|by Mabel Miyasaki|
When Japan bombed Pearl Harbor in 1941, there were 17 people of Japanese ancestry living in Baltimore, and four of us were children. My family had settled in Hampden, on Gilman Terrace.
Since the whole West Coast was in a state of panic, all the Japanese-Americans there were evicted from their homes and hauled off, with one suitcase apiece, to live in old converted horse stables until enough prison barracks could be built in the desert to house them permanently. My grandparentsa Buddhist priest and school principal in Hawaiiwere immediately shipped off to a similar camp in Arkansas.
The FBI and the U.S. Army investigated our family in Baltimore and searched the contents of every box and item in our house, including the pots and pans. While agents snooped, a few apologized to my mother for violating her civil rights, but their jobs were also on the line.
We were in limbo. The bank was no longer allowed to cash my father's paycheck, so our milk delivery man offered to cash it for us. The Post Office refused to deliver our letters, so our neighbors gave us our mail after hours, under cover of darkness.
What my parents suspected, but never knew for sure, was the very real danger we were in. I never knew the rest of this story until four years ago, when one of the Hampden neighbors and I chatted after my mother's funeral. I have been pursuing the story ever since.
You see, the FBI and the U.S. Army were determined to ship the Miyasaki family off to join those other "bad Japs" in the barbed-wire barracks out West, but our white neighbors were equally determined to protect us. They kept telling the FBI that we were "better Americans than most Americans," and refused to sit by and let the government railroad us out of town just because we were the wrong color and had the wrong last name.
Then the Feds discovered the one person who knew us best: our nine-year-old neighbor and baby-sitter, Peggy Leslie. Month after month they questioned Peggy about us. Her mother was forced to sit in the next room, silent and livid. But Peggy kept telling the truth and not what the FBI man wanted to hear. It drove him nuts. What he didn't know was that no one can make a nine-year-old do anything that she doesn't want to do. Peggy knew right from wrong, and she would not lie. Finally, disgusted, the man went away. We had been saved by a nine-year-old and all those wonderful neighbors. We were free to live in our own home in Hampden.
Our neighbors never claimed credit for their good deed. They saw no need to make my parents feel obligated. They just did what they thought Mother and Daddy would have done for them, had circumstances been reversed. They believed that it was just common decency. That's why they never spoke about it afterwards. This is why I love Baltimore, and why I love Hampden.
On the other hand, my friend, M.K., living in a more upscale part of town, had an entirely different experience because she was already in elementary school and was using public transportation when the war broke out. That solitary little Japanese-American girl had adults on the bus spitting in her face, and schoolmates smashing rocks on her head.
Racism was easier to see back then. Baltimore was segregated.separate and very unequal. I would often read articles in the Baltimore Sun about the latest lynching or tar-and-feathering on the Eastern Shore or in Virginia and the Deep South. We were careful where we went, and we were very carefully taught.
After World War II, Orientals from the West Coast, Hawaii, India and the Philippines began to attend Goucher, Hopkins, Maryland, and the Naval Academy, and for years they spent weekends and holidays at our house. It helped keep their homesickness at bay.
Housing, however, was a problem for the music students at Peabody, because they were all darkly tanned kids from Hawaii, and Peabody had no dorms. Before I knew it, they had moved in with us. They were always practicing, and it might be classical music for an exam tomorrow, or jazz and be-bop routines for Saturday night gigs at the downtown clubs. The music was all mixed up all the time, and when you live in a rowhouse, three pianos, a clarinet, a saxophone and a trombone all doing their own thing at the same time can make a lot of noise, but our Hampden neighbors never complained.