By Kendra Sitton
In September, San Diego Public Library unveiled a series of programs honoring former head librarian Clara E. Breed who is known for advocating for Japanese Americans incarcerated during World War II. “The Rebellious Miss Breed: San Diego Public Library & the Japanese American Incarceration” includes exhibits, films, performances, book discussions and author talks.
As a children’s librarian during the war, Breed exchanged postcards with Japanese American youth, sent library books to them and urged other librarians in trade publications to do whatever they could to help Japanese Americans.
After the war, she advocated against the San Diego City Council’s and Chamber of Commerce’s efforts to prevent Japanese Americans from returning to San Diego and owning land, according to San Diego City College history professor Susan Hasegawa who gave a lecture on Japanese Americans in San Diego as part of the “Rebellious Miss Breed” programming. During the traumatic re-entry process, Breed also maintained relationships with many of the children she had communicated with while they were incarcerated.
When she later became head librarian for 25 years, Breed expanded the library systems, promoted youth services and encouraged librarians to acquire multicultural collections.
“Clara Breed was dedicated to the library and the San Diego community during her lifetime,” said San Diego Public Library Director Misty Jones. ”The Rebellious Miss Breed’ brings Clara’s devotion of public service to life and reflects on how her advocacy for an equitable and inclusionary future still informs the mission of the San Diego Public Library today.”
Librarian March Chery, the co-director of the Clara Breed programming, finds Breed’s story to be inspiring because she demonstrated the same passion for the community that librarians have to this day.
“In the library world, we continue to make people’s lives better in the community, to open doors for people,” Chery said. “Whether it’s helping somebody find the right book but also uncovering issues that are a part of the nation.”
Chery said Breed refused to compromise on the humanity of other people.
From Sept. 18, 2021 to Jan. 30, 2022, the San Diego Central Library Gallery will host the exhibit “Call to Serve: Clara Breed & the Japanese American Incarceration.” It is a collection of photos and artifacts that examine Breed’s advocacy and the experiences of Japanese Americans during World War II. The exhibit includes a replica of a World War II barrack to show living conditions at detention sites.
The program was meant to be held last year but was delayed due to COVID-19’s library closures. The delay did allow for the program to be much bigger than what was originally planned. Instead of just a month, the exhibit and events lasts from September to January 2022. Despite the ongoing pandemic, the librarians running the programs have been blown away by the response from the community. At recent lectures and events, double the audience they have expected attended. While many of the attendees have been elderly Japanese Americans, people of all ages and ethnicities attended as well, according to Chery.
Chery has been at the library for 20 years and at first did not know about Breed’s advocacy.
“I found out and felt that something should be done in the library,” Chery said.
Alongside another librarian who made a similar discovery, it still took years for the idea to come to fruition. The funding for the program came from California Humanities.
There were others interested in the story as well. Author Cynthia Grady published her picture book “Write to Me: Letters from Japanese American Children to the Librarian They Left Behind.” On Oct. 23, she will read the book aloud in a virtual event aimed at San Diego families. The book was already a 2020 “One Book, One San Diego” selection and includes excerpts from the correspondence between Breed and the Japanese American children.
In another upcoming event, local theater students will perform a dramatic reading of the letters. The date is to be determined. Other events include a lecture fromindependent filmmaker and UCLA distinguished professor Renee Tajima-Peña on Nov. 17 and an interview with Jack Kobuta about his internment on Oct. 2.
For a full list of events and programs, visit the library’s “Rebellious Miss Breed” web page.
— Kendra Sitton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.