Current Events and Philanthropy / Philanthropy and Historical Research / Philanthropy and the State

Edwin Embree as Exemplar: How one Philanthropic Leader Confronted Racial Prejudice during the Second World War

Editors’ Note: Alfred Perkins highlights the leadership of Edwin Embree, who served for two decades as president of the Julius Rosenwald Fund, in advocating for the rights of Japanese-Americans during the Second World War.

The current presidential campaign has brought again to the surface the hostility to cultural differences long an element in the American emotional landscape. While that hostility now targets primarily Muslims and undocumented immigrants of Hispanic origin, it calls to mind the wartime situation, three quarters of a century ago, when it was directed against Japanese-Americans. Such nativist sentiments undergirded the forcible relocation of persons of Japanese ancestry from the west coast to internment camps in the interior. One of the most outspoken opponents of that policy was Edwin Rogers Embree (1883-1950), an early official of the Rockefeller Foundation and, from 1928, President of the Julius Rosenwald Fund.

Though neither Embree nor the Chicago-based foundation he headed are widely known today, he was for more than two decades an influential figure in philanthropy and race relations. His unstinting defense of America’s Japanese minority represents a merging of personal conviction and institutional purpose. In addition, it reflects his principled beliefs about the qualities and behaviors appropriate to a foundation executive, a model of leadership well worth considering today.

Embree happened to be in northern California in March, 1942, when the relocations got underway. He saw whole families being removed from their homes to assembly points, in circumstances not altogether unlike the rounding up of Jews in Nazi Germany. He was left with searing, unforgettable memories, the most poignant, perhaps, the sight of a two-year-old anxiously clutching fresh flowers, as grim-faced soldiers led him away. Like many Americans then and since, Embree found this treatment of some 110,000 persons, most of whom were U.S. citizens, profoundly troubling. In time he came to regard the evacuations as “one of the most terrible crimes America has ever committed against her own citizens and against democracy.”

Committed to fighting racial intolerance in all its expressions, Embree in 1943 joined with over sixty academics, ministers, journalists, union leaders, and corporation executives to sponsor the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). The League, devoted to protecting civil rights and ending discriminatory practices, protested ceaselessly against the internment policy, while emphasizing the fundamental patriotism of citizens of Japanese ancestry. In the League’s Chicago chapter, its largest and most active, Embree played a prominent role during the war and thereafter, planning strategy, chairing fund-raising dinners, introducing speakers and, with his keen sense of public relations, undoubtedly helping to frame official statements.

The League provided Embree with critical information about the plight of the internees, and other instances of discrimination against Japanese-Americans. A more comprehensive news source was The Monthly Summary of Events and Trends in Race Relations, a publication developed in response to a request from President Franklin Roosevelt, fully financed by the Rosenwald Fund, and serving over 15,000 subscribers at its peak. But Embree learned also from personal contacts, including members of his own family.   His anthropologist son John had published in 1941 a doctoral dissertation describing his year-long observations in a Japanese village, a book containing the most current information in English on Japanese beliefs and customs. Called to governmental service a few days after Pearl Harbor, John was assigned to the federal agency responsible for the evacuees, enabling him to inform his father of unclassified but unpublicized developments, and to give him a tour of one of the internment centers.

Anecdotal reports came as well from Edwin Embree’s brother Howard, a social worker at a camp in Wyoming, and from Edwin’s daughter Catherine, a volunteer teacher at a camp in Arizona. Catherine’s extensive letters home initially gave detailed descriptions of her unfinished camp’s harsh living conditions, but later, when some young internees were permitted to enroll in midwestern and eastern colleges, she also alerted her parents to any student passing through Chicago. Either Embree or his wife, and frequently both, met the train, helped with transfers and schedule changes, offered advice and encouragement, and often provided meals and overnight lodging in their home. At least one young woman was allowed to rummage through Catherine’s closet for the warm clothes she lacked. Conversations with these students, and close attention to his other sources, undoubtedly made Embree, of all private citizens, among the best-informed about the internment policy.

Embree gathered information, and he conveyed it—lots of it. His principal educational vehicle was the American Council on Race Relations (ACRR), an organization he envisioned earlier, but co-founded only in 1944. Financially supported by the Rosenwald Fund, even housed in the Fund’s headquarters, the ACRR had as its purpose “to bring about full democracy in race relations.” Seeking to increase public knowledge about minority groups, it underwrote research, developed materials for use in schools, published and distributed tens of thousands of pamphlets, fact sheets, and reprints. Two of its publications focused on citizens of Japanese ancestry. “Facts about Japanese Americans,” for example, pointed out the invaluable assistance of these minority civilians during the attack on Pearl Harbor, and the Nisei’s (second generation’s) continuing contribution to the war effort through intelligence-gathering and propaganda activities. Above all, it called attention to the thousands of Japanese-Americans in military uniform, and particularly to the heroism of the all-Nisei 100th Infantry Battalion of the 442nd Regimental Combat Team during the Italian campaign. Through correspondence and personal interviews, the Council lobbied energetically for resettlement of the internees, and for prompt federal action on indemnity claims. In cooperation with the JACL, it worked to energize civil rights groups on the West Coast, and to lay the groundwork for restored racial harmony.

