In the summer of 1921, the United States and Japan were preparing for a summit to discuss matters pertaining to the size of their navies and their military bases in the Pacific. Things were looking promising for the treaty summit until an incident in Turlock perpetrated by a group described by The Berkeley Times as “boneheads” almost led to an international incident.
With the decline of ranching in California’s Great Central Valley, farmers moved in. By the turn of the 20th century, the Valley already was a thriving breadbasket.
In the early 1890s, Japanese immigrants began arriving in California, and in less than a decade, Californians had a new scapegoat for all the ills afflicting the state. Labor groups were holding anti-Japanese rallies, newspapers were printing anti-Japanese editorials, and in 1920, the California Legislature passed the Alien Land Law, which banned any noncitizen from owning or even leasing land in the state.
Even with all these restrictions, Japanese workers still were picking melons on the farms around Turlock in the summer of 1921. White farm laborers picked melons at 25 cents a crate, but the Japanese workers were willing to work for 16 cents a crate. Economics being what they were, the farmers picked the Japanese workers for their cheaper rate.
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Going to the Turlock Chamber of Commerce, the white workers demanded its support to boycott farmers who hired Japanese workers, but the chamber said nothing more than it supported the white workers’ right to work. Irate at their failure, the workers decided to take action. “Boneheaded” action.
On the night of July 21, around 60 of the out-of-work laborers put on masks, went to the places where the Japanese workers lived – at buildings on Front Street and Center Street – and began rounding them up and putting them on trucks. They also visited surrounding farms. In the end, around 68 Japanese workers were driven out of town.
The two trucks set out on their long journey – to Keyes. Apparently, the masked unemployed workers didn’t want to stay out too late, because they were going to have lots of work come morning, after having forcibly removed the competition.
Taken 5 miles out of town, the Japanese workers were ordered never to return. The next day, there were reports, according to The Seattle Times of July 22, 1921, of “fleeing Japanese on roads in all directions from Turlock.”
The story of what occurred in Turlock quickly became news throughout the country and the world. The city’s Chamber of Commerce announced that Turlock was safe for Japanese workers and that any more attempts to force them out of town would not be allowed.
After an aide to Gov. William Stephens “called Sheriff R. L. Dallas to say, ‘If you are unable to cope with the Turlock situation, we can send you assistance,’ ” the city’s police department also made its presence known with armed patrols guarding the workers on the farms, according to B.J. Osborn in his “Modesto: An Informal History.”
Editorial writers throughout the nation were appalled by what occurred. The New York Times called the incident “embarrassing.” The foreign press was equally appalled. But Japan made no formal protest and took part in what became the Washington Naval Treaty.
For Japanese Americans, it would be a long struggle before they would gain equal rights in America.
Sources: “Modesto: An Informal History.” B.J. Osborn, 2003; “Streams in a Thirsty Land: A History of the Turlock Region,” Helen Alma Hohenthal, John Edwards Caswell, Viola Siebe Sonntag, 1972; The Bisbee Daily Review, July 22, 1921; The Seattle Star, July 22, 1921.