THE GREAT UNKNOWN AND THE UNKNOWN GREAT: Nisei exclusion at Penn (Pt. 2 of 3)


Editor’s Note: Part of this piece was previously published as ‘Admission Denied,’ in the Pennsylvania Gazette, January-February 2000 issue.

In the spring of 1944, the University of Pennsylvania’s blanket policy excluding Japanese Americans rebounded strongly against it after Naomi Nakano, a senior majoring in philosophy in the College for Women, applied for admission to the graduate school.

Nakano, born in 1921, was a Philadelphia-area native who grew up in the only Japanese American family in the suburb of Ridley Park. Her father, Yosuke “Nick” Nakano, was a distinguished Penn alumnus who had emigrated from Japan to the United States at age 19, and worked his way through college. After receiving a master’s degree from Penn’s architecture school in 1916, he joined the firm of Wark and Company.

During the 1920s and 1930s, he helped construct a significant chunk of Philadelphia’s skyline, including the Sun Oil Building, Presbyterian Hospital, and the Bell Telephone buildings (and according to one source, the Christian Association building on Penn’s campus — today the home of Penn’s Asian American Student Center!) Nakano was so greatly respected by building-industry giant Edward Budd that, during World War II, Budd insisted he be granted a security clearance for defense work, even though he was an enemy alien, and Nakano supervised the Budd Company’s construction of a quartermaster depot in Philadelphia.

BARRED FROM EDUCATION — A portrait of Naomi Nakano, barred from enrolling in post-graduate courses at Penn because she was of Japanese descent, in nursing uniform. image courtesy of Greg Robinson

Naomi Nakano, the elder of two daughters, entered Penn in 1940 (while she was granted a scholarship for academic excellence, her affluent father nevertheless insisted on donating the price of her tuition). A brilliant student, Nakano was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa in her junior year. In addition, she was involved in a wide variety of student activities at Penn. For example, she worked as a Red Cross volunteer, went out for the women’s hockey team, and served as associate editor of The Bennett News, the Women’s College weekly. She was especially active in the Student Christian Association Movement, under whose auspices she toured campuses along the East Coast, propagandizing for admission of Nisei students. In her senior year, Nakano became vice chair of the Movement’s Middle Atlantic regional council.

In tribute to both her accomplishments and her warm personality, in 1942 Nakano was elected president of her junior class, and as a senior became president of the Women’s Student Government Association.

Nakano later spoke fondly of her student days at Penn. “There were some good restaurants around campus. My favorite was called the Lido. I made friends through the Christian Association, which was a center for socially minded students, and through other student activities.” She added that she never felt any hostility as a Japanese American during the war from other students or faculty. “There was no prejudice, although there was one woman librarian at Penn who panicked after Pearl Harbor and wanted to deny me access to the library — until cooler heads prevailed,” she recalled. “Actually, I felt more the discrimination against women students. For instance, in those days the men had the student union at Houston Hall to themselves! Women were restricted to the basement, which was where the campus bookstore was.”

In early 1944, Nakano filed an application to the graduate school. The philosophy department voted to recommend her for a scholarship, which was then approved by the Graduate Council. Soon after, however, the dean of the graduate school, Dr. Edwin P. Williams, summoned Nakano, and explained to her that university rules required the graduate school to deny her application. Nakano at first took the news of her rejection calmly, believing that the university was under explicit military orders. “I thought that it was a bureaucratic administrative decision,” she remarked.

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 good friend of Nakano, and had helped manage her campaign for junior class president. She also was an outspoken opponent of anti-Semitism and racial prejudice, and had helped persuade Nakano to join her own sorority, Alpha Omicron Pi, the previous year in order to racially integrate it. Nakano agreed to Merion’s request to be the “guinea pig” in a challenge to the exclusion policy, although she had decided by that time to accept a graduate fellowship in sociology at Bryn Mawr College.

Merion proceeded to organize a group of students from The Bennett News and the Christian Association to discuss the exclusion policy with Dean Williams, who commented that he believed that there was an official Navy exclusion order, and the university had no choice. Accompanied by Dr. George H. Menke, the regional secretary of the Student Christian Movement, Merion then met with Provost McClelland to discuss why Nakano had been excluded, and the reasons for the university’s actions. McClelland insisted that the board of trustees had decided on the policy after informal conversations with the Navy, and referred all further inquiries to the university president, Thomas Sovereign Gates.

