Founded in 1917 as an affiliated organization of the Religious Society of Friends (the Quakers), the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) worked for peace and social justice in the United States and world. During World War I, the AFSC assisted conscientious objectors with the draft, and provided them with spiritual guidance and support. The AFSC helped in the European relief effort, collecting clothes, food, and supplies for displaced and impoverished persons as a consequence of the war. From its headquarters in Philadelphia, the AFSC shipped materials to France, and after the war, worked in Austria, Germany, Poland, and Russia setting up kitchens to feed the hungry and assisting with orphans and victims of famine and disease.
During World War II, the AFSC helped refugees escape from Nazi Germany, and provided relief to children and refugees from Spain and France. The AFSC took up the cause of Japanese American education on May 5, 1942, when Milton Eisenhower, director of the War Relocation Authority (WRA), asked the AFSC's executive secretary, Clarence Pickett, to build a national program for the relocation of nisei students. The AFSC was already involved in supporting Japanese American students on the West Coast, so Pickett readily accepted the challenge.
The program had wide support. Even assistant secretary of war, John McCloy, an ardent defender of the mass removal and detention, wrote to Pickett after Eisenhower informed him of the project of nisei student relocation. “I take great pleasure in advising you that I am in complete sympathy with the suggestions made by Mr. Eisenhower in his letter to you,” declared McCloy. “Anything that can legitimately be done to compensate loyal citizens of Japanese ancestry for the dislocation to which they have been subjected, by reason of military necessity, has our full approval. In particular,” McCloy continued, “the suggestion for the establishment of a committee of distinguished educators to work out a program of university
education in other parts of the country for Japanese-American citizens evacuated from the Pacific Coast meets with my hearty approval” (Okihiro, 37).
With that assurance, Pickett invited prominent educators, church leaders, and representatives from the Young Men's Christian Association (YMCA) and Young Women's Christian Association (YWCA), the AFSC, and Japanese American Citizens League to a meeting in Chicago on May 29, 1942. In all, 46 attended the meeting. The members, according to a digest of the proceedings, were told there were some 2,300 college and university students in the WRA concentration camps, about two-thirds men and one-third women, and that these were “among the best students in the colleges they have left” (Okihiro, 37). Because their forced removal and confinement had been “a terrific wrench,” it was important these students be informed of an orderly procedure that might make it possible for them to obtain permits to attend institutions outside the restricted areas. The Chicago meeting ended by establishing the National Student Relocation Council headed by Robbins Barstow, president of Hartford Seminary. In March 1943, the council was renamed the National Japanese American Student Relocation Council, and was moved from San Francisco to Philadelphia.
The AFSC and Student Relocation Council maintained close ties. Key figures in the Student Relocation Council were Quakers and members of the AFSC, and AFSC regional chapters performed the work of the Student Relocation Council in their areas of the country. Staffers in Philadelphia corresponded with colleges and universities, advised Japanese American students in the camps and on campuses, and left for the field to recruit college students in the WRA concentration camps and resolve problems in communities in which those students were placed. AFSC branches, like its Midwest branch, led coalitions of churches, government agencies, private charities, the YMCA and YWCA, and nisei volunteers to place and support Japanese American students in their areas. Those students needed help with transportation from the camps to the campuses, housing, employment and financial advice, and personal counseling.
An example was the AFSC's Marjorie Hyer, peace section secretary for the AFSC's Middle Atlantic states. Hyer visited colleges in her region to solicit their interest in accepting nisei students, and reported her findings to the Student Relocation Council. Thomas Bodine attended Quaker schools, and in 1941 he received a draft deferment to work with the AFSC in Philadelphia. When the war broke out, the AFSC sent Bodine to Seattle to help Japanese Americans who were being arrested, placed under curfew, and excluded from restricted zones. In June 1942, the AFSC dispatched him to San Francisco to work on nisei student relocation. Bodine eventually became the West Coast director, and he followed the office when it moved to Philadelphia in March 1943. He visited the concentration camps to recruit students, and wrote from a camp to the Friends (Quakers) of his Germantown, Pennsylvania, meeting in May 1943. “Outside my window I can see the barbed wire fence and the armed guards sitting up in the watch towers…. I sense the evacuee's feelings of confinement, his feeling of being locked up without trial when he has committed no crime, the feeling that his country—his America—no longer considers him American. These feelings hurt. I feel for the older people, all
of whom came to America more than 20 years ago…. These older people lived here most of their lives. They have loved America. They have helped build America. And like so many other immigrants, they have watched their children become real Americans.” It “hurts,” he continued, to talk to college-age youth who are uncertain about their future. “It hurts to be here …” (Okihiro, 131–32).
The American Friends Service Committee and especially Quakers played a central role in enabling thousands of Japanese American students to continue their education in the midst of wartime and the concentration camps.
Okihiro, Gary Y. Storied Lives: Japanese American Students and World War II. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1999.