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Advocating for Japanese Americans in 1942

In the midst of the second World War, Chancellor William Tolley made a difficult decision. In doing so, he stood firm in the University's values of “an institution founded in the interest of truth, which knows no sect, no sex, no color, no contrasts.”

Portrait of Frank Watanabe
Frank Watanabe, pictured here in 1943, thought to donate his prize of $100 for most patriotic poster to the Red Cross without any prompting from Chancellor Tolley.

On December 7, 1941, a Japanese fleet attacked the U.S. naval base at Pearl Harbor. More than 2,400 civilians and service members were killed. The attack drew the United States into World War II, drastically changing the everyday lives of Americans in the process. That was especially true for more than 100,000 American-born Japanese people from California, Oregon and Washington state who were involuntarily placed in internment camps under the orders of President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

In January 1943, Syracuse University sponsored a design contest as part of the war effort. A $100 prize for the most patriotic poster was awarded at the 26th Annual ROTC Review. The winning designer, a 22-year-old senior transfer student, approached the dais in front of Carnegie Library to claim his prize. Many of the more than 2,000 Air Force cadets were shocked when they saw the winner, Frank Watanabe, a Japanese American student who was in an internment camp just weeks before the event.

Portrait of former Chancellor William Tolley
Chancellor Tolley, pictured here in 1944, called Watanabe’s donation to the Red Cross, “a beautiful example of tact as well as generosity and thoughtfulness.”

William Tolley, Chancellor of Syracuse University, recalled hearing an audible gasp when cadets saw him handing the prize to someone of Asian descent. But Watanabe’s response settled the potentially raucous crowd. “Mr. Chancellor, it is my pleasure to present this check to the American Red Cross,” Tolley recalled him saying.

The cadets gave Watanabe an ovation as he left the dais, and Tolley credited him for helping to avert any widespread racist backlash.

Welcoming Japanese American Students

In late 1942, Tolley had received a letter from the Quaker-run charity American Friends Service Committee, asking if Syracuse University would be willing to accept American-born Japanese students, known as Nisei. “So I fired back a telegram without telling anybody. ‘We’ll take 100,’” Tolley told The Post-Standard in 1983. “Then I thought, ‘My God, what have I done?’”

Watanabe was the first Japanese American student to arrive at Syracuse University from an internment camp in Idaho. His parents were born in Japan and immigrated to the Seattle area. He was a journalism student who led the way for some 30 interned students to complete their education at Syracuse. Watanabe’s and the other students’ tuition was covered by religious organizations.

Japanese American students arriving on campus had to receive security clearances from the FBI, Army, Air Force, the governor of New York and the mayor of Syracuse. Despite the vigorous vetting, Tolley still worried about how the students would be received. He appealed to the editors of the student-run Daily Orange to hold off on reporting the students’ arrival. The editors agreed and kept their word. Months later, in October 1943, the Syracuse Herald-Journal ran a story about the students’ arrival at Syracuse.

An Advocate for Fair Treatment

Watanabe could have kept a low profile and completed his studies in anonymity. Instead, he became an advocate for the fair treatment of Japanese Americans in America. He spoke at a meeting of the Cooperative Club at the Hotel Syracuse on December 6, 1943, almost exactly two years after the attack on Pearl Harbor.

“We are as American as anyone else,” Watanabe said. “We have the same cultural background, and we like swing, ice cream and baseball, as do all American young people. After Pearl Harbor our future was highly uncertain, and education and careers were interrupted. Now practically all of us who were formerly attending college are back in school again.”

Adhering to University Values

Beyond campus, the reception was chillier. Chancellor Tolley received a phone call from a member of the Veterans of Foreign Wars, accusing him of aiding “the enemy.”

“I told him, ‘I’m a veteran. I’m a patriotic American and I’m also a conservative Republican, but this is a scandal,’ Tolley recalled in 1983. “He was very respectful by the time we got through. He found I felt very strongly about it.”

People recognized the risk Tolley took in welcoming Japanese American students, but he stood firm to the principles on which Syracuse University was founded. Since 1870, Syracuse has accepted all people regardless of their race, ethnicity or national origin.

Syracuse University “was pretty close to the only university in the country willing to accept Japanese American students who were being held in camps,” said David Tatham, professor emeritus of fine arts, in 1990. “Chancellor Tolley took great pride in that. That was a symbol for how he valued human beings and human relationships. It remained consistent throughout his chancellorship. A person’s color or political background or what others thought of them made no difference. If they were committed to learning, there was no reason to bar them from attending Syracuse University.”

Remembering Tolley’s Altruism

Watanabe completed his Syracuse education in 1944, went on to become a minister and worked with college students in Hawaii. When asked in 1983 about the poster he designed, he couldn’t remember what it looked like. But he did remember Chancellor Tolley’s altruism.

“My stay at Syracuse greatly influenced my vocation. If you talk to the Chancellor, thank him for putting his neck out,” said Watanabe, who passed away in 2000.

Brandon Dyer

This story was published on .

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