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Civility and Disobedience

I do not for a moment believe that my Agincourt is bluer than where you live; that the ratio of civil disobedients constitutes a higher percentage of the population than other parts of America. As a small town in a rural state during the 50s and 60s—predominantly White and certainly Republican, though in an Eisenhower-ish way that would hardly be recognized or respectable today—Agincourt struggled with racial equality and civil rights. Same-sex marriage is possible there today only because the state Supreme Court said so; not from any grass roots movement or secularist tendencies. That would be too much to hope.

I wonder about those and other decades of strife and hope that its citizens somehow found consensus; that they resolved to move in the direction I think of as “forward”. You may not share that hope.

After all it is in the 4th Congressional District represented by Steve King.

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Is it possible to balance civility and disobedience when you can look into the face of “the other” and see your friends and neighbors?

When FDR issued Executive Order 9066 on February 19th, 1942—barely two months after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor—I wonder how Archers reacted. [That’s what residents of Agincourt call themselves. Hell, it’s better than being a “Tampan” from Tampa.] If the enemy is the other, and the other lives predominantly on the West Coast, how might Agincourt have responded when E.O.9066 affected one of its own?

The shameful story of Japanese internment is a blot on American history. Why do I think it will be purged by the Texas board that selects school textbooks.

Gordon Olschlager wrote internment into the history of the 1966 Fennimore county courthouse competition, and I’ve wanted to carry the story a little farther. His character had been a Californian and the camp where her brother died was also in California or Arizona—I forget which. Could the story be brought more directly to Iowa, I wondered.

Iowa had two internment camps—in Clarinda and Algona—for prisoners of war, mostly captured Germans. I haven’t verified that Japanese were held there as well. Remember that the Germans were captured soldiers, not American citizens. Our national shame lies in the fact that American citizens of Japanese ancestry were taken into custody, their property confiscated, and their lives interrupted for as many as four years. Neither German-Americans nor Italian-Americans received such treatment. So, I did a quick survey of the 1930 census to gauge how many ethnic Japanese resided in Iowa. Not many, it turns out; perhaps no more than a dozen. And I do not know how E.O. 9066 may have affected them. Were they, too, shipped off to Anzanar?

Racial stereotypes might suggest that all Japanese in the early years of the 20th century were gardeners. In iowa in 1930, however, they were domestic servants, chefs and a stenographer in a law office. With that sketchy beginning, here is my story of civility and disobedience.

Tadao Ito (忠雄伊藤)

Tadao Ito’s parents had emigrated from Japan to our West Coast in the 1890s; he was born there in 1903. Orphaned by the 1906 earthquake and fire, however, Tadao was raised by relatives, agricultural workers in the San Joaquin River Valley. After high school, he began working for the Union Pacific railroad, first as a baggage handler on the mainline between Oakland and Omaha, and then rising through the pecking order, first as an attendant in Pullman cars, and then serving compartments where the work load  lightened and the tips improved. Despite a spotless work record, however, the Great Depression compounded a dislocated shoulder and found him without a job in the Fall of 1936. The pink slip came in Omaha, where thankfully he knew a few people who took him in and helped with part-time work.

That November, Mr Ito had a reason to give thanks. As luck would have it (happily, Agincourt’s curator gets to predict when “luck”  happens), there was an opening for night manager at The Blenheim, our upscale hostelry, which a friend had heard about and conjured letters of abject admiration. Abilities to organize, to manage, complemented by quiet reserve made him popular. But, let’s face it, how many folks get to meet the night clerk? Ito wasn’t exactly invisible—most of his guests were from somewhere else!—so when Executive Order 9066 came in the wake of Pearl Harbor, just a few understood what it might mean for Agincourt’s sole Japanese citizen.

The story of Agincourt’s civility in the face of injustice is forming in my mind. But I do know it will be easiest for Tadao Ito to hide in plain sight.


1 Comment

  1. […] county courthouse he designed, I wanted to say more about that period but seen from another side. Tadao Ito’s story was that vehicle, but I wonder if other stories remain to be told; other echoes from the wagamama […]

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