Ralph Smeltzer


Name Ralph Smeltzer
Born May 26 1916
Died March 9 1976
Birth Location Chicago

Church of the Brethren minister who, with his wife, taught at Manzanar and operated hostels for resettling Japanese Americans in Chicago and New York. Ralph Emerson Smeltzer (1916–76) was born in Chicago and raised in Southern California in a family that belonged to the Church of the Brethren, a peace church akin to the better known Quakers or Mennonites. While attending the Brethren run LaVerne College in the late 1930s, he met Mary Blocher, and the couple married in 1940. Both became school teachers in Southern California. Ralph became an ordained minister in the Church of the Brethren in the spring of 1941 and registered as a conscientious objector.

The Smeltzers became involved with the forced removal of Japanese Americans in February 1942, when Ralph volunteered to assist Japanese Americans evicted from Terminal Island. They went on to work 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, the Smeltzers became teachers of math and biology at Manzanar. 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 barracks set aside for them in block 36, serving as advisers for this group. Later, during the mass uprising at Manzanar in December, Smeltzer hid a fleeing Togo Tanaka on the floor of the car and drove him out of the to escape the angry mobs.

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 providing temporary housing for resettling Japanese Americans and help 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 Fiorello LaGuardia—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, Smeltzer took a position with the church back in Illinois, where he continued to help with resettlement.

After the war, he continued to work for the church and as a peace activist. He was stationed in Austria 1946 to 1949 working with people displaced in the European war. In the 1960s, he was sent to Selma, Alabama, where he set up mediation sessions between various segments of the black and white communities there in 1964–65. He died of a heart attack in May, 1976.

Authored by Brian Niiya, Densho

For More Information

"Japanese American Relocation." Finding aid for collection, Brethren Historical Library and Archives. http://www.brethren.org/bhla/ag/j_japanese_am_relocation.html.

Longenecker, Stephen L. Selma's Peacemaker: Ralph Smeltzer and Civil Right Mediation. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1987.

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.