Thirteen years ago, crews renovating a modest, white-walled single-story building in Exposition Park made a discovery in the attic crawl space.
The building, a Los Angeles city-designated historic landmark, had served as the headquarters of one of the oldest Korean groups to be established in the U.S. The Korean National Assn. had functioned as a government in exile, and led independence efforts against Japanese colonial rule in the Korean peninsula in the early 1900s.
In the attic, contractors stumbled upon century-old documents, yellowing and brittle, older than any other known trove of documents chronicling the early years of Korean immigration in California. Among the stacks of papers was a 1919 letter to President Woodrow Wilson, asking for his help and protesting the “brutal force” being used to suppress independence efforts back home.
For more than a decade, the 15,000 to 16,000 pages of documents, dating to 1906, have been in limbo. They’ve been tucked away in a church next to the building where they were found, tantalizingly out of reach for historians, academics and descendants of those early Korean immigrants.
The delay was caused by a debate over whether the documents should be sent to Korea or remain in the Korean community in Los Angeles.
Tom Byun, one of the community members who argued for the material to remain in the U.S. rather than being shipped across the Pacific, said he felt strongly that the archive was part of American history.
“Korean Americans are part of America ... our blood and sweat is here, our history is here,” he said.
Others in the community, as well as historians and officials in Korea, had insisted the materials should be preserved with other contemporaneous archives at the Independence Hall in South Korea.
The drawn-out fight ended in January with a settlement that allows USC librarians to treat and scan the papers for a digital archive and ship them to Korea for safekeeping until Koreatown has a facility equipped to preserve and house them.
The settlement was submitted to a Los Angeles Superior Court judge last week.
Kyeyoung Park, a UCLA anthropology professor who teaches a class on the Korean American experience, said the records are a rare source of information about a poorly documented period of Korean American history. Many of her students are surprised to learn that the history of Korean immigration in California stretches back a century, she said.
“Korean Americans, they don’t feel they have a long history here,” Park said.
Park said some advisors dissuade doctoral students from studying Korean American history because of the scarcity of historic materials. The newly discovered trove will help the Korean American community better understand and connect with its early roots, she said,
The materials, which include meeting and donation records, publications from the time, flags, banners and some photographs, are due to be scanned and included in USC’s Korean American Digital Archive, nearly doubling its size.
Kenneth Klein, head of the university’s East Asian Library, said the pages would be professionally treated to preserve the fragile pages, and be transcribed so it can be searched, both in English and Korean. He said the materials would be returned in better condition after they were processed by USC.
“There’s quite a bit of yellowing and acidification, particularly for some things like the news clippings, a lot of those are browned,” he said. “They’ve been sitting in bent conditions, crammed into a small space.”
Park, of UCLA, said she hoped the newly discovered archives would lead to renewed interest and research into early Korean American history.
“It is really the Korean American community’s responsibility,” she said. “Without knowing the past we can’t plan our future.”