Relocated from World War II detention camps
Japanese Americans mark 50 years of life in Upper Deerfield Township
Does the following plot line seem
“…Industrialist saves thousands
from internment camps during the Second World War by having them work
in his factory.”
Although it may sound like the basis of the movie
“Schindler’s List,” it also describes an event that took place a half
century ago at Seabrook Farms Frozen Foods in New Jersey.
The story begins eleven weeks after the Japanese
attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7th, 1941. Anti-Japanese
sentiment gripped the West Coast, home to most Japanese Americans.
Tensions came to a head on February 19, 1942 when Franklin Delano
Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, forcing US citizens of Japanese
descent, over one hundred thousand people in all, to abandon their
homes and businesses and move to detention camps at ten locations
throughout the South and Midwest.
Only after Japanese Americans had spent two years
in these camps did the US government tacitly admit its mistake by
allowing them to leave, but only to locations away from the West
Coast. Charles Franklin Seabrook, owner of Seabrook Farms Frozen
Foods, near Vineland in Upper Deerfield Township, agreed to guarantee
the safety of displaced Japanese Americans. His company offered
employment, housing and education. In return, Seabrook gained
financial assistance from the US Government and access to a highly
skilled and educated work force.
Ellen Nakamura was one of three Japanese
Americans (Mrs. Nakamura cautioned that Americans of Japanese descent
who resided at Seabrook preferred to be described as “Japanese
Americans”, spelled without the hyphen) that formed the Relocation
Planning Commission from Jerome Internment Camp in Arkansas, a
committee formed to encourage Japanese Americans to accept employment
at Seabrook. She paid her first visit to Seabrook in April 1944, at
the age of 24. “People had been idling their time in the camps, but in
New Jersey I could foresee them picking up the pieces of their broken
lives,” she said.
Most residents did just that, reclaiming the
enthusiasm they had felt as new immigrants in more innocent days
before their detention in the government camps. The eyes of one former
resident of Seabrook still twinkle when she remembers her first
impression of New Jersey. “You can see fields for miles and miles and
I think, ‘This is America.’ All eight of my children got a public
education there,” she said.
Another former Seabrook resident described the
contrasts. “Thousands upon thousands of workers came through here on
the minimum six-month contract, just trying to save enough money to go
back to wherever they came from,” she said. “For those of us who
stayed, it was a close-knit community. I remember my husband always
planted more vegetables than we needed in our garden so he’d have
enough to give our friends and neighbors.” One present-day Seabrook
resident recalled that anti-Japanese incidents were rare.
At its peak in 1947, there were almost 3,000
Japanese Americans living in the Seabrook Village section of Upper
Deerfield Township. Today several hundred remain, scattered about this
part of New Jersey, including Bridgeton and Vineland.
Japanese Americans, although by far the largest
ethnic group, were not the only people to find a safe haven there.
Japanese Peruvians were relocated to Seabrook, along with North
American ethnic Japanese. Refugees from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania
fleeing from the advancing armies of Stalin soon followed. Destitute
migrant workers from Appalachia, the Deep South, Jamaica and Barbados
were drawn by the promise of jobs at Seabrook. The public school and
local Scout troops, while trying to assimilate the children of these
diverse cultures, started a tradition in the 1940’s of multi-cultural
fairs long before they began to be popularized in other American
Today the mixing of East and West is still
visible to the casual day tripper. You will discover that some
tombstones in the Deerfield Presbyterian Church cemetery on Route 77
and at Overlook Cemetery in nearby Bridgeton are engraved with
traditional Japanese family crests. On Northville Road there is what
appears to be an old fashioned white clapboard church that on closer
inspection turns out to be Seabrook Buddhist Temple, said to be the
only Buddhist temple in the State. On the grounds there is a Japanese
garden and a small gong to replace the ringing of a steeple bell.
Because of the war, Seabrook also came to
represent a tragic meeting of East and West for some families. In more
than one instance some sons volunteered for the much-decorated
Japanese American 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the 100th
Battalion in the European theater, while other kin fought on the side
of the Imperial Japanese Army.
At the war’s end, many of Seabrook’s Japanese
returned home to the West Coast to try to salvage their lives and
livelihoods. In the years that followed, the company town of Seabrook
had a taste of economic hard times. By the 1960’s the Seabrook family
had sold the plant and it operations. The site passed through a number
of corporate hands. In the late 1970’s, James M. Sebrook, grandson of
the founder, reopened the business as Seabrook Brothers and Sons.
In 1989 early Seabrook resident Ellen Nakamura,
in her capacity as President of the Seabrook chapter of the Japanese
American Citizens League, contacted John M. Seabrook with a proposal
for a cultural and educational center to document and preserve the
proud history of this southern New Jersey town. John Seabrook called
on John Fuyuume, one of Mr. Seabrook’s top executives, to direct the
A steering committee was formed and work to make
the center a reality began in earnest, assisted by a combination of
corporate, public and private funding. The committee has collected and
catalogued over 2,000 vintage photographs of life at Seabrook, and has
recorded oral histories of some of the people who lived there. With
help from a grant from the New Jersey Committee for the Humanities, a
video is being produced that tells the story of Seabrook.
Construction of the Seabrook Educational and
Cultural Center began this July. The Center is housed in the Upper
Deerfield Municipal Hall. Dedication of the center is scheduled for
October, amidst celebrations marking the fiftieth year since the first
Japanese Americans arrived from the detention camps. Over 200 former
residents are expected from as far away as California and Peru. A
“People’s Inaugural Panel” discussion of the history of the town is
slated for Saturday, October 8th. A full schedule of events
includes performances by the nationally acclaimed Minyo Dancers and
Hoh Daiko Drummers at a banquet on Sunday, October 9. The 50th
Anniversary Celebration at Seabrook and the Opening of the Seabrook
Educational and Cultural Center is sure to provide many people with an
opportunity to share personal memories of their days at Seabrook. For
others, it may well afford a first look at a little-known part of our
Michele Kriegman-Chin lives in Morristown.
Fuji Sasaki, Ellen Nakamura and Harold Ouchida
formed the Jerome Relocation Commission in Arkansas to encourage
Japanese Americans in detention camps to accept employment at Seabrook
50 years ago. Photos courtesy of the Seabrook Educational and Cultural
Seabrook 50th Anniversary
Saturday and Sunday, October 8th
and 9th (registration on the evening of October 7th)
Presented by the Seabrook Chapter of the
Japanese American Cultural League and the Seabrook Educational and
Cultural Center. Scheduled events include the dedication of the
museum, tours of the Seabrook complex, videos of the history of
Seabrook, guest speakers (including John M. Seabrook), traditonal
Japanese entertainment and a gala banquet.
A general registration fee of $50 includes a
receptoin at the Ramada Inn in Vineland, the Peoples Inaugural and
the Celebration Banquet, a souvenir booklet and transportation
to/from the Ramada Inn. Several other options (including a golf
tournament) and single events are available for those who may wish
to attend the entire weekend.
For further information, contact Mr. Ray Ono,
SECC, P.O.Box 5041, Seabrook, NJ 08302.