Admission Denied, continued

    However, Carolyn Merion, women’s chair of the Student Cabinet of the Christian Association and editor-in-chief of The Bennett News, was outraged by the rejection. Merion was a friend of Nakano’s and had managed her campaign for junior class president. A dedicated opponent of anti-Semitism and racial prejudice, she had asked Nakano to join her sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi, the previous year to integrate it. Nakano agreed to Merion’s request to serve as a "guinea pig" in a challenge to Penn’s exclusion policy, although she had decided by that time to accept a graduate fellowship at Bryn Mawr.
    Merion organized a group of students from The Bennett News and the Christian Association to discuss Penn’s policy with Dean Williams, who explained that he believed that there was an official Navy exclusion order and that the University had no choice. Accompanied by Dr. George H. Menke, the regional secretary of the Student Christian Association Movement, Merion then met with the University’s provost, George W. McClelland, who insisted that the trustees had decided on the policy after informal conversations with the Navy, and referred all further inquiries to the University’s president, Thomas Sovereign Gates.

    On April 27, 1944, in an editorial headlined "An Issue to Face," Merion expressed her "respect and admiration" for the University’s wartime accomplishments, but deplored the fact that "because of what is said to be an unwritten, unofficial request of the Navy," the University was excluding all people of Japanese ancestry. The editorial did not name Nakano, but stated that an "arbitrary ruling" had precluded an honor student with an outstanding record of leadership and service from attending graduate school at the University: "What good does it afford to talk of postwar ideals, for the future, if our very educational policies now are discriminatory? Why not practice democracy now?"
    Receiving no response from the administration, on May 16 Merion and Walter Speake, the Christian Association’s Men’s Student Cabinet chair, wrote Gates a joint letter protesting the exclusion policy. After Gates failed to reply, Merion published it as part of an editorial in the May 25 issue of The Bennett News, in which she called on the administration to issue a statement justifying its policy and clear up the "fog of confusion" created by its contradictory statements. This also failed to prompt a response. "Bennett News was pretty unimportant," recalls Merion, now a historical writer and researcher in England, "so the University authorities felt, no doubt, that the affair was a pin-prick."
    Merion next put a front-page editorial, "Paging Dr. Gates," in the June 1, 1944 issue of The Bennett News, recounting her attempts to discover who was responsible for the exclusion policy and how Gates and the administration had ignored her efforts. The editorial was to have closed with an appeal to students and faculty members to "go see" President Gates and request an official statement. However, Dr. Arnold Henry, dean of student affairs, insisted that the passage be removed. Merion remembers hearing from a male friend on The Daily Pennsylvanian that a dean had warned him "that that ‘Merion girl’ was a troublemaker."
    Student Christian Association secretary Menke’s attempts to obtain an explanation for the exclusion policy were equally unsuccessful. After several cancelled appointments to meet with the president, on May 16 Menke wrote Gates asking him to name the government agency responsible for ordering exclusion and adding that Nakano’s case would be the subject of a discussion at the next regional student conference.
    On May 20, Gates sent Menke a brief and evasive response in which he stated that Naomi Nakano had accepted a scholarship at Bryn Mawr and presented the issue of exclusion as arising from Nakano’s request to attend certain classes at Penn under an agreement between the two institutions.
    Next, Merion and Menke took their story to the press. On June 2, The Philadelphia Record featured a long article on Penn’s exclusion of Naomi Nakano from graduate school, accompanied by a large photograph of Nakano in a Red Cross uniform. The Record recounted Merion’s and Menke’s fruitless efforts to obtain information and quoted the head of the Navy’s security program, Admiral Randall Jacobs: "I never heard of such a rule—it sounds cockeyed to me." In the article, Nakano, described as an "attractive, dark-eyed, slender brunette," expressed her great disappointment at not being able to continue at Penn, where she had spent four very happy years. "The principle of discrimination hurt me very much. I have lived all my life on the East Coast and haven’t been too much aware of it. This is the first time—the only time, in fact—that it ever touched me."
