Hugh Macbeth


Name Hugh Ellwood Macbeth, Sr.
Born 1884
Died 1956
Birth Location Charleston, SC

Hugh Ellwood Macbeth, Sr. (1884-1956), (sometimes written MacBeth or McBeth), a black attorney active in Los Angeles and the leader of California's Race Relations Commission, was an outstanding wartime defender of Japanese Americans. In speeches, lobbying, investigatory reports, and lawsuits, he challenged official discrimination.

Early Career

Born in Charleston, South Carolina, Hugh Macbeth was the son of pioneering African American photographer Arthur Macbeth. After graduating from Fisk University, he earned a law degree from Harvard University in 1909. Macbeth lived in Baltimore for approximately five years and became founding editor of the newspaper The Baltimore Times.

In 1913, Macbeth moved to Los Angeles, California and opened a law office. Over the following decades, Macbeth's firm represented African American litigants and criminal defendants, including such notable clients as jazz great Jelly Roll Morton. Macbeth pressed numerous cases challenging segregation laws and restrictive housing covenants. In 1936, he was appointed resident consul for the Republic of Liberia. However, he also represented white clients (including John Hunt, a white disciple of the religious leader Father Divine). Macbeth likewise engaged in outside activism.  Following World War I, he struggled unsuccessfully to build a colony in Mexico for black emigrants. In 1934 he was named general counsel for the Utopian Society, a largely-white economic reform group that claimed 600,000 members. In 1938, Governor Frank Merriam created the California Race Relations Commission. Macbeth was named executive secretary and sole black commissioner.

Japanese Americans and World War II

While Macbeth lived in a largely Japanese area of Los Angeles and knew many Issei and Nisei, it was not until the aftermath of Pearl Harbor that he focused on supporting Japanese Americans. In the first week of January 1942, Macbeth travelled to Guadalupe and Santa Barbara, California to investigate the cases of Issei who had been rounded up and interned by the Justice Department during December 1941. Following interviews with the internees' families, he discovered that all those taken were prosperous truck farmers with large families and that none was suspected of sabotage. He swiftly came to the conclusion that the charges were trumped up by white agricultural interests anxious to grab the Issei’s land.

Outraged by the arrests, Macbeth turned to organizing support for Japanese Americans among liberal groups on the West Coast, and to speaking in favor of the rights of Japanese Americans in public forums. In addition to his local efforts, Macbeth moved to organizing on a nationwide scale, in hopes of averting federal action against Japanese Americans. Using the Race Relations Committee's assistant, Ann Ray, a Socialist Party member, as a conduit, he undertook an extensive correspondence with socialist leader Norman Thomas, the only national political figure to oppose mass removal. Thomas made extensive use of information provided by Macbeth on the treatment of Japanese Americans in a series of articles in the socialist newspaper, The Weekly Call, and in radio speeches. Macbeth would later act as cosigner and sponsor of Thomas's widely distributed pamphlet, "Democracy and the Japanese Americans."

The announcement of Executive Order 9066 was a major blow to Macbeth. Deciding that military control over Japanese Americans could no longer be averted, he altered his strategy. On February 22, he sent President Franklin D. Roosevelt a telegram, in which he proposed putting ethnic Japanese to work on agricultural cooperatives, under military guard. A few weeks later, he wrote General John DeWitt to pass along a proposal that loyal Japanese American farmers be permitted to move voluntarily to Utah to form colonies. He took the opportunity to remind the general that his creation of "martial law zones" had left Japanese Americans "deeply hurt" and bitter.

Even as he resigned himself to mass removal, Macbeth remained interested in bringing a constitutional challenge to the government's orders. In May 1942, he took up the habeas corpus suits of Ernest Kinzo Wakayama and his wife, Toki Wakayama, inmates at Santa Anita (by the time it was filed on August 20, 1942, they had been moved to Manzanar). The principal argument of the petition was that the military necessity claimed by the army for removal did not exist, and also that General DeWitt's exclusion order was arbitrary and encroached on the rights of civilian authorities. At oral argument in October 1942, Macbeth charged also that race-based confinement constituted unconstitutional racial discrimination. Sadly, before the Wakayamas' petition was granted, they withdrew their suit and filed requests for "repatriation" to Japan.

Although his chief constitutional case had collapsed, during 1943 MacBeth undertook further efforts in connection with the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL). In 1943, Macbeth agreed to join the JACL legal team in Regan v. King, and the final brief bears his stamp. In early 1944, Macbeth signed the JACL's amicus curiae brief for the appellant in Korematsu v. United States, the Supreme Court case that upheld the constitutionality of race-based "removal."

In March 1943, he wrote President Roosevelt urging him to release Japanese Americans to California so they could improve farm production. He bombarded War Relocation Authority Director Dillon S. Myer with letters. In public meetings in Los Angeles, Macbeth spoke out in favor of the return of confined Japanese Americans to their homes on the West Coast. In April 1944, he traveled to the Amache camp in eastern Colorado to counsel families of inmate draft resisters. He also helped individuals. When attorney Chiyoko Sakamoto returned from camp and was unable to find a job in her field, Macbeth hired her as an associate.

Postwar Years

In February 1945, Macbeth made his greatest contribution to supporting Japanese Americans when he took up the case of People v. Oyama, together with a companion case, People v. Hirose, which challenged the alien land law. The case was argued in the San Diego County Superior Court in mid-1945, after which Macbeth withdrew from involvement. However, he remained interested in the case, which on appeal became Oyama v. California, as it was taken up to the U.S. Supreme Court. In January 1948, the Court, in a 6–3 vote, struck down all enforcement of the Alien Land Act, freeing Japanese Americans from a major threat to their property.

Macbeth remained active in his law practice during the postwar years, as well as in local politics. In 1952, he served as a California delegate to the Democratic National Convention. He died in 1956. His work was carried on by his son and law partner, Hugh Macbeth, Jr., who later became a Superior Court judge.

Authored by Greg Robinson, Université du Québec À Montréal

For More Information

McBroome, Delores Nason. "Harvests of Gold: African American Boosterism, Agriculture and Investment in Allensworth and Little Liberia." In Seeking El Dorado: African Americans in California, edited by Lawrence B. de Graaf, Kevin Mulroy & Quintard Taylor. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001.

Robinson, Greg. After Camp: Portraits in Midcentury Japanese American Life and Politics. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.