On a warm August day, Japanese-American pacifist and civil rights activist Gordon Hirabayashi made headlines, marrying his college sweetheart, Esther Schmoe, in a simple Quaker ceremony at Spokane’s Lidgerwood Evangelical Church. While the happy couple was not the first to have an interracial marriage in Washington, it was one of the most publicized. Yet the newspapers were relatively tame about the Hirabayashi wedding, other instances of white women marrying Japanese men were sensationalized.
Fighting against the injustices of WWII Japanese-American related government policies, Gordon Hirabayashi was seen as a rabble-rouser. The son of vegetable farmers in Auburn, Washington, Hirabayashi was refused to register for relocation to Japanese internment camp in 1942, resulting in a Supreme Court case. As he explained in a 1985 piece for the New York Times, “I felt that the Constitution, as I understood it, gave me certain protections as a citizen under martial law.” Waiting the outcome of his trial, Hirabayashi moved to Spokane to work with the city’s chapter of the American Friends Service Committee.
When the Supreme Court unanimously upheld Hirabayashi’s conviction on June 21, 1943, Hirabayashi was escorted by the FBI to meet Spokane County’s District Attorney, Edward Connelly. Since his assigned prison was inside the internment zone, Hirabayashi faced two alternatives: he could spend his sentence locked up inside the Spokane County Jail, or he could escort himself down to Arizona and serve time with the Tucson Federal road camp. Preferring the outdoors, Hirabayashi hitchhiked his way down to Tucson, where he served his sentence alongside other pacifists and conscientious objectors.
After returning to Spokane in 1943, Hirabayashi was arrested again for refusing to fill out the “Statement of United States Citizen of Japanese Ancestry” (Selective Service Form 304A), used to determine Japanese-American loyalty and draft eligibility. While out on bail, Hirabayashi and his fiancée decided to get married on August 5, 1944. Shortly after, he was sentenced to another prison term.
After serving nearly two years in prison, Hirabayashi focused on his academic studies, earning a Ph.D. in sociology in 1951. Eventually, Hirabayashi’s cases were overturned, and helped prompt the federal government to apologize for its wartime treatment of Japanese-American citizens. As for the married couple, they separated in 1970 and passed away just hours apart on the same day in January 2012.