The Nisei Experience at Park College
Masaye Nagao Nakamura, ’45: Park Revisited

Masaye Nagao Nakamura, ’45 presented the following speech on September 25, 2002 in commemoration of the 60th Anniversary of the Nisei (pronounced knee-say) program at Park University.

President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s signing of Executive Order 9066 put into motion the removal and uprooting of almost 120,000 Japanese Americans and resident aliens of Japanese descent from their homes and communities in Washington, Oregon, California, and parts of Arizona. Two thirds of them were American citizens. They were first sent to Assembly Centers (race tracks and fairgrounds) until the permanent camps were built in 10 desolate areas of the country.

There are 120,000 stories that can be told about the experiences of the evacuees: some tragic, some heroic, some inspiring, some incredibly sad, some bitter and angry, some showing great resolve and courage —all running the gamut of human experiences. We learned of a few of these stories when we viewed the powerful and informative films, “Rabbit in the Moon” and “Children of the Detention Camps”. Mine is just one story among these thousands.

Masaye Nagao Nakamura, '45, with fellow Nisei students and friends, circa 1942.
Masaye is the second from the right in the light-colored coat.

Our family was sent to Santa Anita Assembly Center, a racetrack outside of Los Angeles. There were almost 20,000 internees there. The first arrivals had to live in horse stalls and no matter how hard they worked to whitewash and clean the stalls, they could not erase the smell or evidence of the former occupants. We were fortunate to be able to live in a unit in a hastily-built black tar papered barrack, a space barely large enough to house my parents and four children. We were also fortunate that we were not split up as many families were.

My story is of the period after I left the Assembly Center.

Before the family was moved to Heart Mountain Relocation Camp in Wyoming, I was able to leave the Assembly Center for Park College. Several schools in the Midwest had offered to admit students out of the camps so they could continue their college education. Dr. William Lindsay Young was among the first to open his college for these students. Dr. Young had been in Los Angeles when the evacuation was taking place. He was aghast when he discovered that students had to drop out of the colleges and universities to be evacuated. He decided then and there that he would do everything possible to admit some of these students to Park College.

My friends and others in the camp had come by all morning to wish me luck and to give me encouragement. I had mixed emotions about leaving the family. I knew that this was going to be a new and challenging experience and I was feeling a little apprehensive, yet very excited at the prospect of leaving the confines of the camp to go to college.

An army truck rolled up to our barrack with three armed soldiers. I was told to get up in the back of the truck with my suitcase. Two of the soldiers hopped up, one on either side of me, with their rifles propped up next to them. The third drove the truck and we went out through the gate, out into the world outside of the barbed wire and watchtowers, through the streets of Los Angeles to Union Station. As we were going through the streets, I could see people pointing and staring. When we arrived at the station, I was handed over to the stationmaster who took me to the train, which had apparently been waiting and held up for my arrival. When he directed me into the car I noticed that all the seats were taken. When I mentioned this to him he said that I should sit on my suitcase in the front of the car where there was a little room and wait until a seat opened up.

I think the passengers had been informed as to why the train had been held up and that I was to be aboard. I could hear the whispers of “Jap, Jap” and everyone watched as I walked through the car. The air was tense with hate and for the first time I realized the extent of how propaganda and war hysteria had fostered this negative feeling against us. I wondered if I had made a terrible mistake leaving the camp.

Shortly after the train began to move I saw the conductor enter the car. I was the first to be approached and as I held up my ticket he snatched it out of my hand and spit on me. There were gasps from some of the others on the car but there was complete silence as he moved on. I was so stunned and shocked that when the spit began to trickle down my cheek I couldn’t even move my hand to wipe it away. I felt so humiliated, ashamed, frightened, dirty and alone to think that someone would hate me so much as to spit on me. I wanted a hole to open up and swallow me but all I could do was to sit there, stiff, hurt, and bewildered. Then, I began to make excuses for him. Perhaps he had lost a son or a loved one in the war. Perhaps he really thought that I was an enemy.

Seats opened up but I did not move, I couldn’t. After what felt like an eternity, a young couple boarded a few stops from Kansas City where I was to get off. They glanced at me but I hardly noticed them. After a few minutes I felt a hand on my shoulder and as I looked up I saw the kindest look on the face of this young woman. She said, “Why don’t you come and sit with us? There’s room on the seat facing us.’’ It was the first sign of kindness that I had experienced on the train and it was like a gift from heaven. I almost missed the stop at Kansas City. I sat with the couple and we began to talk about my reason for being on the train and how I was going to continue my college education. When the train had been in the Kansas City station for a while, they reminded me that I should get off.

President Young and Art Kamitsuka, an earlier Nisei student arrival, were craning their necks, looking very relieved when they saw me coming up the ramp. They greeted me warmly and were so sincere and genuine in their welcome that I almost forgot the ugly incident on the train.

