Discrimination against Asians has been commonplace in this country since before there was a United States of America, but it grew with the first major wave of immigration in the 1850s to 1917. In 1917, various federal laws were passed which either excluded outright or controlled the flow of immigrants from throughout Asia. Ultimately, Japanese and their descendants would pay for this discrimination with their property, their identities, and their lives. Michi Weglyn helped their fight for justice decades later.
When Michi Weglyn was born on November 29, 1926, it was the Roaring Twenties. Contrary to pop culture portrayals of the decade, life was not sweet for everyone. Weglyn’s parents were Tomojiro and Misao Nishiura, Japanese immigrants who settled in Brentwood, California and worked as tenant farmers.
Weglyn went to public school and did very well. She earned a citizenship award from the local American Legion in 1940 and first place in a local Rotary Club essay competition about the Constitution. Yet in the summer of 1942, she and her family were shipped off to the Gila River War Relocation Center in Arizona. Not only was this concentration camp an affront to the hardworking Japanese living in America, but it was located in the Gila River Indian Reservation against the wishes of the indigenous nation there.
As at other camps, the over 16,000 people forced to live there made many attempts to create a community. Weglyn was able to finish primary and secondary school and participate in what would be called extracurricular activities in other school systems. Before the camp was closed in 1945, Weglyn was able to win a full scholarship to Mount Holyoke College and allowed to move to Massachusetts to attend. Unfortunately, and likely because of her time in Gila River, Weglyn was unable to finish college and earn a degree in biology because she fell ill with tuberculosis.
After what seemed to be a recovery, Weglyn moved in with her mother and sister in New Jersey, where the women worked at Seabrook Farms from 1945 on. By 1947, Weglyn began a new program of study at Barnard College and participated in the Fashion Academy in 1948, an important opportunity for anyone seeking to enter the fashion field. Another battle with tuberculosis in 1949 required her to seek intense treatment, but it would not end her promising fashion career.
She moved to New York City, the place for fashion, and met her future husband, Walter Weglyn, a German Jew who had escaped Nazi Germany. Wegyln’s career took off as she specialized in theatrical costumes, designing and manufacturing them. By 1957 she had begun an eight-year run as part of the Perry Como Show, making her the first and only Japanese-American to hold a position of any national prominence in theatrical costuming in the Network Era of television from 1952 to the mid 1980s.
Success could not erase the memories of her family’s horrific treatment at the hands of her own country. In the 1960s she began researching and writing a book that would change her life and the lives of 117,000+ people who had been in the concentration camps during WWII. Her book, Years of Infamy: The Untold Story of America’s Concentration Camps, was published in 1976. It revealed the truth to readers around the world about who was sent to the camps and how they were treated. In 1977, her book won the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award, which honors written works “that have made important contributions to our understanding of racism and our appreciation of the rich diversity of human cultures.” Awards are nice, but Weglyn did more than write.
Throughout the 1980s, both Weglyn and her husband used her fame to help push for recognition of the atrocities and to try and win restitution for the people harmed by internment during WWII. After years of calling attention to history and rallying political allies, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 was signed into law. The Act gave money to Japanese-Americans harmed by WWII policies that targeted Japanese descendants. Others might have celebrated, but Weglyn continued to fight for Japanese-Peruvians who had been used as hostages during WWII. Sadly Weglyn died from cancer in 1999 before seeing justice for those people.
Even though continued battles with tuberculosis denied Weglyn official college degrees, she was honored by several colleges and universities for her contributions to society. Among those academic honors are a Doctor of Humane Letters from California State University and California State Polytechnic University in 1993. The Michi and Walter Weglyn Multicultural Studies Chair at CalPoly Pomona was created in their honor to continue their legacy and today has grown into a wider program, with scholarships for students.