fields before the war moved to Los Angeles and became gardeners, trying to settle into an urban life for the first time in their lives.

Los Angeles, which was home to the largest ethnically Japanese community in North America before the war, was changing, too. The War Relocation Authority, the federal agency tasked with operating the 10 internment camps, worked to empty those camps as quickly as possible following Roosevelt’s closure order in December 1944. The W.R.A. shuttered almost all the camps in the fall of 1945. (One camp, Tule Lake, remained open until March 1946 to house “disloyal” incarcerees.) Each internee received $25 and a train ticket to wherever they wanted to go.

Housing was strained to the seams across the United States, but the situation in Los Angeles, described by one official in October 1945 as “full of dynamite,” was especially dire. More than 1.3 million people — roughly one out of every 100 Americans — moved to California between 1940 and 1944. The California State Reconstruction and Reemployment Commission estimated that 625,000 new homes would need to be built to accommodate the growth in the five years following the war, including 280,000 in Los Angeles County alone. During the war, Little Tokyo first became a ghost town, then swelled with Southern Black workers arriving for defense jobs; for three years Little Tokyo was known as Bronzeville. It was into this chaos that the W.R.A. planned to unload 1,200 incarcerees each week that fall.

Read entire article at New York Times