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50 years ago: Tucson couple broke down barriers to interracial marriage

Henry Oyama, now 83, was a plaintiff in a 1959 court case that led to legalization of mixed-race marriages in Arizona.

Henry Oyama, now 83, was a plaintiff in a 1959 court case that led to legalization of mixed-race marriages in Arizona.

Henry Oyama was beaming as he led his new bride from the altar of St. Augustine Cathedral in Tucson 50 years ago. She was wearing a traditional white wedding dress, and her left hand was grasping the right arm of her man.

The photos taken that day might leave the impression nothing was out of place, as if it was any other marriage ceremony. But in 1959 the country was on the brink of a major cultural shift to eliminate racism, and the Oyamas had just fought a landmark court battle to overturn an Arizona law that prohibited interracial marriage.

Because Henry Oyama is of Japanese descent and Mary Ann Jordan was white, together they broke down the race-based law that was intended to keep them apart.

The law itself made it illegal for a Caucasian to marry a non- Caucasian, so Oyama felt the onus was on the white person who wanted to marry someone of another race.

“Naturally, the criticism would come more to her,” Oyama said, adding that Mary Ann’s parents believed at the time that their daughter was making herself a target.

The 83-year-old Oyama knows better than most what it’s like to be a target. He spent two years in an internment camp at the beginning of World War II, and he later served the United States as a spy in Panama.

From the barrio to internment
Henry “Hank” Oyama was born in Tucson on June 1, 1926. His father died five months before he was born. His mother, Mary, was born in Hawaii but grew up in Mexico. Her first language was Spanish.

Oyama said his mother was a hard worker who had an indomitable spirit and always saw the bright side of things. She used to tell him, “Don’t worry my son. There is nothing bad that happens but for some good reason.” That lesson would play out many times in Oyama’s life.

Oyama grew up as a Mexican-American in a barrio in Tucson, and his knowledge of the Spanish language would play a major role in his life.

“Quite frankly, because I was the only Japanese-American boy growing up here in the barrios, and I spoke Spanish, I was seen more as a Mexican-American by the other children,” he told the Arizona Capitol Times on a breezy afternoon at his home in Oro Valley.

Occasionally, someone who was not from the neighborhood would refer to him as a “Chino” – meaning Chinese.

The racial divide first came into focus for Oyama when he was in junior high. He had been invited to a home in Fort Lowell, and the home had a swimming pool. He had never been in such a palatial home, and he noticed a difference in the living conditions among communities, “depending upon whether you were Caucasian or others.”

But the division between races was put in starker contrast when he turned 15 years old and was hauled off with his family to a World War II internment camp near Poston, about a dozen miles southwest of Parker in La Paz County.

Following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which set into motion the relocation of about 120,000 people of Japanese descent, most of whom were U.S. citizens, to internment camps across the country. Poston was one of the largest of these camps.

It was May 1942, and the war was well underway. Oyama recalled that he, his sister and his mother were taken by a bus from Tucson to Phoenix, then to Meyer, an “assembly center,” and finally to Poston.

During his 15 months of internment, Oyama attended school and learned the cooking trade.

“The school was set up in one of the barracks, so you could have some classes there but your next class might be in another block, so you had to walk through the sand to get to the (next class),” he said. “As you know, summers get a little hot here, and it did in Poston.”

The food was “terrible,” he said. They arrived at the camp at night and were served a bowl of chili beans. It was windy, dusty, and there was sand everywhere, even on the beans. They were given a mattress ticking and were told fill it with straw. The makeshift mattresses were set on Army cots. They also were given Army blankets.

But his mother never let her spirit get down while in the camp, Oyama said. “I think because she didn’t want us to become depressed,” he said.

Oyama said he signed up for cooking school out of fear that food would run short, and, as he put it, “I could sneak some off for my mother and my sister.”

After internment, he and his mother moved to the Kansas City area. His sister stayed a little longer in the camp because she was engaged to one of the young men there.

Back to the barracks
In 1945, about two years after he had left the internment camp, Oyama joined the U.S. Army, where his superiors assumed he spoke Japanese and wanted to send him to the South Pacific as an interpreter. When he explained that he did not speak Japanese, they thought he was trying to buck the assignment.
They sent him to the military intelligence service-language school.

After four months, he earned a diploma. By then his superiors were convinced that he did not speak Japanese and instead was fluent in Spanish.

As a result, he was assigned to the counter-intelligence service. After his training, he was sent to the Panama Canal, where he worked as an undercover agent.

As a spy, Oyama said he had his own apartment and his own car. He wore civilian clothes to blend in and carried a “snub-nosed .38.”

