This is the first article in a series dealing with the role of women in the history of Utah and the West. Subsequent articles will profile individual women.A letter written to Salt Lake resident Alice Kasai toward the end of World War II encapsulates one of the most significant periods of the Japanese-American community's history.
Dated Nov. 11, 1944, the letter - written by a family friend "from somewhere in France" - told Kasai and her husband, Henry, about the Nisei men fighting with the U.S. Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team in Europe."I have seen the Nisei that you and Henry and I have worried so much about while we used to sit in your comfortable apartment in Salt Lake City a few years ago performing feats that would read more like fiction than the truth," the letter reads.
"Really, Alice, we need never fear for our future as Americans if the coming generations of Japanese Americans are made of the same stuff as my buddies are. When the chips are down, and life and death as well as our future as Americans in America is at stake, they have shed their damnable indifference and insufferable conceit and proved that they are men."
The men of the 442nd and their families had, for the most part, been rounded up and interned in camps during the war because of their Japanese ancestry - in spite of their American citizenship.
The story of their need to prove their honor and commitment to the country of their birth has been detailed in many books. But reading a personal letter, written on delicate onionskin paper yellowed with age, lends a poignancy to the now-familiar tale.
And to a library archivist, the letter - part of a collection of personal and political papers donated to the University of Utah, now organized and cataloged and kept in the Special Collections area of the Marriott Library - is priceless.
The Alice Kasai Collection is extraordinary in its breadth. Spanning most of this century, it includes newsclips, an Idaho Falls high school literary magazine, minutes of the first Intermountain West meetings of Japanese-American Citizens League, transcripts of speeches, deeds - the gamut of life in a special community.
It is also extraordinary because it was donated to the library by a woman.
The library archives have many collections donated by men, said Janet Smoak, a library specialist assigned to the special collections manuscript division.
But women's collections are thin, and most of them have been donated in conjunction with papers donated by men who are members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
"Women do not consider their papers of importance," Smoak said. "That is always the primary problem."
Historians have not always disagreed with that premise. Only recently have social historians gained prominence in professional circles by chronicling the lives of ordinary women.
Usually, however, they have had to extrapolate the women's histories from public sources - labor records, deeds of sale, marriage licenses, birth and death records - rather than the women's private papers, letters or diaries.
That has changed somewhat since the 1950s, said Smoak, as more women are donating their papers. But even so, she said, the papers tend to be the records of prominent women's service-club or political activities.
Smoak is now updating the university's women's collections, a task last undertaken 15 years ago. The collection largely consists of political, social and literary women's clubs' records and labor-union proceedings.
Vastly underrepresented in the collections are non-LDS and non-white women, who have, of course, contributed to Utah's development but who haven't received much attention in written histories.
Because history has so often focused on the "great man," people tend to discount the importance of their families' histories. But several families' histories taken together can provide a unique glimpse into common lives - at least as representative of the history of a people as the life of a single standout from a dominant culture.
What would help, Smoak said, is if more families donate papers. Anything, including diaries, records of land transactions, letters, "any paper whatever" - would be accepted.
"One of our big sources is the basement or attic (of family homes)," she said. If the library decided they didn't want to keep the papers, they would be returned to the family.
One collection was donated to the library by a person who rounded up the letters that the family - "mom, dad, four or five children" - had written back and forth over more than 20 years, Smoak said.