Every day for the past 100 years, babies have been born in Los Angeles. They never stopped coming--not even during the worst of times.
Dr. Sakaye Shigekawa, 86, delivered nearly 20,000 of them. She remembers the ones who arrived kicking and screaming into the barbed wire confines of a detention camp. She remembers those born at downtown’s Japanese Hospital, built for Japanese Americans when other hospitals would not accept them.
Such are the memories of Shigekawa, a native of Los Angeles, a caretaker of life, whose work helped shape this city’s history--and whose own life was influenced by its darkest moments.
Through the eyes of Shigekawa and Japanese Americans of her generation, the 1930s and 1940s are a fiercely personal reminder of how racial injustice shaped communities and directed the most intimate aspects of Southern California life.
Shigekawa was born in South Pasadena on Jan. 6, 1913, the same year the California Alien Land Act was passed to prohibit Japanese farmers from owning land. Her father was part owner of a hog farm in Santa Ana--but his name was not allowed on the deed. Her mother owned a market on Central Avenue, but not in name.
The family lived near Central Avenue, in one of the few Los Angeles communities that welcomed Japanese Americans. In the 1930s, Central was home to a large population of African American families and a smaller but significant number of Asians and others.
Restrictive covenants shut out Asian Americans, African Americans and Mexican Americans from other parts of the city. But residents there found they were less burdened by prejudice. They also could get along.
“Most of us 1/8Asians 3/8 lived there and went to school with everybody,” Shigekawa said. “We used to walk to Central Avenue to the theater. We didn’t worry about it. We knew everybody in the neighborhood. We weren’t afraid to walk at night.”
Shigekawa had a twin sister and a younger sister and brother. The family lived on Central Avenue, at 48th and Hooper, and then at 46th and Hooper.
Back then Los Angeles was still “a big country town” compared to Chicago and New York. It was younger, still inching toward sophistication. Each new attraction sparked civic pride.
On Christmas 1934, Santa Anita racetrack opened in Arcadia. A “sportsman’s paradise,” the Los Angeles Times declared, a “scenic gem” set against a “backdrop of orange groves, eucalyptus trees and majestic snowcapped mountain peaks.”
By then, Shigekawa had graduated from Jefferson High School and was a student at USC. She wanted to be a physician, but female doctors were rare. “If another human being can do it,” her mother told her, “so can you.”
In Los Angeles then, what could be accomplished sometimes had nothing to do with ability. Many hospitals would not accept non-whites on staff. Japanese American engineers worked as gardeners and, Shigekawa said, others “couldn’t possibly get a job at a bank or even a department store, for that matter.”
But she was accepted at Stritch Loyola School of Medicine in Chicago. In 1940, she graduated and returned home to Los Angeles.
The United States entered World War II while she was in residency at Los Angeles County Hospital. In 1942, the county fired Shigekawa and all employees of Japanese descent. Shortly afterward, she and others were taken from their homes and interned at the Santa Anita racetrack.
They slept in horse stables, on cots with straw mattresses.
“It was April and it was dank and you could still smell the horse manure in the stable,” she said.
The camp contained 17,000 uprooted Los Angeles County residents, most of them U.S. citizens--and seven overworked doctors. Shigekawa was 29 years old, the youngest of the seven and the only woman.
The work, Shigekawa said, kept her from “going bonkers.”
“We did surgeries. We delivered babies. We took care of patients in the so-called clinics,” she said. They had limited amounts of medicine and worked with equipment that dated to World War I.
After hours, she wielded a pen as if it had the power to free her.
In letters to the government, she wrote what she wanted: to leave Los Angeles and go to Chicago where she could live free and work. Before the internment, she said, the government had told Japanese Americans they could leave the state rather than be confined in a camp.
“But where would you go?” Shigekawa said. “The propaganda against the Japanese was so bad they could shoot you and ask questions later.”
Before she was ordered to Santa Anita, she could have moved to Chicago with friends.
But at the time, she simply did not believe a large-scale internment could happen. Now that it had and she was separated from her family, living like a prisoner, she wanted out.
When the government told her she was being sent to the camp at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, she wrote: I’ll go, but I won’t work.
One day an official showed up at Santa Anita looking for the doctor. He had figured Shigekawa was a man--one who would prefer working in the camp to being drafted into the Army. That official found himself face to face with the real Sakaye Shigekawa: a young, 4-foot, 7-inch Japanese American woman determined to get out.
“They thought they were doing me a favor by keeping me out of the 1/8Army 3/8, but I said I would rather have gone to the service than be in a concentration camp,” she said.
The government agreed to release her to Chicago. Later, her family was also detained at Santa Anita and then sent to a camp. Shigekawa started a practice and could have stayed in Chicago. But in 1948, she returned home.
Her parents’ store, she said, had been left in the care of the Dorseys, an African American family “who ran the whole business during the war and took care of everything,” including their St. Bernard dog. So her mother was able to eventually resume her business.
The hog farm did not fare as well. It ended up in government receivership. After years of hard work, her father “got fleeced,” Shigekawa said.
In 1949, Shigekawa opened a practice on Santa Monica Boulevard--not far from the home her family had built on Benton Avenue, in a neighborhood between Silver Lake and Echo Park. Back then, it was exclusively white.
Before the internment, neighbors had gotten together to discuss ways of keeping the Shigekawa family out. The internment started before the family had a chance to move into their new home.
But after the war, Shigekawa and her parents moved in, and with time the family no one wanted would yield the neighborhood doctor.
The city changed for her in other ways.
Many Japanese American acquaintances of Shigekawa did not return after the war, choosing to stay in other cities because, she said, “they didn’t know if they could get a job if they came back here.”
In 1949, Shigekawa became the first Japanese American on the staff of Queen of Angels Hospital. That same year, an African American doctor was also accepted.
“There was resentment on the part of the nurses,” she recalled. “I wasn’t welcome, but I worked there. I ignored all the little snide remarks I heard as I’d be walking around. I tended to my own business.”
Although nonwhite doctors were accepted, it would take longer for all hospitals to integrate patient wards.
In 1977, Shigekawa became the first female president of the staff at Queen of Angels.
Today, Shigekawa, who never married, no longer delivers babies. But she continues seeing a small number of patients in the same office she opened in 1949.
Some are third-generation patients--the grandchildren of her earliest patients. Others are older people.
Since leaving Santa Anita she has never gone back--and she says she never will.
Now when she looks at the city, run-down areas in particular, she can’t help but remember how clean and well-kept it was years ago.
But her return to Los Angeles was never in question. In her eyes, she said, Los Angeles--and all of California--remains the “hub of the universe.”
“People treated me good in Chicago.” she said. “But Chicago is Chicago. . . . I wanted to come home.”