This week in The Beachcomber, we memorialize and mourn the passing of Mary Matsuda Gruenewald, who contributed immeasurably to our understanding of a terrible chapter of Vashon history with her book, “Looking Like the Enemy: My Story of Imprisonment in a Japanese-American Internment Camp.”
Matsuda Gruenewald was only 17 years old when she — along with her family and every other member of a thriving Japanese community on Vashon — was escorted off the island at gunpoint and imprisoned in an internment camp during WWII.
In all, 120,000 other people of Japanese descent from the West Coast were incarcerated along with the Matsuda family in a massive act of xenophobia and racism perpetrated by the government of the United States in the wake of the attack on Pearl Harbor.
But what of the white people who were left behind on Vashon? What were their actions in the wake of the disappearance of such a vital community of Japanese Americans on this island?
While some supported their friends and neighbors, others did not. Vashon’s newspaper failed miserably, inflaming the worst tendencies of islanders.
To its everlasting shame, The News Record published a 1943 editorial that urged, “Leave the Japs Where They Are,” and in 1945, the newspaper supported Gov. Monrad Wallgren’s opposition to allowing the Japanese to return.
Of the 132 Vashon islanders of Japanese ancestry who were imprisoned or voluntarily exiled, only about 40 returned to the Island after the end of the war.
That was 75 years ago. But just last week, the Vashon Heritage Museum’s Black Lives Matter sign was defaced in an ugly, casual act of vandalism.
Racism is still here, just as it has been for a very long time.
Vashon and Maury Islands are the traditional lands of sx̌ʷəbabš, a Native people who lived in unity with the natural world before white colonization. How many on these islands now truly acknowledge and honor these Indigenous people? And why does our current population still in such a large part reflect the era of colonization that displaced the sx̌ʷəbabš?
We are grateful to local artist West McLean for adorning our town with luminous portraits of Civil Rights icons and Black lives lost to police violence. We need to see these portraits.
We applaud the Vashon Island School District’s participation in the Black Lives Matter at Schools Week of Action, as detailed by Susan McCabe on page 1 of our paper. Centering Black stories and lives at school is vitally important.
But our community still has so much hard, humbling work to do — in creating affordable housing; in sharing power and making space in our public institutions for voices of and leadership by people of color; in truly, finally acknowledging the way that all our lives on Vashon will always be diminished and denigrated by lingering white supremacy.
True racial equity should be a daily practice in our town and in our schools. We will know when equity is achieved in the schools, for instance, when statistical outcomes for students are not determined by their race.
In 2019, white students at Vashon High School graduated at a rate that was almost 24 percentage points higher than their Latino counterparts. Latino students now comprise 13% of VISD’s student body. This unconscionable graduation gap must be closed.
The more we learn, the more we remember, the more we are taught by wise elders such as Mary Matsuda Gruenewald and follow her shining example, the better our island can become, at last.