His job was to make sure security was adequate in the Canal Zone. It also included surveillance, as well as protecting high-ranking officers who were passing through the Panama Canal.

His undercover unit also conducted “loyalty checks” on personnel, an ironic situation for a Japanese-American forced into an internment camp due to his ethnic ancestry.

Oyama later retired as a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Air Force Reserve.

After his military service, Oyama went back to Tucson, earned a bachelor’s degree in education and studied Spanish. He then began teaching American history and Spanish at local schools.

Initially, he worked at Pueblo High School, where he and a group of educators pioneered the creation of a Spanish-language program to meet the education needs of Spanish-speaking students.

He also helped conduct a survey in Arizona, California, Colorado and New Mexico on the successes of bilingual-education programs. They produced a report called “The Invisible Minority,” which directly contributed to the creation of the federal Bilingual Education Act of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1968.

Oyama left Pueblo High School in 1970, served as Pima Community College’s director of bilingual and international studies, and later became associate dean of that program in 1978.

In 1989, he was appointed a vice-president at the college. He retired in 1991 and was named vice-president emeritus.

In one of the greatest honors that could be bestowed on a teacher, a school was dedicated in his name – Oyama Elementary School – in 2003.

Oyama’s most memorable fight
Decades before the accolades, Oyama faced the most significant battle of his life – one that pitted him against racial inequality and Arizona law.

It was late in 1959. Christmas was just around the corner. Dwight Eisenhower was in the White House, and the country was in the middle of a cultural transformation that would challenge the status quo forever.
That decade, Arizona, like elsewhere in the country, was in the process of rethinking its views on racial equality. In 1954 the Supreme Court had declared segregation unconstitutional in Brown v. Board of Education. The following year, Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of a bus in Montgomery, Ala., and was arrested. In 1957, President Eisenhower sent federal troops to escort black students to a school in Little Rock, Ark.

Also in 1959, a small group of libertarians had founded the American Civil Liberties Union of Arizona.
The timing couldn’t have been better.

Oyama had met Mary Ann Jordan through a mutual friend during an event at the University of Arizona.
Mary Ann was originally from New York. She had moved to Tucson because she was arthritic, and her parents thought the weather here would help her.

They dated, fell in love, and decided to get married. And that’s when things got complicated.

One day Mary Ann brought a pamphlet from a local Catholic church that said interracial marriage was illegal in many states. She wanted to know if Arizona was one of them.

Oyama said he had never heard of it. Friends didn’t know. Some said they shouldn’t worry too much about it and suggested that they get married out of state, maybe even in Mexico.

“And then someone told us, ‘Why don’t you go down to the marriage license bureau and see what happens? So we went down there. Sure enough, they said, ‘Sorry, we cannot issue you a marriage license,’” Oyama said.

About that same time, a couple of his friends, teachers at the Pueblo High School, asked if he would be willing to have the ACLU take on the case.

The attorneys tapped by ACLU said they could get married out of state, but even that was risky. Someone could turn them in for illegal cohabitation, they would not be able to file joint income tax returns, and their inheritance to their children could be challenged.

Filing a lawsuit with help from the ACLU sounded like a pretty good option.

The perfect test case
Paul Rees, one of the ACLU lawyers who argued the case, said the climate was “ripe for this type of an action.” He saw a perfect test case in Henry Oyama and Mary Ann Jordan.

Besides Rees, who went on to run a successful private practice in Arizona, the other attorneys who litigated the case were Charles Ares, who later became dean of the college of law at the University of Arizona, and Frank Barry, who went on to become a U.S. solicitor general.

Ares said he took on the case because the statute was simply outrageous, bizarre, and ridiculously drafted.
Among the races it prohibited from intermarrying with a Caucasian was a Hindu, which isn’t a race but someone who practices Hinduism, a religion.

The actual statute said, “The marriage of a person of Caucasian blood with a Negro, Mongolian, Malay or Hindu is null and void.” The statute also said residents of Arizona “may not evade the laws of this state relating to marriage by going to another state or country for solemnization of the marriage.”

“This was a time of ferment on racial issues,” Rees said during an interview with the Capitol Times. “People were beginning to realize the onerous problems with racial profiling… and racial laws.”
In her book What Comes Naturally, which traces the origin and demise of America’s miscegenation laws, Peggy Pascoe wrote that there was no shortage of cases of marriage involving white and Asian Americans in the 1950s and early 1960s. But, lawyers who wanted to uproot state laws banning interracial marriage had a difficult time finding couples willing to endure the time-consuming process required to reach a U.S.
Supreme Court decision.

For instance, she wrote, lawyers were poised to persuade a white man and a second-generation Japanese-American woman to challenge the law in Wyoming, but the couple decided to get married in a nearby state before the case went to court.

