Discrimination can be an ugly subject but we all do it — we all discriminate. I for one never liked Brussels sprouts even though (or perhaps because) I was born and grew up in Brussels sprout country in California’s Central Coast and my mother cooked the vegetable often. So I’ve discriminated against Brussels sprouts (that is rarely eaten them) ever since I left home in 1969.
Discrimination against people is another matter entirely. My father was born in Hamburg, Germany in 1909. Approximately thirty years later he was living in San Jose, Costa Rica with my mother (born in San Jose, California in 1911) and my two sisters, born in 1940 and 1941. When World War II broke out, my father was put under house arrest by Costa Rican authorities and then put in prison — no judge, no jury, and no trial. He wasn’t even charged with a crime although I suppose you could say that his crime was that he had been born. In January 1943, he, along with my mother and my sisters were deported to San Pedro, California on the U.S. Army transport ship Puebla and then transported to a “family internment camp” near Crystal City, Texas, where they were kept in prison for over a year simply because of my father’s place of birth. He and the rest of my family were finally released in May 1944. My father’s case wasn’t the only one. During that war many Germans, Italians, and Japanese civilians living in Central and South America were also shipped to the U.S. for internment as were many American citizens of Japanese descent. Most of these people were completely innocent and were never charged with any crimes, just locked up because they had been born in the wrong country or of the wrong parents.
So why do I begin this article for Black History Month with a brief synopsis of my father’s life during the World War II, when my father was a white man? The reason is simple: discrimination, ironically, does not discriminate. People of all different colors hate people of all different colors and color is unfortunately not the only reason we seem to hate each other, though populations of color have experienced disproportionate discrimination throughout America’s history — part of the reason I’m writing about the incident below. The only way we will ever get over this culture of hate is by understanding others and our shared history. Understand what it is like walking in each other’s shoes and to remember that discrimination can happen to us all.
On August 16, 1900, Skagway’s main newspaper, the Daily Alaskan, ran a long article about a controversy brewing around Skagway’s recently established Young Men’s Christian Association, Alaska’s first YMCA. The headlines, and the “Daily Alaskan” article below, stated the problem: “Line Drawn,” “Objections Arise to Colored Men in Y.M.C.A.,” “Withdrawals Made.”
Some of the Members of the Association Displeased With the Fact Sons of Ham Are Permitted in the Organization
The hitherto serene career of the Y.M.C.A. has been ruffled to some extent the last few days. The membership has been rolling up during the summer at a lively pace. Over three hundred members were obtained by the first of this month. The limit permitted under the rules of the organization had been reached, and the management was congratulating itself on a full house, and some had even begun to wonder what would be done with future applications, but they were relieved of further worry on that score. It resulted from exceptions taken by certain of the members to association with other members of the organization.
The enrollment was just about filled a few days ago by the enlistment of thirty soldiers from Co. L, Twenty-fourth United States regulars, who are stationed in Skagway. The soldiers are all of the colored race. It was the objection to the membership of colored people to the organization that caused the ruffled waters. Certain of the members were not pleased to have the colored men mingle with them in the athletic, social, and other diversions afforded in the association buildings. Objection was also entertained against using the same baths with the colored men.
At the last meeting of the women’s gymnastic class, last week, according to one of the women who withdrew, only two women were present, one a married woman and the other single. Up to that time, she stated yesterday, as many as 30 had attended. Mr. Reid says, however, that 21 women were present at the last class meeting.
The withdrawals caused comment in all directions. The fact the membership of the club was so large meant that in nearly every quarter of the city people were more or less interested.
Shopmen, miners, professional men, old folks and young were all more or less attracted by the affair, and had occasion to say or do something, and the matter on the whole became one of the most discussed of any regarding social affairs that has come up in the town of late.
Those who have withdrawn are quite decided as to their grounds being justifiable. Secretary Reid is quite firm in the stand that colored men are, according to the constitution of the order, entitled to remain in the organization.
The colored members themselves seem to take different views on the matter. Several of them were asked yesterday what they knew about the affair. All said they had heard nothing up to that time of any of the whites having withdrawn, and knew of none of the soldiers having drawn out or expressed an intention or desire to do so. One of the colored men stated he would keep his membership and intended to stay in regardless of what were the likes or dislikes of the white members. Three other soldiers took another view of the matter. They wanted to withdraw. One appeared at the secretary’s office last evening to ask for withdrawal of his name. He stated he was not going to remain where he was not wanted, and where someone might take objection to his presence and insult him. He thought there were other places he could find suitable society. It was stated by him that the soldiers of his company have a certificate as to the best conduct of any company in the regiment…
One of the women who withdrew, and is the wife of a prominent Skagwayan, stated yesterday:
“I withdrew because I do not like to associate with colored people. I believe the Y.M.C.A. is a good institution and does good, and my husband has always maintained the same opinion. He has helped the association and I have done as much for it as I could. I am willing to continue to help the association, and have considered, since my withdrawal, the proposition of getting up a benefit entertainment elsewhere for the association. Yet, I do not dare to go where I must meet colored men. I have southern blood, it is true, but I have the greatest respect for a colored person in his proper place. I regret the mistake in the present case has occurred because of some, but it cannot be helped.”
“I was in the gymnasium a few days ago when one of the colored men saw me trying to punch a bag. He came up and volunteered to give me lessons. Now I do not like such a proceeding. On another occasion one of the colored men took part in a basketball team with the white men. I do not think that proper.”
