Mary Smeltzer


Name Mary Smeltzer
Born October 17 1915
Died October 8 2012
Birth Location Texas

Peace activist, teacher at Manzanar, and manager of resettlement-era hostels in Chicago and New York. Mary Evelyn Blocher was born near Corpus Christi, Texas, the third of four children to parents who were both members of the Church of the Brethren, a peace church akin to the Mennonites or Quakers. After meeting at a Brethren conference in Kansas, the Blochers farmed in Texas. In 1921, the family moved to Southern California, and Mary attended a Brethren school in La Varne. Her parents divorced and her father moved back to Texas, leaving Mary and her siblings with her mother, who ran a rooming house. Mary attended Pomona Junior College, then the Brethren-run La Verne College, graduating with a degree in math in 1937. She eventually returned for a teaching credential and master's degree. About this time, she met Ralph Smeltzer at La Verne College and the couple married in 1940. Prior to the war, they both taught high school in Los Angeles.

After the outbreak of war, the Smeltzers became involved in the plight of Japanese Americans. They worked with the American Friends Service Committee to prepare and serve breakfasts to Japanese Americans on the mornings of their evictions from homes and communities. Once Japanese Americans had been removed from the West Coast, Mary became a math teacher at Manzanar, while Ralph taught biology. She recalled beginning the school term teaching in an empty classroom, with students having to sit on the floor on newspapers. Choosing not to live in the nicer staff housing, they insisted in living in the inmate area and were eventually assigned to live with a group of young Kibei men in a barracks set aside for them in block 36, serving as advisers for this group.

After six months at Manzanar, the Smeltzers turned their attention to resettlement and left to manage a hostel in Chicago at the Bethany Theological Seminary in March 1943. Working with War Relocation Authority officials and the Church of the Brethren, the Smeltzers provided temporary housing for resettling Japanese Americans and helped with jobs and finding permanent housing. They moved the hostel in the fall to a larger location that could accommodate up to 35. After having housed some 1,000 people by March 1944, the Smeltzers left the Chicago hostel and moved on to New York, where they opened a fourteen room hostel in Brooklyn, the first in the New York area. Faced with opposition from some local community members and Mayor FiorelloLa Guardia—along with threats of violence—the Smeltzers held firm and the hostel opened on May 10, 1944, where it ran without incident.[1] In August 1944, Ralph Smeltzer took a position with the church back in Illinois, and the couple moved back together.

The couple had the first of their four children while in Illinois and the second when the family moved back to Southern California in 1946. Later that year, Ralph took a position in Austria assisting European war resettlers, leaving Mary and the two young children behind for a time before they were able to join him. The family eventually returned to the Chicago area where they lived for the next two decades. They moved to Washington, DC, in 1971, where Mary was one of the founders of the church's Women's Caucus, formed to encourage more women to enter church leadership positions. After Ralph's death, she taught in Botswana, worked at the World Friendship Center in Hiroshima, and was arrested for civil disobedience at a Nevada nuclear test site. She spent the last decades of her life living at the Brethren Hillcrest Homes in La Verne, continuing her peace activism as a board member of the of Peace with Justice Center of Pomona Valley and speaking of her work with Japanese Americans at many events. She passed away just a few days short of her 97th birthday on October 8, 2012.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

Mary Blocher Smeltzer interview by Richard Potashin. July 17, 2008, La Verne, California. Denso Archive. http://archive.densho.org/Core/SegmentsByInterview.aspx?id=398.

"Mary Blocher Smeltzer: 'A Woman of Peace.'" Episode of Brethren Voices. Hosted by Brent Carlson. c. 2010. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ppm_Ohm3Ewk.

Siegel, Shizue. In Good Conscience: Supporting Japanese Americans During the Internment. San Mateo, CA: AACP, Inc., 2006.

Footnotes

  1. "Brooklyn Group Approves Nisei Hostel Plan"; "Brooklyn Hostel Opened With Arrival of Family From Gila," Pacific Citizen, May 20, 1944, p. 3, accessed on January 3, 2014 at http://www.pacificcitizen.org/digitalarchives/assets/images/full/PCN_19440520_003.jpg.