Seattle-led team’s work remembered in Hiroshima

Dorothy Tibbs-Dawson

Dorothy Tibbs-Dawson

Daisy Tibbs-Dawson has been thinking a lot recently about a chapter of her rich life that she, a famous Seattle peace activist, and the citizens of Hiroshima wrote 63 years ago. A 25-year-old volunteer on a 1949 project to help rebuild housing in the atomic-bombed city, Tibbs-Dawson recalls hard work in primitive conditions where people were friendly to her and other Americans, even treating them as kind of celebrities.

This Friday, a number of Seattle-area residents are returning to Hiroshima to celebrate the opening of commemorative museum connected with the project. “I just wish I could go,” said Tibbs-Dawson, now in her late 80s.

A former executive in Seattle Public Schools’ Head Start program and a longtime leader in Presbyterian church affairs in the Northwest, Tibbs-Dawson, 88, is staying at home because of health issues that would make travel risky. Though she’s traveled widely since, she has never returned to Hiroshima. “It would be such a difference,” she says of the city, now a prosperous metropolitan area of more than 1 million people.

Officials in Hiroshima are set to open a museum in early November commemorating the reconstruction efforts of Seattle community members in the wake of the city’s atomic bombing.

The city will open Schmoe House on Nov. 1 to commemorate the work of foreign nationals in helping Hiroshima residents recover. The new museum, which will be affiliated with the famed Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum, will be housed in one of the last remaining Hiroshima houses built by the Seattle-led volunteer group.

Schmoe House will be named after longtime peace activist and Quaker Floyd Schmoe of Seattle, who was 105 when he died in 2005. Schmoe first traveled to Hiroshima in 1949 to build houses for bombing survivors as part of a four-person delegation that included the now-deceased Rev. Emery Andrews, a longtime pastor of Seattle’s Japanese Baptist Church, and Tibbs-Dawson, who still lives in Seattle. The fourth delegation member, Ruth Jenkins, may live in California, according to information recently received by Yosh Nakagawa, a longtime leader in the Japanese Baptist Church as well as in sports and business.

Nakagawa and Andrews’ son, Pastor Brooks Andrews, (who is the interim senior minister at the church on Broadway just south of Seattle University) are traveling to Hiroshima for the opening of Schmoe House. Nakagawa said several members of Schmoe’s family and a number of Japanese Americans are also expected to attend the opening.

Between 1949 and 1953, groups working with Schmoe built 21 houses in Hiroshima. Houses were also built in Nagasaki, the other city that suffered a nuclear attack. Brooks Andrews said his father returned to Japan in 1951 or 1952 to help with the Nagasaki effort.

In a book published later, Schmoe wryly referred to himself and Emery Andrews as “definitely of the ‘parent generation’ ” to other volunteers on the project, mostly in their 20s. He also noted that Andrews was “known to most of the Nisei [second-generation Japanese Americans] in the Northwest simply as Andy. He probably married more Nisei couples than any other man in the United States.” According to Nakagawa, Schmoe and Andrews became friends during World War II, when both were supporting Japanese Americans, who had been interned in camps in gross violation of various guarantees in the U.S. Constitution.

At the start of the work, it seems that Hiroshima residents were somewhat amazed by the help. “Dad said people were very curious as to why this group would build houses, since they were former enemies,” Andrews recalled. “They couldn’t understand this. But for Dad and Floyd Schmoe, it was a gesture of peace.”

While the group was crossing the Pacific to express solidarity with the victims of the bombing, the composition of the four-person delegation was also breaking barriers at home. Tibbs-Dawson was a young African American — with a position teaching in a junior college — when Schmoe persuaded her to go. This at a time when segregation was still a social norm in most of European American-dominated society at home.

In an interview at her home near the Madrona business district, Tibbs-Dawson recalled the intense attention the group received on a trans-Pacific ship trip that began in San Francisco and included a stop in Hawaii. On the boat the group traveled in third class, but was greeted in Honolulu by reporters, photographers and a welcoming committee that draped leis around their necks. “The first-class people couldn’t believe it when we got all this attention in Hawaii,” she laughed.