Secretary Reid last evening, when asked about the matter, said,
“The Young Men’s Christian Association knows no color line. It stands for young men regardless of nationality the world over. The only clause in our constitution regarding who shall be eligible to associate membership is that of good moral character. The same constitution applies the world over. In the South where the race prejudice is strong and the large numbers of colored people warrant conducting of a distinct work along the same line, they have separate institutions. Where this is not the case they are treated like anyone else as long as they conduct themselves in a proper manner.”
“As for Skagway, there can be no exception, we shall treat all alike. The arrangement of the classes provides two evenings, Tuesday and Friday for the soldiers for class work and recreation. In a like manner, classes are provided for all, setting apart Monday, Wednesday and Saturday evenings for general class work for those whom classes are not otherwise provided, so that there is no occasion for feeling on the part of anyone. During the hours set apart for the ladies on Monday and Thursday afternoons from 2 to 6 o’clock, the ladies have the exclusive use of both gymnasium and baths, during which time there is a lady attendant in charge. Everything that can possibly be done for the pleasure and best interests of its members, the association stands ready to do, to…show discrimination in color it cannot—Christianity knows no such discrimination.”
However, after all [is] done and said, it appears there is no particular blame to attach to any of the parties concerned. The constitution of the Y.M.C.A. does not prohibit the colored men becoming members of the organization and it does not require that anyone should remain in the organization if not pleased with other members. Those who wish to solicit members are permitted to solicit from any walk of life they choose, so long as their moral character is good. The fellowship is not binding, so those withdrawing follow their own pleasure, those remaining in do the same, those who think the situation is good enough are pleased and those who are not satisfied have recourse in following others that have resigned, so there are avenues open to all, and everything is lovely and the goose hangs high.”
There were soon hints that some people were looking for alternatives to the YMCA. Within a day of the controversy breaking the Daily Alaskan of Aug. 17, 1900 reported the formation of the Ladies Athletic Club of Skagway. A few days later, the Daily Alaskan (Aug. 19, 1901) reported that a number of Skagway’s “best known women” had gotten together and initiated a new social organization, called the Magpie Club. While directed by women, the organization allowed men to join and participate in social functions, such as dances. The club first met in Anderson’s Hall, but was soon using the new Elks’ Hall. Interestingly, the club immediately ordered basketball equipment and members soon began playing basketball games and becoming involved in gymnastics and calisthenics. Participation in events was limited to local members and invited guests from out of town.
By late August 1900, a Railroad Men’s Athletic and Gymnastics Club had been proposed, with the approval of White Pass &Yukon Route railway Superintendent J. P. Rogers. Within a month, the Railroad Men’s Club had gotten use of a rent-free hall. The Daily Alaskan of September 1, 1900 reported that the “…boys are planning to put in a complete athletic outfit…in addition to the trapezes, horizontal bars, boxing, and fencing materials and so on, there is to be a billiard table, bowling alley, baths, smoking room, and library.” These facilities were to be open to railroad workers.
About 8 months after the controversy broke, the Daily Alaskan of April 11, 1901, under the headline, “YMCA Prospering,” reported on improvements to the new YMCA Gymnasium formally dedicated less than a year earlier on July 6, 1900. In a letter to the Daily Alaskan (April 21, 1901) YMCA Secretary William Reid observed that the improvements were made by donations and not out of general funds and stated that: “The directors have curtailed the expenses of the association in every possible way to pay off the deficit incurred last winter, and are not favorably disposed to incur any additional expenses until the debt is entirely wiped out.”
The local YMCA could not get out of debt, however, and the Daily Alaskan of Nov. 1, 1901 reported that by late October, it had closed its doors due to the lack of sufficient funds. The YMCA had boasted more than 1,000 members, almost a third of the town’s population in 1900, but by August 1, 1901 membership was down to 100 and had dropped to just 55 by the time of the closing.
Why did the YMCA close its doors after such a promising start a few years earlier? The dramatic downward trend in Skagway’s economy immediately after the Klondike gold rush certainly played a part. The town’s population went from approximately 10,000 in 1898, to just over 3,000 in 1900 and to around 870 in 1910 so the YMCA was probably doomed even if this racist incident hadn’t occurred. But it did and that probably hastened the demise of the organization here in Skagway.
The men of Company L of the 24th Infantry arrived in Skagway on May 20, 1899 and were rotated out of Skagway on May 15, 1902. The YMCA Gymnasium still stands and is being restored by the National Park Service.
As far as my father was concerned, in spite of the treatment he received at the hands of the United States government, he became a naturalized citizen of the U.S. on April 21, 1952. He died on March 1, 1970. In regard to my dislike of Brussels sprouts, just a few years ago I tried the vegetable at a nice restaurant and found out that it wasn’t as bad as I remembered, which goes to show you that old dogs can learn new tricks and vegetables can be cooked in different ways and the evils of discrimination can be conquered – it just takes you and me.
An earlier version of this article was read over the air on KHNS, the Haines public radio station. Information for this article was supplied in large part by a long article in the Daily Alaskan newspaper of Aug. 16, 1900 (page 1, columns 2-3). Although the author of that article was unnamed, it was probably the editor of the paper, George W. De Succa. Other articles from the Daily Alaskan newspaper provided additional information as did two KHNS History Talk programs researched and written, one by Madison Heslop and the other by David Simpson in 2012. My parent’s internment during World War II is told in a book researched and written by my sister, Heidi Donald entitled: “We were not the Enemy: Remembering the United States Latin-American Civilian Internment Program of World War II.” Lincoln, NE: iUniverse, 2006. A Historic Structure Report on the YMCA Gymnasium and the adjacent Meyer Building is available free of charge by contacting the author at email@example.com. For further information on Company L’s time in Skagway, see go.nps.gov/col.
• Karl Gurcke is a historian at Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park.