Originally appearing at www.phillynews.com on May 9, 2000
Seabrook: Long a spot for starting life over
By Judy Harch
As you drive along quiet country roads past the fertile farmlands of Upper Deerfield Township in Cumberland County, you might never guess the incredible history behind the little town named after Charles F. Seabrook, a pioneer in the frozen-foods industry.
This two-square-mile community has held its welcoming arms open since the 1920s, when Italian immigrants found their way to Seabrook from the coal fields of Pennsylvania. But it was during World War II that Seabrook began its long history of accepting and sheltering the sufferers of man's inhumanity to man.
After the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, fear of the Japanese American population ran rampant. Considered "enemy aliens" by the U.S. government, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans from California, Oregon and Washington were sent to internment camps.
There were two particular ironies about this forced relocation. Japanese Americans in Hawaii, the site of the attack on Pearl Harbor, were an integral part of the Hawaiian economy, so they were allowed to remain in their homes.
The second irony is that some issei, first-generation Japanese Americans, had nisei sons, second-generation Japanese born in the United States, who fought with honor in the U.S. military while their parents were internees.
The internment camps were slowly closed as the defeat of Japan became imminent, and another relocation project began. In January 1944, a delegation of invited guests from the camps arrived in Seabrook at the invitation of Charles Seabrook, who in the wartime labor shortage needed farmworkers to process his 20,000 acres of vegetables.
It was agreed that Seabrook would be a good place for a new life for the displaced families.
The U.S. government built cinder-block, barracks-type housing for the first wave of internees. At the peak of relocation, more than 2,300 Japanese were housed in Seabrook. During the 1940s and 1950s, Seabrook Farms built additional wooden prefab housing for its new workers. Some of the homes remain and are occupied.
In the years after the war, many of Seabrook Farms' original Japanese American families moved back to the West Coast, and others followed their children as they became successful professionals throughout the country. About 150 families remain scattered throughout the Bridgeton, Millville and Vineland areas today.
After the war, the Seabrook area also became a haven for refugees from Eastern Europe. About 25 ethnic groups found homes in Seabrook. The last wave of immigrants arrived in 1952, including many German Russians who had found they were no longer wanted in the Soviet Union.
My knowledge of this chapter of history was very limited until I discovered the Seabrook Educational and Cultural Center, which is housed in the Upper Deerfield Township municipal building. Its project director, John Fuyuume, is a one-person storehouse of information about Seabrook's multicultural heritage.
Ellen Nakamura, a member of the Japanese-American Citizens League, conceived the idea for the cultural center in 1989. Ms. Nakamura, who died April 25 at age 80, was one of the original internment-camp members to visit Seabrook Farms as part of the relocation study. She remained in Seabrook and worked tirelessly with the league and the center.
She and John Fuyuume were partners at the museum. Fuyuume is now the solo guide to the exhibits housed at the cultural center. He is eager to escort guests through the display of Seabrook's rich history.
"The SECC's mission is to preserve and make known the unique history of Seabrook as a place where people of different races and cultural heritage were given an opportunity for a new start in life," Fuyuume said.
In 1998, the center was awarded recognition by the New Jersey Historical Commission for outstanding service to public knowledge and preservation of state history.
This little museum stands as a symbol to all that is good about humankind. The oral histories of the tide of immigrants who found a friendly little village tucked away in Cumberland County are recorded for posterity and available to those who search for the good in man.
Judy Harch writes from Harrison Township.