Monday 28 September 2015

Dear Miss Breed Letters Shed Light on Japanese Internment Camp

"I was overwhelmed with joy to hear from you."
(Japanese-American internee)

Clara Estelle Breed, city librarian at the East San Diego Library, took a liking to the Japanese-American children who borrowed books.  Every week, they frequented the library, smiles on their faces.  But that all changed after Pearl Harbor.  In 1942, after President Roosevelt announced the interment of 120,000 Japanese Americans, the faces of these children became sullen.  Miss Breed decided to make a difference.

On the day that the San Francisco children accompanied their parents to the train station to travel to the camp, Miss Breed was there.  She handed out stamped, addressed postcards and asked the children to write to her about life in the camp.  Dozens of children took her up on the offer.  She received 250 letters, including one that opened:  "I was overwhelmed with joy to hear from you."  The letter continued:  "Now to answer [your questions] -- yes, we do have chairs and tables.  Father made them out of scraps of wood...But we do not have mattresses.  We use some our blankets as mattresses." (

The librarian was determined to make life more pleasant for the Japanese-American internees.  She visited the children in the camp, loaded down with reading materials and personal items like soap and toothpaste.  In 1943, Miss Breed also wrote articles protesting the treatment of the Japanese Americans, including "All But Blind" in the Library Journal, and "Americans With the Wrong Ancestors" in the Hornbook Magazine.

Miss Breed passed her collection of letters on to one of her former penpals, Elizabeth Yamada, who in turn donated the letters to the Japanese American National Museum.  

Note:  For more information, read Joanne Oppenheim's book Dear Miss Breed.

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