By Allison Rost
The Mills campus is a home away from home for many, but can it truly shield students from the outside world? The history is complicated.
On December 8, 1941—the day after “a date which will live in infamy”—then-president Aurelia Henry Reinhardt wrote a letter to all Mills families. With the hindsight of nearly 80 years, it’s a surreal read; the main point of the letter was not to offer solace or organize war efforts, but to reassure parents that the Mills campus was unlikely to face any danger from a Japanese attack. “The English Channel is 26 miles wide; New York is 3,500 miles from Europe; California is 5,500 miles from Japan and 2,500 miles from our nearest possession in the Hawaiian group,” she wrote. “May I assure you that there exists no reason to change in any way the schedule and curriculum of this college in the spring term which begins Monday, January 5.”
At that point, no one knew that many students of Japanese descent would soon opt to leave Mills, hoping to avoid separation from their families as they were forced into internment camps across the United States. In the years leading up to World War II, President Reinhardt had approached a number of European artists and intellectuals to offer them a place at Mills as the Third Reich marched across the continent and sent to concentration camps anyone it deemed a threat, including Darius Milhaud and other notable figures in the College’s history, but that welcoming spirit couldn’t protect some of her own students.
When it comes to political and cultural forces outside the campus gates, the College has historically been limited in what it can do to protect its students. But as an institution, Mills has long welcomed members of marginalized communities, and outside restrictions have not altered the campus culture of acceptance.
In recent years, the term “sanctuary” has become a buzzword in our charged political environment. But in a historical sense, the concept originated with the sacred. In ancient Greece, spaces that honored the gods provided some measure of immunity to individuals escaping laws of the state (with limited success), and in Rome, Romulus established a zone on Capitoline Hill where asylum seekers from other places could find refuge. For centuries, places of worship have operated as spaces where people could take shelter, and it’s still happening today—churches around the world house migrants seeking to avoid deportation back to war-torn homelands.
The idea of sanctuary gained popularity in the United States in the 1980s when Central Americans began to flee their home countries in the wake of civil unrest, but Mills took on the responsibility of offering it 60 years earlier in the early days of World War II. In the 1961 book Aurelia Henry Reinhardt: Portrait of a Whole Woman, Chaplain George Hedley wrote that President Reinhardt contacted the Emergency Committee in Aid of Displaced German Scholars (later Foreign Scholars) to invite intellectuals to Mills as soon as Hitler took power in Germany in 1933. Hedley noted that legends were told of Reinhardt physically transporting those scholars to campus herself.
A number of professors soon made their way to Oakland, including Alfred Neumeyer, who taught art history and directed what was then the Art Gallery, and the married couple Bernhard Blume and Carlotta Rosenberg. A German playwright, Bernhard headed up the German Department at Mills until 1945, and Rosenberg was a proponent of educating workers and women.
Of course, the most well-known Mills expats were the musician Darius Milhaud and his wife, Madeleine. In speaking with the author Roger Nichols in 1991, Madeleine detailed her family’s reaction when the Nazis entered Paris in June 1940: “We knew… that Milhaud was among the first on a list of intellectuals to be arrested because he was well known in Germany as a Jewish composer, and also because he did not share their right-wing ideals.”
The Milhauds made their way to Lisbon with plans to fly to New York, using an invitation from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to obtain visas. But upon arrival in Portugal, their plane tickets were declared invalid because they had been bought with French francs. The three—Darius, Madeleine, and their son—were just about to board an American freighter to cross the Atlantic when a telegram arrived with an offer to teach at Mills. The San Francisco-based French conductor Pierre Monteux had contacted President Reinhardt after learning that Milhaud was fleeing to America and connected the two.
Milhaud cabled his acceptance of the position and, a few months after arriving on campus, Dean of Faculty Dean Rusk (later US Secretary of State during the Vietnam War) wrote to the State Department to plead his case for Milhaud’s continued residency in the United States, which hinged on his history of contribution to the arts. Milhaud taught on and off at Mills from 1940 until 1971.
