Jun 20, 2019

Search under way for internees

Fresno State has embarked on a campaign to award honorary degrees to Japanese-Americans detained during World War II

The university has gathered a preliminary list of 77 names that are potentially eligible for honorary degrees through a new project.

In October, Assembly Bill 37 authorized California colleges to award honorary degrees to Japanese-Americans, living or dead, whose studies were disrupted by internment during World War II.

California State University, Fresno awarded its first honorary degree through the Nisei College Diploma Project on Christmas Eve of last year.

Paul Oliaro, vice president of student affairs and the university liaison for the project, said the focus has been on Japanese-American individuals who were students at Fresno State from the fall of 1941 to the fall of 1942. The eligibility of each person will be decided on a case-by-case basis.

“The goal is to try to be as inclusive as possible for anyone who had suffered the indignity of having to be moved out of their homes, simply because they happen to be Japanese,” Oliaro said.

Many universities have relied on yearbooks and phone directories to identify the students.

The directories in the ‘40s were not very sophisticated, Oliaro said. Fresno State’s was in alphabetical order, but did not contain any ethnic data.

“You can’t just say, ‘Let’s find a query for everyone who marked that they were of Japanese origin,’” Oliaro said. “We weren’t keeping that data back then.”

The Fresno County Public Library has aided in the search for the disrupted students. Bill Secrest Jr., the library’s local historian, said the process is a matter of searching line by line through telephone books, censuses and directories.
“The one thing that makes it easy is Japanese names stand out,” Secrest said.

This phase of the search is standard, he said. The plan is to make a master list using the aforementioned documents and the library’s oral history archive.

“We should be able to identify a high percentage [of the individuals],” Secrest said.

After the individuals are all identified, Oliaro said, the next step is to verify that each person on the list was both a Fresno State student and had his or her education disrupted.

The Japanese-American Citizens League (JACL), a national organization with representation in the Central Valley, has worked with colleges to identify the individuals who were wronged.

Marcia Chung, the district governor of the local JACL, said the honorary degrees would be meaningful, because secondary education was so important to the Japanese people of the time.

“The Nisei project allowing for the honorary degrees would mean [those interned] were accepted,” Chung said.

In 1942, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the uprooting of Japanese-Americans from West Coast communities.

Those uprooted, many of them American citizens, were detained in internment camps in California and several other western states.

Chung said, for those whose educations were postponed or terminated by internment, an honorary degree would create a full circle of completeness.

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