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Seabrook’s Legacy

Frozen food production, yes, but interned workers, too.

by Vince Farinaccio

Seabrook Farms, best known for its frozen fruit and vegetable production from the 1940s to the 1960s, was undeniably one of South Jersey’s most successful and nationally known industries but, viewed in retrospect, its legacy is now determined more by factors unrelated to its place in the history of manufacturing.

The business, created by Charles F. Seabrook, was part of a burgeoning operation known as truck farming. New technology of the 1930s allowed Northeast companies like Seabrook Farms to increase production and market to urban centers like Philadelphia and New York City.

For its mammoth operation, Seabrook Farms employed field workers to pick vegetables and an assembly-line staff to complete and package the final frozen product.

A 1994 New York Times overview of the company reports that, prior to the Second World War, “Seabrook already was importing Southern blacks, Appalachian whites and Caribbean labor in an attempt to fill 3,000 jobs in peak production months.” However, once the U.S. entered World War II and men began joining the military, the Seabrook Farms labor force was reduced considerably just as the government demanded more of the company’s output to feed the country.

As a solution, the Seabrook family approached the War Relocation Authority to request hiring Japanese Americans interned in camps following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Internment has been explained away as a security measure against feared disloyalty and, while it did receive public support at the time, subsequent decades have looked unfavorably on the decision, questioning it on moral and constitutional grounds.

Richard Reeves reports in his 2015 book Infamy: The Shocking Story of the Japanese American Internment in World War II that “more than twelve hundred American Japanese community leaders identified from ‘Suspect Enemy Aliens’ lists secretly compiled by the FBI with the help of the Census Bureau…were arrested without charges within forty-eight hours after the attack on Pearl Harbor. More than a thousand of them were from California, Oregon, Washington and Hawaii.”

The Densho Encyclopedia website explains that these detainees “were leaders in the Japanese American community before the war [and] were considered by the government to be high risk for disloyalty.” Consisting of mostly first-generation Japanese male immigrants known as Issei, they were at first “kept in Department of Justice internment camps as enemy aliens” before some were transferred to one of the 10 incarceration camps in the American West and South.

Those camps, established in California, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, and Arkansas between 1942 and 1945, held approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans.

Only hours after Germany and Italy had declared war on the U.S., Reeves explains, “FBI director J. Edgar Hoover informed the White House that 620 Germans and 98 Italians were also taken into custody.” However, “President Roosevelt had already told his attorney general, Francis Biddle, to take it easy on Italians and Italian Americans…”

Reeves identifies that there were “important differences in dealing with immigrants to the United States from Europe and immigrants from Asia. Europeans…could have become naturalized U.S. citizens.” But those born in Japan “could not become U.S. citizens and could not own land in the United States under the Immigration Act of 1924.”

Such practice, Reeves reports, can be traced to a 1922 Supreme Court ruling in which Takeo Ozawa, a University of Berkeley student, “was not a ‘free white person’ and was therefore ineligible for citizenship.”

Earlier precedents for this type of thinking, according to Reeves, include a Stanford sociology professor, Dr. Edward Alsworth Ross, who wrote in 1900 that the Japanese were “unassimilable,” and “work for low wages and thereby undermine the existing work standards of American workmen.”

Next Week: An Oath of Loyalty

Jersey Reflections