Chicago Brethren Hostel

Chicago area hostel for Japanese Americans that may have been the first of the dozens of similar hostels formed mostly by church groups. Opening in early 1943 to house early resettlers to Chicago, the Church of the Brethren closed the hostel a little more than a year later, having housed over 1,000 guests, to focus its efforts on a similar facility in New York City.

The idea for the hostel originated at Manzanar . Ralph and Mary Smeltzer were active members of the Church of the Brethren who became school teachers at Manzanar. When schools there were temporarily closed after the riot/uprising of December 1942, the Smeltzers worked in the camp's relocation office where they observed the frustration of inmates and staff alike over the red tape that made leaving the camp extremely difficult despite War Relocation Authority (WRA) encouragement to leave. Their boss, Tom Temple, the head of community services at Manzanar, had toured the Midwest and found that there were many opportunities for Japanese Americans out there, but limited means to connect resettling inmates with those opportunities. As a result, Temple decided to accompany a group of thirteen Nisei to Chicago to help them get settled, but had no place to temporarily house them. Ralph Smeltzer wired the Brethren-run Bethany Seminary in Chicago to see if they would house the group and to his surprise they agreed. The group arrived at Bethany on January 14, 1943. With the encouragement of WRA head Dillon Myer , the Brethren Service Committee allocated funds to open a hostel to house additional resettlers. The Smeltzers left Mananar to manage the facility, each taking additional inmates from Manzanar with them when they went to Chicago. [1]

The Chicago Brethren Hostel officially opened on March 7, 1943, at the Bethany Seminary, located on the near Westside of Chicago, at 3435 West Van Buren Street. Limited by the capacity of the facility, the service committee began looking for a more suitable facility, settling on a former rest home in "a rather swanky residential district" located fourteen miles to the northeast, just a block from Lake Michigan. The building included three stories. The first had an office and large living room with a lot of seating, a radio, and a piano; down the hall was a dining room, kitchen, and pantry. The second floor had five bedrooms that were reserved for women and family groups, while a ballroom on the third floor had been converted to a men's dormitory. The basement included laundry and recreation rooms. When the new hostel was opened in September of 1943, its capacity was around 25, but the arrival of additional furniture pushed the capacity up to 35 in subsequent weeks. [2]

As with other hostels, guests paid a daily rate that included room and board, with meals served communally. Residents were also expected to pitch in with housework. Given its roots at Manzanar, almost a third of hostel guests came from Manzanar as of November 1943. Also not surprisingly, the residents skewed young, the median age being 22.6. Men outnumbered women by a 62% to 38% ratio. [3]

In keeping with WRA policy, the Smeltzers did their best to discourage Nisei from socializing with each other, in the hope that this would drive them to socialize more with whites and other non-Japanese Americans. This policy was viewed as draconian by some, especially given that the Robertson Fort, manager of the other Chicago area hostel (run by the American Friends Service Committee) did host social events including regular teas for the residents. Ralph Smeltzer lamented to researcher Charles Kikuchi, "I think that I have been rather consistent in my approach and I have been called all sorts of names for doing so. I am labeled as a fanatic and mean person who will not allow Niseis to come back to the hostel to look up friends." He did later ease the policy of the hostel regarding social events. [4]

After a year, the Brethren Service Committee decided to close the Chicago hostel and to open a similar hostel in New York City, where it perceived the need to be greater. The Chicago Brethren Hostel subsequently closed on April 22, 1944, having served 1,085 resettlers. The Smeltzers went on to New York to manage the new hostel in Brooklyn . [5]

Authored by Brian Niiya , Densho


  1. Frank Miyamoto interview with Ralph Smeltzer, April 21, 1944. The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement: A Digital Archive, The Bancroft Library, University of California Berkeley [hearafter, JAER], call number BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder T1.8403. Accessed on Jan. 29, 2015.
  2. Miyamoto interview with Smeltzer; Togo Tanaka , "Assisting Resettlement and Resettler Adjustments," chapter III, Jan. 22, 1944, JAER, call no. BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder T1.852, accessed on Jan. 29, 2015; quote from Charles Kikuchi diary, Oct. 25, 1943, 3539, JAER, call no. BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder W 1.80:06**, accessed on Jan. 29, 2015 at . Description of hostel from Kikuchi diary; Frank Miyamoto journal, Nov. 23, 1943, JAER call no. BANC MSS 67/14 c, folder T1.8405 (3/7), accessed on Jan. 29, 2015; and Mary Blocher Smeltzer interview by Richard Potashin, segment 11, July 17, 2008, Densho Digital Repository, accessed on Jan. 12, 2018 at .
  3. Manzanar Free Press , Nov. 10 1943, 3.
  4. In his diary, Charles Kikuchi discusses this issue extensively with Thomas Yatabe and with Ralph Smeltzer himself. See entries for Oct. 9, 14, and 25, 1943. Quote by Smeltzer in Oct. 25 entry, page 3529. For Robinson Fort and the AFSC hostel, see Kikuchi diary, Nov. 1, 1943, 3673.
  5. Pacific Citizen , Apr. 22, 1944, 3, accessed on Jan. 12, 2018 at .

Last updated Dec. 14, 2023, 5:11 p.m..