On April 27, 1944, Merion published an editorial, “An Issue to Face,” in The Bennett News. She expressed her “respect and admiration” for the university’s wartime accomplishments, but explained that, “Because of what is said to be an unwritten, unofficial request of the Navy,” the university excluded all people of Japanese ancestry. The editorial did not mention Nakano by name, but deplored the fact that an “arbitrary ruling” had prevented an honor student with a high record of leadership and service from applying for graduate school. “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?” “Bennett News was pretty unimportant,” Merion later recalled, “so the University authorities felt, no doubt, that the affair was a pin-prick.”

After receiving no response from the administration, on May 16 Merion and Walter Speake, the Men’s Student Cabinet chair of the Christian Association, wrote Gates a joint letter protesting the exclusion policy. Noting that, despite what they had been told about Naval orders, there was in fact no legal basis for any such action by the Navy, they asked whether the board of trustees was willing to accept responsibility for excluding Japanese Americans from admission. The university, as a private corporation, could legally discriminate, but in such a case the trustees should openly admit that they were barring students on a racial basis. When Gates failed to acknowledge or reply to the students’ letter, Merion published its text in the May 25 issue of The Bennett News. The editorial pleaded with the administration to issue a statement justifying its policy and clear up the “fog of confusion” created by its contradictory statements. It warned darkly that “silence gives assent to responsibility by the University.” When Merion still failed to receive any response, she put a front-page editorial, “Paging Dr. Gates,” in the June 1, 1944 issue of The Bennett News. The piece recounted in detail Merion’s 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 see President Gates and request an official statement. However, Dr. Arnold Henry, dean of student affairs, insisted the passage be removed — the administration’s sole response to Merion’s campaign.

Meanwhile, Menke’s attempts to obtain a satisfactory answer as to the reasons for the exclusion policy were equally unsuccessful. During early May, the Student Christian Movement secretary made several appointments to meet with Gates, but each time the president’s office canceled. Finally, on May 16, Menke wrote Gates a formal letter, asking for a specific statement explaining which government agency was responsible for ordering exclusion. Menke added 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 Nakano had accepted a scholarship at Bryn Mawr, and disingenuously presented the issue of exclusion as arising from her request to attend certain classes at Penn under an agreement between the two institutions. Menke immediately wrote asking for clarification regarding the “government relationships” Gates insisted limited the university’s freedom of action. When he received no response, he wrote once more on May 25, asking the university to justify its action and stating that he would “seek the information through other channels” if he did not receive a reply.

In the face of administration stonewalling, Merion and Menke took their story to the press. On June 2, the Philadelphia Record featured a long piece on Penn’s exclusion of Nakano, accompanied by a large photograph of her in a Red Cross uniform. The Record recounted Merion’s and Menke’s fruitless efforts to obtain information from the administration (reprinting their full correspondence with university officials) and highlighted a statement from the head of the Navy security program, Bureau of Personnel Chief Admiral Randall Jacobs: “I never heard of such a[n exclusionary] rule — it sounds cockeyed to me.” Nakano (whom the article 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 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 immediately picked up the story, and within 24 hours an abbreviated version of the article had appeared in newspapers throughout the nation, as well as in Yank magazine and the military press overseas.

The news aroused a wave of public indignation, especially as it followed on the heels of a well-publicized incident in which a Nisei war veteran was driven off a New Jersey farm by bigoted neighbors. Editorials condemning the university’s action appeared in the Record, as well as in such diverse newspapers as The Des Moines Tribune and the Dayton, Ohio Daily News, and Gates received protest letters from Penn graduates and alumni chapters in such diverse cities as New York, Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia and Cleveland, who opposed the policy as biased and undemocratic. An alumnus in Chicago wrote that the exclusion policy represented the “ugly, caste-creating, stranger-hating sort of Rassenpolitik which is as close akin to Hitler’s worst vagaries as it is foreign to democracy…” When a group of Penn alumni in Los Angeles met to draft a protest, George Winfield Scott, an eminent graduate, became so agitated by discussion of the University’s policy that he collapsed and died.


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

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