    The Associated Press picked up the story, and within 24 hours, an abbreviated version had appeared in newspapers throughout the nation, as well as in the military press. It aroused a wave of public indignation—especially as it followed on the heels of a well-publicized incident in which a Nisei war veteran had been driven off a New Jersey farm by bigoted neighbors. Editorials condemning the University’s action appeared in the Record, as well as such papers as The Des Moines Tribune and The Daily News of Dayton, Ohio.
    President Gates received protest letters from all regions of the country. Individual Penn alumni and clubs in New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Cleveland and elsewhere wrote to oppose the exclusion policy. An alumnus in Chicago called it an "ugly, caste-creating, stranger-hating sort of Rassenpolitik" as close to Hitler’s "worst vagaries as it is foreign to democracy."
    Up until that time, Nakano herself had been rather divorced from the controversy. She did not participate in meetings with the administration, and The Bennett News was careful not to reveal her name. "I was pleased that the challenge was carried forth by the Student Christian Movement, and brought to national attention. I knew why they were protesting, and I was happy to provide the test case—that’s how I viewed it," she recalls. Now she was a public figure, dazzled and a bit disturbed by her sudden fame. "I used to do a lot of commuting late at night. I remember being dismayed at seeing my picture in newspapers strewn around trolley cars and in trash cans." She was nonetheless grateful for the letters of sympathy and support she received from high-school friends, American soldiers overseas and interned Japanese Americans. "I was very touched by the letters from people in the camps. I actually received several proposals of marriage from men in the camps who offered to protect me!"
    In the glare of bad publicity, the University backpedaled. On June 2, President Gates stated publicly that the University had only recently learned of a change in government regulations, under which a student and a university could now jointly apply for the student’s clearance, and that it had made such an application on behalf of Naomi Nakano. In fact, the University had known of the provost marshal’s clearance policy at least as early as January 1944. Although the administration had asked Nakano and other Nisei students to fill out and sign security forms at various times, notably a separate questionnaire requested by Naval intelligence in January 1944, no attempt was made to have them complete the form needed for Army clearance until the end of May 1944, well after Carolyn Merion’s first editorial on the exclusion policy. On May 19, one day after Vice-President DuBarry met with Naval intelligence officers to discuss the Nakano situation, he asked Naomi (as well as Hajime Honda EE’44 and Mitsu Yamamoto, the two other Nisei students then enrolled at the University) to make appointments to visit his office, in order to provide "additional information" of an unspecified nature.
    On May 29, Nakano finally visited DuBarry’s office and was asked to provide the information for the Personnel Security Questionnaire used by the Army provost marshal. She returned to sign the typed form on June 1. On June 8, the Army informed the University that it had no objection to Nakano’s continued attendance at Penn. By that time, it was too late—Penn had already been exposed to nationwide criticism for racial bias and Nakano had committed to attending Bryn Mawr.
    Following its embarrassment in the controversy, the University officially opened its doors to Japanese-Americans. In Fall 1944, after receiving clearance from the Army, Penn accepted its first new Nisei students since 1940. Shortly afterwards the Army rescinded its order requiring military clearance for admission of Japanese-Americans.
    Naomi Nakano attended Bryn Mawr in 1944-45. During this time she took an evening course at Penn and frequently visited the campus. After receiving a master’s degree in philosophy from Bryn Mawr, she briefly studied at Columbia University. In 1947, Nakano returned to Penn as an instructor in sociology, thus apparently becoming the first woman instructor at the Wharton School, where the sociology department was then located. She says today that she never felt any hesitation about returning, or bitterness over the wartime events. "I had family ties to Penn. It was my university," she says simply.
    During this period, she also helped found a Philadelphia chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League, a civil-rights group, and served as chapter president. A few years later, she married a Japanese-American professor of architecture at Washington University and moved to St. Louis. Her sister, her daughter and her sister’s son all attended Penn, marking three generations of the Nakano family at the University.

Greg Robinson C’88 is working toward a Ph.D. in American history at New York University. The subject of his dissertation is "Franklin Roosevelt and Japanese-Americans."


previous page | next page

January/February Contents | Gazette Home

Copyright 2000 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 12/23/99