Schmoe became a mentor to Tibbs-Dawson while she was still a student at the University of Washington (one of fewer than 70 African Americans in the school) and worked on weekend projects he organized to fix up the houses of Japanese-Americans returning from the wartime internment camps. She grew up in Alabama and her parents died while she was still a girl, but her passion for education attracted the attention of missionary school principal, J.T. Wright, and his wife. When the Wrights moved to Seattle for a job, they interested her in coming to the UW. Tibbs-Dawson enrolled without trouble, but quickly found racial prejudice in classrooms and the community.

She encountered culture shock moving to Seattle, but became good friends with both white and Asian Americans, including lifelong friend and famed educator Aki Kurose (“We raised our kids together.”). If they all wanted to go to a restaurant, the group would have to wait until they arrived to see if she would be accepted. The trip to Japan brought its own shocks, including the poverty in Hiroshima. “It was a shock when you got there,” she said. “You see all the devastation.” Tibbs-Dawson remembers seeing “people who were, you know, nothing but skin and bones.”

The group worked for several months building houses, tramping in mud and using very basic construction techniques. Many young Japanese volunteers from Tokyo and Hiroshima joined in. While in Hiroshima, the volunteers lived at a church headed by a Methodist minister, the Rev. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, one of the six main characters in author John Hersey’s classic account of the bombing, Hiroshima.

If there was still anger toward Americans, it wasn’t directed toward Tibbs-Dawson and the rest of the group. She recalled her amazement at the upbeat attitudes she observed at a ceremony marking the fourth anniversary of the Aug. 6, 1945 bombing (Schmoe was taken aback). People realized, Tibbs-Dawson explained, that it was not ordinary civilians like the group from the United States who had ordered the bombing. Plus, she said, “We were supportive and all of us had volunteered.”

As on the trip over, the group attacted considerable attention wherever it went in Japan. Jenkins, known as “Pinkie,” was tall and red-haired, making her perhaps as much an object of a curiosity as Tibbs-Dawson to the Japanese. But Tibbs-Dawson enjoyed the people and the country, and she would often take on the role of speaking in Japanese to a crowd. Even now, she still easily tosses off some Japanese phrases.

Schmoe himself actually objected to what quickly became the practice in Hiroshima of referring to the houses built by volunteers from the city, abroad, and Tokyo as Schmoe Houses. In Japan Journey, a small book published in 1950, Schmoe noted that in an invitation sent to 100 people — including members of the press — the mayor of Hiroshima, Shinzo Hamai, called two completed houses “Minamachi Schmoe Houses,” referring to a neighborhood where the houses were. Schmoe felt that the designation was “not fair” to other Americans involved in making the houses possible. (There’s a signed copy of the book at the University Friends Meeting center, where Schmoe was an active member.)

While there may have been initial surprise in Hiroshima at the foreign interest, there has been enduring interest in the work of the Americans. Schmoe became legendary in Hiroshima, and Seattle’s Peace Park, near the University Bridge, was built in part with funds he received from a peace prize from there. In 1970, Andrews was recognized with an extremely prestigious award from the Emperor of Japan. Tibbs-Dawson recalled Andrews as upbeat. “He would keep us going,” she said.

As he prepared for the trip, Brooks Andrews, now 74, said he never expected to travel to Japan. He said he probably still doesn’t fully comprehend “the esteem that Hiroshima holds for the houses and the building projects.”

But 63 years after his father’s first trip, he is about to have a chance to experience how strongly the memory is held. In recent weeks, Hiroshima’s daily newspaper has published at least two articles (English versions here and here) on the upcoming dedication.

Tibbs-Dawson remains grateful for the experience of seeing Japan and said she always kept her devotion to peace. People have learned enough, she said, to have avoided using nuclear weapons again. “But we are still at war again,” she said. “I just keep wondering why. It seems like we will always be at war with somebody somewhere. And you just keep wondering, when will it ever stop? Or when will we ever be able to live with one another and accept one another?”

Copyright 2012/Joe Copeland

This story is also being published on Crosscut News.

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