Stockton tolerance garden honors WWII-era educator

Elizabeth Humbargar. courtesy of the San Joaquin Delta College

STOCKTON, Calif. — Bone-chilling morning breezes didn’t cool the warm feelings of some 125 supporters who gathered at a garden dedication at the San Joaquin Delta College on April 14 to honor late World War II-era educator Elizabeth Humbargar’s decades of service to the Japanese American community.

The Stockton chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) and Delta College sponsored the Elizabeth Humbargar Tolerance Garden project, which received donations from dozens of community members.

A dedicated educator, Humbargar taught English for years at Stockton High School. She later became a counselor at San Joaquin Delta College. Humbargar passed away in 1989, The Record reported.

Humbargar supported Japanese American students, even when it was highly unpopular. “Ms. Humbargar’s contributions to students is an inspiration to us all,” Stockton JACL President Steven Sue said.

Nelson Nagai, a retired Delta College professor, described how Humbargar “earned the love and respect of the Japanese American community in San Joaquin County.”

Humbargar, a Catholic, even went to Buddhist church services on Sunday mornings to talk to her students’ Issei parents, Nagai revealed.

Humbargar’s support for her Japanese American students remained even during the backlash-filled war years. Humbargar told others, “War is between governments, not the people,” Nagai shared.

“She and her sister would go to the Stockton Assembly Center to visit her students (imprisoned there in World War II) and looking overweight,” Nagai recalled. “They would go home thin.” They had smuggled in food, books, and supplies that the detainees needed.

“She wrote letters of support to get her students out of the concentration camps,” Nagai added. “So many, the FBI put her on the subversives list.”

Humbargar supported other immigrant family students, too. Esther Fong, a former student of Humbargar, who encouraged her to become one of the first Asian American teachers in the Stockton Unified School District in 1950, spoke at the event. “I wonder,” said Fong, “If it had not been for her, where would I be today?”

Recently hired National JACL Director Priscilla Ouchida attended the garden dedication as her first public event in her new role.

She noted that Humbargar, a champion of immigrant rights, was born the same year as the 1924 Alien Land Law, which prohibited Asian immigrants from owning land.

Community members note that Humbargar’s support for innocent Japanese Americans after the Dec. 7, 1941 Pearl Harbor bombing has parallels for today’s Muslim Americans after Sept. 11. Taj Khan, a member of the San Joaquin Delta College board of trustees, recognized the “fear” that exists in the community and that many times people are “afraid to speak out.”

Humbargar’s legacy, however, remains an inspiration for Americans today.

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