September 28, 2020

“You Can Throw Me in the Sea, and I Won’t Sell": The Story of the Harada House

The exterior of the Harada House

photo by: Museum of Riverside staff, Riverside, CA

The Harada House in Riverside, California, is in danger of collapsing more than a century after its starring role in a landmark court case.

When Jukichi and Ken Harada uprooted their lives in Japan to journey to the United States in the early 1900s, they didn’t arrive intending to etch their names in the history books. Jukichi had been working as a schoolteacher and Ken was the daughter of a samurai. But both entered the spotlight when, in 1916, their understated house in Riverside, California, became the center of a landmark superior court case—State of California v. Jukichi Harada.

“Many monuments symbolize something intangible. But in this case, it’s also the house itself that’s the issue,” says Robyn G. Peterson, director of the Museum of Riverside. “Another historic house might be significant because it’s one of a type. This one is the very house.”

Named one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places for 2020 by the National Trust, the structure was likely constructed in the 1880s as a single-story saltbox cottage. The Haradas purchased it for $1,500 in 1915 with savings from the restaurant they ran, having spent their first Riverside years in crowded rooming houses with their four children. Diseases spread easily in such tight quarters with new arrivals streaming in, and after the Haradas’ five-year-old son Tadao died from diphtheria in 1913, Jukichi and Ken were determined to find safer conditions for their family—especially with another baby on the way.

There was just one problem with the purchase: As Japanese immigrants, the elder Haradas could never become U.S. citizens according to federal law. Combined with the California Alien Land Law of 1913, which denied the same population the right to own land or property long-term, there appeared to be little legal recourse for the Haradas.

But Jukichi was thinking one step ahead. By placing ownership of the house in the names of his three youngest children, all under 10 years old and U.S.-born, he believed his family would be able to gain a foothold in an unwelcoming new country. Daughters Mine and Sumi, together with three-year-old Yoshizo, would be the legal owners.

Land ownership represented the best chance of upward movement in society for Japanese immigrants, says Michael Jin, assistant professor of global Asian studies and history at the University of Illinois at Chicago. The California Alien Land Law sought to deny Japanese arrivals this right, but the Haradas’ strategy was a major loophole in the law that would be used by many others.

According to Mark Rawitsch’s book The House on Lemon Street, racist abuse and harassment from nearby residents came mere hours after the Haradas’ first encounter with a neighbor. One planned to build a “spite fence” to publicly express their feelings on the matter. Soon they had formed a committee to attempt to evict the Haradas. The final proposal from their representing lawyer offered $1,900 to the Haradas in exchange for surrendering their house and leaving Lemon Street.

The Harada family in front of Washington Restaurant, which they operated.

photo by: Museum of Riverside staff, Riverside, CA

The Harada family owned and operated Washington Restaurant in Riverside as well as a boarding house. The most expensive item on the menu was an extra-thick tenderloin steak at $0.55.

Jukichi’s response? “I won’t sell. You can murder me, you can throw me in the sea, and I won’t sell.”

Soon the Haradas were going to court. California v. Harada was filed in 1916 and would become a matter of international significance, from the front page of The New York Times to publications in Japan. The Haradas moved in later that year, but not before setting about improving the house. They added an entire second floor to the structure, new brick foundations, and a coat of gray paint with a white trim on the exterior.

Lengthy continuations delayed the process, and by the time the case went to trial, the year was 1918 and Japan and the U.S. had joined forces as Allies in World War I. It is difficult to say what impact this had on the Riverside County Superior Court’s decision, but fortunately for the Haradas, they also had the backing of the law.

“They are Americans, of somewhat humble station, it may be, but still entitled to equal protection of the laws of our land,” decreed Judge Hugh Craig in his ruling. “The political rights of American citizens are the same, no matter what their parentage.” The Haradas would remain on Lemon Street after all.

“It was a very early challenge to racist laws—not just in California but everywhere—that defined citizenship by birth,” says Peterson. “[The Haradas] were brave enough and persevered in what became a decades-long effort to wipe these laws from the books.”

Of course, one victory wasn’t enough to upend more than 50 years of established animosity toward Asian immigrants in California. Chinese laborers were the initial targets of violent race riots, but following the Chinese Exclusion Act’s passage in 1882, racist sentiments were redirected toward immigrants of Japanese descent and attacks became more politically sophisticated. Judge Craig’s decision in favor of the Haradas notably did not dispute the constitutionality of the California Alien Land Law, which was revised in 1920 to close loopholes.

“In a way this particular case made the anti-Asian and exclusion movement more intense,” Michael Jin says. “The long-term legacy of [California v. Harada] is this concerted effort to drive out of all people of Japanese ancestry.”

The Harada family would become victims of that legacy, its members separated at first and forcibly detained when World War II arrived. Jukichi and Ken both died at the Topaz Relocation Center in Utah, more than 500 miles away from the house they fought so hard to keep.

The exterior of the Harada House

photo by: Museum of Riverside staff, Riverside, CA

"[The Harada House] is a very modest house," says Peterson. "It's not a mansion. So it's a testimony to the power of a person of modest means possessed with enough determination to fight for his rights."

During the war years, a family friend named Jess Stabler managed to ensure the safekeeping of the house until Sumi Harada returned in 1945. Sumi would live there for the next 53 years, using the home as the center for the ever-growing Harada family. She watched as the Harada House became recognized both as a City Landmark and a National Historic Landmark.

Upon Sumi’s death in 2000 and her younger brother Harold’s in 2003, the house passed to the Museum of Riverside (then known as the Riverside Metropolitan Museum) according to their wishes. But the property they received was in far from mint condition. Water infiltration, structural beams eaten through by termites, and decades of deferred maintenance had conspired to place the house in serious threat of collapse.

If not for $1 million worth of emergency stabilization work over the last 17 years, that threat would have become reality. The Museum of Riverside saved the house’s foundation, plaster, and chimney to keep the house standing. Without addressing the underlying issues, however, the time to make meaningful and permanent repairs continues to dwindle.

Peterson and the Museum of Riverside hope that a $6.5 million capital campaign initiated in 2019 will secure the Harada House’s future. A $500,000 grant from the federal Save America’s Treasures program will allow them to begin phase one of the restoration, which includes rebuilding the structure’s foundation and repairing key structural elements. The goal is to eventually bring back many of its historic furnishings, currently safe in storage, so that the public can experience the house as the Haradas did in 1916.

Preserving the house for generations to come will be a monumental challenge, but as its owners once proved, the Harada House is a house worth fighting for.

For an update no the status of Harada House read this story on past '11 Most' Sites.

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Nicholas Som is a former assistant editor at Preservation magazine. He enjoys museums of all kinds, Philadelphia sports, and tracking down great restaurants.

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