Milhaud’s influence on the Music Department (and the rest of the College) is well known, though he was not the only academic who molded Mills in indelible ways during this time. Helene Mayer, a champion German fencer at the 1928 Olympics, was studying at Scripps College when Hitler rose to power in her home country. She then enrolled at Mills for a master’s in French. While on campus studying for her MA and, later, teaching German literature, she founded the Mills College Fencing Club, jump-starting an organization that lasted for decades. And it’s to the credit of these scholars that the German Department at Mills built a strong enough foundation to eventually send many of its students abroad as Fulbright scholars.
The situation with students of Japanese descent was not nearly as easy to solve, however, with President Franklin D. Roosevelt establishing internment camps less than three months after the Pearl Harbor attack.
Alumnae who were at Mills during the attack remember that day as a sunny one, with word of the incident filtering in as they arrived back in their residence halls after Sunday chapel service. Japanese American students soon found their freedoms curtailed bit by bit, starting with an Army-ordered curfew that restricted their movement even on the Mills campus.
May Ohmura Watanabe ’44, who was born in California to American citizens, wrote about her experiences in multiple issues of the Quarterly. “I remember Dr. Hedley, the chaplain, was very upset and angry. I can still feel his hand tightly holding mine, his body slightly bent forward as he hurried to look at the curfew proclamation posted on the telephone pole just outside the campus,” she wrote in 1985. “He even took me to the Army’s headquarters in San Francisco to protest and to state his disbelief. All in vain.”
Watanabe soon left Mills and returned home to Chico so that she wouldn’t be sent to a different internment camp than her parents and brother. She spent a year at the Tule Lake Relocation Center near the Oregon border, then was released as part of a program allowing some detainees to work or attend school in special approved zones. Watanabe was allowed to transfer her credits to Syracuse University, where she studied nursing. “I remember the special arrangements Mills made for me before evacuation to take my exams in Chico supervised by my high school dean,” she wrote.
The late Grace Fujii Kikuchi ’42 made a similar choice to leave Mills to avoid separation from her family. As a senior, she was more easily able to bring her time at Mills to a close, though it wasn’t a happy time. “My professors at Mills had arranged for me to take my [exam] at a nearby high school,” she wrote in the same Quarterly issue. “All I know is that I was graduated in absentia with my class. Not to be able to attend my commencement after four hard years of work was a bitter disappointment to me.”
The frustrations of the Mills administration during this era were captured in a play by Catherine Ladnier ’70, which she based on actual letters President Reinhardt received from students who left the College due to World War II, including Japanese American students in internment camps. Titled A Future Day of Radiant Peace, the play details the personal turmoil these students experienced as they abandoned their bustling lives at Mills for the uncertainty of the camps. It also demonstrates what little power anyone on campus had to prevent the exodus.
In the aftermath of the war, however, Mills was able to provide sanctuary to several students whose home countries were suffering. Catherine Cambessedes Colburn ’47 and Noramah Sumakno Peksopoetranto ’56 traveled to the College from France and Indonesia, respectively. In the spring 1997 issue of the Quarterly, Colburn wrote about the strangeness of going from a country recovering from war to a land of plenty.
“Mills had sent a list of what I would need, and I owned next to none of the items, nor could I get them. Coupons, given out rarely, were required to buy anything. Besides, the stores were next to empty,” she wrote. “I exchanged my wine ration with a friend for her fabric coupon and my cigarette ration with another for hers, and got enough material for two clothing items.”
Peksopoetranto earned her opportunity to attend Mills through a one-year scholarship from the Edward H. Hazen Foundation. At the end of the year, Dean Anna Hawkes offered her room and board for a bachelor’s degree in education; she spent that summer staying in the home of Librarian Elizabeth Reynolds.
