THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Multiracial pacifist and activist, Yone Stafford

One of the more pleasant aspects of doing “The Great Unknown” is the responses that I get to my columns from readers, including friends and family members of the people whom I write about. They not only offer praise but provide additional information and inspire further work.

Not long ago I did a column about the late Hisaye Yamamoto, in the course of which I mentioned Yoné U. Stafford, who was a warm friend and political collaborator of Yamamoto’s — and who seems to have served as a model for her. Readers have since asked me about Stafford and her career. I still lack anything like a complete picture of this versatile Nisei activist, whose writing covered a multitude of fields. However, it seemed useful to make a first attempt to piece together some of her contributions, with the added hope that readers will be able to assist me in fleshing out more of the picture.

Yone Ko (or Yone-Ko) Ushikubo was born on July 24, 1902. She was a rare native-born Nisei New Yorker. Her father Daijiro was a Japanese importer (the 1920 census also listed him as an art dealer) who had come to the United States in 1888 and settled on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Like many Issei businessmen outside the West Coast, he took a white American wife.

Louisa Ushikubo was the daughter of German immigrants to the United States. Yoné was their only child. The family traveled back and forth to Japan several times in Yoné’s early years. In 1918, Yoné was sent by her parents to Japan, and lived there for two years, attending the Sacred Heart Academy, before returning to the United States. Sometime in the early 1930s, Yoné married another New Yorker, Bradley Stafford, and moved with him to Springfield, Mass. (on her return from a visit to Japan in early 1937, she was listed on a passenger list as Yone Ushikubo Stafford). Bradley would later run a paper factory.

Yoné was long attracted to social reform (she later recalled that while staying in Kyoto in 1924 she was inspired by a book of religious reformer Robert Ingersoll’s speeches, which she read because there were few English-language works available). Some time in these years she joined the Socialist Party. It is likely that, like other Nisei such as Kiyoshi Hamanaka and Sam Hohri, she was also drawn to the Socialists by pacifism, since the Party followed an antiwar platform in the period before Pearl Harbor, and she also became involved in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Both Staffords also were active in the local branch of the America First Committee, the isolationist group, which opposed all intervention in Europe’s wars.

Although as an Easterner Yoné was exempt from Executive Order 9066 following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, she reacted strongly and immediately to what she termed the “atrocity.” First, she sought to influence public opinion against the action by writing protest letters to newspapers. The Springfield Republican refused to publish any of her letters, though she did have a letter published in the Springfield Union.

Meanwhile, she wrote several letters to the Wisconsin-based weekly The Progressive (under the name Mrs. Bradley Stafford), in hopes of persuading its editors and readers to pay more attention to the treatment of Japanese Americans. Several pro-Japanese American letters from writers in neighboring towns soon began to appear in The Progressive letter’s column as well, a fact that suggests Yoné had a hand in organizing the authors.

Yoné’s challenge to official policy caused a local weekly to undertake a “smear” campaign against her, and locals regularly reported on her to the authorities (a government worker told her that she was known around the post office as “The FBI’s sweetheart” because of all the letters sent about her). It also brought considerable strain in her marriage, especially when the president of Bradley Stafford’s company threatened to discharge him if Yoné continued writing letters. She eventually offered to leave her husband rather than give up her struggle. Instead the Staffords compromised, and Yoné continued her letters to newspapers but signed them under the pseudonym “America” (the Japanese kanji for which was identical with that for “Yoné”).

Less controversially, Yoné worked with the WILPF and the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) during 1942 to collect a 250-pound shipment of clothing and blankets, which were sent to the Heart Mountain, Wyo. camp. She also agreed to help sponsor resettlers, and when two young Nisei women were authorized to leave camp and settle in Springfield, Yoné labored to provide them assistance. She was outraged when the discriminatory treatment the two resettlers experienced from townspeople led them to leave.

Yoné complained of widespread prejudice in the town, in spite of its “Springfield Plan” for race relations. Similarly, Yoné struck up a friendship with writer Hisaye Yamamoto after she and a brother moved to Springfield. While Yamamoto was soon forced by family needs to return to camp, the friendship between the two women remained strong.

In 1945, after the government finally allowed confined Japanese Americans to return to the West Coast, the War Relocation Authority announced that the camps would be closed at the end of the year and began reducing services in the camps. Yoné was furious over the WRA’s policy of forcing destitute Japanese Americans to vacate the camps and resettle in hostile surroundings. Since the United States was busy educating Germans and Japanese in the ways of democracy, she snapped, perhaps they could “spare a few gauleiters for our Department of the Interior and the War Relocation Authority?”

During the postwar years, in the shadow of the atomic bombing of Japan, Yoné returned to her primary interest in pacifism. Hisaye Yamamoto, who had taken a position as columnist with the African American newspaper Los Angeles Tribune, recruited Yoné to write guest columns. In a 1947 column (written under the pseudonym “H. Nagasaki”) she deplored the movement for peacetime military conscription.

In 1948 Yamamoto left the Tribune, and Yoné was engaged to replace her. Yoné’s column, entitled “I Go Crying Peace, Peace” ran off and on for the next few years. She also published letters in Christian Century and other journals.

In 1953 Yoné wrote to TIME magazine that U.S. Sen. Margaret Chase Smith’s proposal to use the atomic bomb in the Korean War “made me ashamed for my sex.” She likewise became involved with Dorothy Day’s Catholic Worker movement, and inspired Hisaye Yamamoto to join as well. When Yamamoto moved to the CW’s collective farm in Staten Island, N.Y., she wrote Stafford, “You are really the reason I am here, Yone.”

In the 1960s, she was on the national committee of the War Resisters League. Her political activism remained tied up with her prewar isolationism and her feelings about Japan, as well as her continued outrage over the treatment of Japanese Americans. These feelings appeared when in 1973 she wrote a letter to the conservative Chicago Tribune to complain (with some exaggeration and inaccuracy) that she was sick of hearing about President Richard Nixon and Watergate. “We have been conditioned to so much worse under former presidents, beginning with FDR, who gave away 50 destroyers without a ‘By Your Leave,’ imprisoned and impoverished citizens because of their race, and dropped atomic bombs on people already beaten.”

The next year, she deplored an environmentalist proposal to boycott Japan because of its fishermen killing whales. “We should mind our own business and stop telling other nations what to do.”

Yoné died in West Chatham in 1981, nine years before her husband.

Greg Robinson, Ph.D., the author of “By Order of the President: FDR and the Internment of Japanese Americans” and “A Tragedy of Democracy: Japanese Confinement in North America,” is an associate professor of history at the Universite du Quebec a Montreal. He can be reached via e-mail at robinson.greg@uqam.ca.

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