However, President Young said, “The students and faculty at Park are so happy that you are going to be at Park. We will try very hard to make you feel welcome. But the townspeople of Parkville do not feel the same way. Ever since our decision to accept Japanese American students from the camps the townspeople have waged war against our decision. The newspapers are calling it the Park College/Parkville War. Park has been steadfast in refusing to succumb to their threats. We believe that the evacuation order was wrong and that your civil rights were denied and as Americans you are entitled to a college education. Promise me one thing. When and if you go into town, please have other students escort you. Some of the townspeople have made threats to lynch you and harm you if you go into town but they will not harm you if you are with others.” So I promised and thus started my life at Park College.

Being at Park College was wonderful. After having to sleep on a hard cot at camp I was to share a room with a real bed with a great roommate. The campus and surrounding area were so beautiful. I was able to participate in all the usual college activities and the academic program was excellent. Everyone made me feel so welcome.

After more than a month into the semester I found that I had to go to the post office for some stamps. I had been writing to my mother almost every other day to tell her about my activities and the wonderful time I was having at Park. I never told her about the incident on the train for it would have added to her anxieties and the family had enough to cope with in the camp.

My roommate was in class. There was no one else on the floor at that time. Prior to this I had always asked my roommate and several other dorm students to accompany me and to purchase items for me. Whenever I had to do this I felt that there were still barriers and that I was not completely free. Without thinking of the consequences of my actions, I decided to go down to the post office without an escort.

As I walked down and neared the bridge, I noticed two young men sitting on the bridge wall. They were looking up and I knew that they had seen me. My heart began to pound and I thought of turning around but my pride wouldn’t let me. I didn’t want them to know that I was afraid. But I was. I felt that I could hardly move my feet but I kept on going, picturing myself with a noose around my neck and swinging from a tree limb. On the other hand I thought, No, they wouldn’t harm me. I’ll pass them, say “hi” and walk on. I don’t know whether I spoke or not because by the time I passed them my heart was pounding so hard and my knees felt so weak and I was so scared that I could hardly breathe. I passed them and then heard footsteps behind me as I walked to the post office. I heard them follow me in. By then there were quite a few others who had joined them. I walked up to the window and to my amazement I heard myself say, “May I have some stamps please. I want to send a letter to my mother and I ran out of stamps.” The lady behind the window looked at me with her mouth open. She said, “You speak English.?”

“Of course. That’s the only language I know. I’m an American just like you. Just because I look like our enemy doesn’t make me less of an American. All Americans, except Native Americans, have their roots in other lands. My roots are with a land that happens to be our enemy now. But America is my country and my country’s enemies are my enemies.”

She was speechless for a while but when I paid for my stamps and turned to leave I believe I heard her say in a very soft voice, “Thank you. Come again.”

The crowd parted and I walked through the room, out the door, crossed the bridge, up the hill and back to the dorm where I plopped down on my bed, emotionally and physically drained and exhausted. But I was alive! I wasn’t swinging from a tree.

After a few minutes there was a knock on the door and my housemother told me that Dr. Young wanted to see me. I thought to myself. News certainly travels fast! But for the first time I began to realize how foolish and selfish I had been.

Dr. Young was very upset and angry. He said that he and all the Park College staff and students were responsible for my safety and well-being and that if something had happened to me, he would never be able to forgive himself. I realized that I had been very selfish, only thinking of myself and not realizing how my actions would affect him or others at the college. I explained why I had taken such a foolish action and apologized for my immaturity and selfishness. I was willing to take any punishment he could give me.

President William Lindsay Young

What a wonderful person Dr. Young was! He was angry and upset but he put his arms around me and told me that he understood how I had felt. He even said that if he had been in my shoes he would have probably done the same thing. He was relieved and happy that I was unscathed and he felt that perhaps some of the townspeople would be able to rethink their feelings towards us. His punishment was that I was to be grounded for a month, not participate in any social events or activities outside of academic work and to always go down to the town with others. It was really very mild punishment for the anxiety I had caused him, and I was quite relieved and thankful. In fact, my grades for that month really improved since I had to concentrate on my studies.

I will be forever grateful for Dr. Young and his courage and determination to accept the Nisei students from the camps despite great opposition. His steadfast stand and his commitment to democratic principles allowed us to continue our education and helped us to achieve our dreams. My years at Park were some of the happiest and most rewarding years of my life.

Sixty years after I first came to Park University I have come back to a historic convocation that commemorates the acceptance of the students from the camp. The warm welcome that I have received has filled my heart with appreciation and gratitude. Thank you for your kindness and wonderful hospitality. I want to extend special thanks to Dr. Beverley Byers-Pevitts, Dr. Tim Westcott, Jeff Gardner, Julie McCollum, Ann Schultis, Dr. Michael Droge, Jason Richards, as well as alumni Ruth Simms Miksovic, Elizabeth Wolfe Elser and her husband Frank, and Aubrey Berlin Frair and her husband Paul who made special efforts and traveled long distances to be here for this special occasion. Thank you all. I was disappointed and sad when I realized that the eight other students who arrived at Park College sixty years ago could not be with us. However, I am certain that they are here with us in spirit.

Thank you for allowing me to tell my story.

 President Willaim Lindsay Young's family visits Park University