On October 29, 2018—two days after 11 were killed in a shooting at the Tree of Life Synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—President Elizabeth L. Hillman sent an email to the Mills community. In it, she harkened back to the College’s history of providing sanctuary to Jewish scholars during World War II and the inspiration they provided to generations of students. “Higher education institutions like Mills have a special role to play in creating and sharing knowledge across boundaries of faith, race, gender, and background,” she wrote. “We can only fulfill our mission when everyone in our community is safe, respected, and able to grow and learn.”
In the last few years, President Hillman has sent a number of similar emails to the campus community after attacks, in the United States and abroad, that have targeted historically marginalized groups. According to Dean of Students Chicora Martin, the typical campus response finds its roots in Mills history. “Whenever an incident happens, we’re among a community where people may not always know what to do, but they are prepared to do something,” they said. “It’s part of our culture.”
“In times of immense crisis and identity-based violence, there is this depth of emotion and despair, but also a desire to be in community,” says Dara Olandt, campus chaplain and director of spiritual and religious life. “It has been very moving for me to see the ways in which students have offered leadership and shown up for each other.”
Olandt attributes the campus-wide attitude of acceptance and protection to the College’s past religiosity—in particular, President Reinhardt was the first woman moderator of the American Unitarian Association. (Olandt herself was ordained by the Unitarian Universalist church.) The chapel “is a refuge, and a place of deep hospitality. That’s what the forebears [who created] this chapel were really about,” Olandt says. “There’s power in this symbolic place where people are welcome in the fullness of their lives, no matter their identities.”
She also counsels those who travel to Mills from outside the country and hail from distinctly different societal and religious backgrounds than their US-born peers. That demographic has naturally been part of the student body for decades, but provides a different set of challenges due to the requirements of F-1 and J-1 student entry visas. Dean Martin serves as the principal designated school official on the Mills campus, so they are the first point of contact for the US government. “Every year, we have someone who can’t make it here because they can’t get a visa,” they say. “There are lots of restrictions with international students, and there’s a lot of documentation that you have to provide just for them to do normal-ish things, like getting a Social Security card or a driver’s license.”
Over the last four years, the legal status of undocumented students has been called into question across the country, and as a Hispanic Serving Institution, Mills has been prompted to respond. Under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which began in 2012, undocumented immigrants who arrived in the US before they turned 18 could be granted renewable two-year periods where they would not be deported. When Donald Trump was elected to the presidency, he pledged to end the program—and set off a chain reaction at colleges and universities across the country, which became known as the “sanctuary campus” movement.
On November 16, 2016, President Hillman was one of hundreds of signatories to the Statement in Support of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) Program, which underscored the contributions that its recipients have made to college communities across the country. “America needs talent—and these students, who have been raised and educated in the United States, are already part of our national community,” the statement reads. “They represent what is best about America, and as scholars and leaders they are essential to the future.”
Hillman also joined with more than two dozen college leaders in December 2017 as founding members of the Presidents’ Alliance on Higher Education and Immigration, which advocates for fair treatment of DACA and international students, and she continues to contribute to amicus briefs compiled by the alliance on behalf of DACA students.
In practical terms, Martin says that Mills provides grants to affected DACA students to cover the legal paperwork required to renew their statuses, and the College will provide financial assistance to any undocumented student in the same amount the student would have received from a Pell Grant, which is a federal program and therefore off-limits to non-citizens.
But in terms of sanctuary? If immigration officials asked Mills to turn over student records, the College is theoretically protected by the Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA), which prohibits the disclosure of student information, including immigration status, to parties beyond those that need to know for the purposes of that student’s education. Nothing like that has happened yet, but administrators say that it’s really not the point. The last few years have, in the end, cemented the kind of institution Mills wants to be.
“We were asking questions about our own values. The government’s now actively not supporting [these] students, so we have to come out very strongly with concrete statements and actions that clarify for our community where our values lie,” Martin says.
“Aurelia Reinhardt was deeply motivated by her values, which had roots in her religious and spiritual background,” Olandt adds. “She was very much anchored in a spirit of service and what we call today solidarity with marginalized folks. How can we uphold the best of humanity and live a moral and ethical life in the face of challenge?”