Embree’s empathy for the plight of Japanese-Americans was evident even in his hiring practices, as he combatted the discriminatory attitudes he knew minority persons faced whenever they sought employment. During the war years, for example, his secretary was a woman of Japanese background, as were two other members of the Rosenwald clerical staff.  At the ACRR, perhaps one-fifth of the office staff were of Japanese extraction. Similarly, when Embree became the founding chairman of the Chicago Mayor’s Commission on Human Relations, he established policies that provided jobs for no fewer than five women who were members of the city’s Japanese community. When he needed outside help with a research project, he gave the assignment to two Japanese-American graduate students.

Embree’s commitment to racial equality long predated the war years. At an early age he had embraced cultural diversity, beginning with the Blackfoot Indian children in Wyoming who were his first playmates, and with the scores of African-Americans who were his schoolmates in the thoroughly integrated Kentucky town where he was reared. His specific fondness for the Japanese, however, stemmed from three visits he made in the 1920s to East Asia on behalf of the Rockefeller Foundation. Though the trips centered on China, he made it a point to spend substantial time in Japan. From the outset he was taken by the Japanese people. He admired their love of nature, appreciation of beautiful things, unfailing courtesy, devotion to family, and deep attachment to their homeland. Returning to the U.S., he was appalled by talk of a future war with the island nation, believing such a conflict would be a disaster for both countries.

When that war came more than a decade later, Embree looked beyond the combat to long-term consequences at home and abroad. In a 1944 address in Nashville, Tennessee, on July 4—provocative both for its timing and its substance—he proclaimed the coming of a new order in race relations and international affairs. The war, he predicted, would shift the center of world politics from Europe and the Atlantic to Asia and the Pacific. China and Japan would be major powers, demanding equal status with the U.S., Great Britain, and the Soviet Union and, he asserted, they would expect fair treatment for their distant relatives in North America. More than a year before Japan’s surrender, with the battle for Saipan raging as he spoke, he cautioned against an occupation of the conquered country based on vengeance, rather than one that would allow the Japanese people to divest themselves of their military rulers and become a force for world peace. And even with anti-Japanese feeling at fever pitch across the country, he called again for the speedy return of the interned thousands to their homes, and an end to hostile behavior by their neighbors.

In 1948 the Julius Rosenwald Fund, having expended all its capital as specified by its founder, closed its doors. Two years later Embree, having returned to New York, was stuck down by a heart attack on a Manhattan street. At a memorial service held in the Bond Chapel on the University of Chicago campus, a telegram from the Japanese American Citizens League, paying tribute to “a great American,” was read:

“[D]uring the war years, when our group of people were suspect, [Embree] was one of the first to express confidence in us and faith in America by becoming one of the national sponsors of our organization. We mourn his passing but the memory of him will sustain our faith that all people can live and work together.”

The philanthropic community can take pride in the fact that one of their own, in a time of great national trial, was worthy of such commendation.

By moving boldly beyond the customary boundaries of organized philanthropy, Embree was able to challenge deeply-held prejudices, demand justice for a vulnerable minority, and extend the impact of the monies he disbursed. This pioneer of his profession would not have voiced the idea, but implicit in his words and actions is the notion that foundation executives might on occasion serve as the nation’s conscience. In these less stringent times, his example might provide useful lessons for his contemporary successors—to the benefit of the philanthropic enterprise, and the nation as a whole.

-Alfred Perkins

Alfred Perkins is the author of Edwin Rogers Embree: The Julius Rosenwald Fund, Foundation Philanthropy, and American Race Relations (Indiana University Press, 2011). In addition to philanthropy, he has published on French imperial history, higher education in Appalachia, and desegregation in the U.S. Now retired, he taught European history and served as academic dean and vice president of Upsala, Maryville, and Berea Colleges.

One thought on “Edwin Embree as Exemplar: How one Philanthropic Leader Confronted Racial Prejudice during the Second World War

  1. Pingback: Edwin Embree, Berea Founder’s Grandson, the Focus of Article about Racial Prejudice - Berea College

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