But the Arizona chapter of the ACLU finally found a case to challenge the state law. Henry and Mary Ann challenged the statute on Dec. 11, 1959.

The ACLU argued that the Arizona statute violated the First Amendment and the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, as well as two provisions of the state Constitution.

Both Rees and Ares recounted that the county attorney who defended the statute, Harry Ackerman, was sympathetic to their case.

On Dec. 23, 1959, Pima County Superior Court Judge Hebert Krucker struck down the state’s anti-miscegenation law as unconstitutional. In his ruling, Judge Krucker mentioned that both Henry and Mary Ann were Catholic and they “are in all respects qualified to intermarry under the tenets and dogmas of their religion.”

He ordered the county’s clerk of court to issue a marriage license to Henry and Mary Ann. They were married five days later.

In January the next year, the trial court’s ruling was appealed to the Arizona Supreme Court. But it never reached that point.

The ACLU staff counsel based in New York had hoped that the case would be appealed, so that it would have more persuasive weight in other jurisdictions.

“The only court of record that is published is the Supreme Court at that time,” Rees said. “If the Supreme Court had taken the case, then there would have been a published opinion that would have been precedent in any one of the other states.”

Ares said they were prepared to go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court if necessary.

The belief then was that the Oyama case provided a better chance of striking down the state’s anti-miscegenation statute than a case involving a white and a black couple. The odds appeared to be in Henry’s and Mary Ann’s favor. They were both college educated, they belonged to the same religion, and he was a captain of the U.S. Air Force reserves and a teacher.

But before the Supreme Court could rule on the case, the Arizona Legislature repealed the anti-miscegenation law, and the case was dismissed. The lawyers who litigated the Oyama case said the court decision prompted the law’s repeal by the Legislature.

In 1967, the U.S. Supreme Court finally struck down the anti- miscegenation law of Virginia in the landmark case Loving vs Virginia, ending all race-based restrictions on marriage in the United States.

The aftermath
Today, Oyama remains very sharp. He speaks slowly, enunciating each word as he recalls the remarkable events of his life. He has an easy smile, a sunny disposition he must have inherited from his mother.

While drinking a glass of iced tea at his dining room table, Oyama said Judge Krucker and the ACLU lawyers deserve a lot of credit for having declared the law unconstitutional.

If the ACLU hadn’t been founded at that time, there wouldn’t have been a group that would take on the case, Oyama said.

It also helped that Oyama was well-established in the community. He is a native son of Tucson, a teacher, and a veteran of World War II and a captain in the U.S. Air Force reserve at the time. It was “harder for people to criticize that guy,” Oyama said of himself.

Oyama also said Mary Ann’s parents weren’t necessarily thrilled about the whole ordeal.

“They saw their daughter kind of a making a target of herself,” Oyama said. But they would later come to regard him as one of their favorite sons-in-law, Oyama said.

The case and Oyama’s work on bilingual education elevated his profile in the community. He was recognized and awarded for his body of work.

But people often left out Mary Ann, Oyama said.

“She was never invited to speak. She never received an award,” Oyama said.

The Oyamas had a child who died of leukemia at age 2. They also adopted four kids – three sons and a daughter.

Their 28-year marriage ended in 1987 when Mary Ann Oyama passed away after suffering a heart attack.

Four years later, Oyama remarried. His second wife, Ann, also is white. This time, however, no one was concerned that a Japanese- American man was marrying a white woman.

Ann (her maiden name was Gwinnup) had been a student at the high school where he taught. She had married a teacher, her first husband, and was socially acquainted with the Oyamas. She later divorced her first husband.

After they both became single, Oyama invited Ann to lunch as a “graduation gift.” She had just graduated from the University of Phoenix. They started dancing together, which they discovered was a mutual passion that they shared for many years afterward.

Meanwhile, the ACLU of Arizona would go on to litigate and win cases that sent reverberations across the country.

Among its biggest victories would be Miranda v. Arizona, where the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that law enforcement officers must tell a person in custody that he or she has rights to counsel and to remain silent.

“I don’t think our job will ever be done as long as human beings exist and have government,” said Alice Bendheim, one of its founders.

6 comments

  1. Henry,
    Remember me from THS? I was a senior when I met you though “Harvey”. Those were starange days for me, and I loved every minute. You sat at my kitchen table many times, and my parents liked.
    I enjoyed the article about you and your battle in 1959. I left that year to San Francisco to get married. i still live here, and love it.
    A Happy ‘hello” to you this Thanksgiving…
    Sylvia Warden
    11/26/09

  2. Hank, you were so supportive of Pima Community College. Your heart, your wit, and your sacrifice benefited our community and our world. Thank you!

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