Muriel Matzkin Shapp, World War II Relocation Camp Educator

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Muriel Matzkin Shapp's Muriel’s personal copy of Education Program in War Relocation Centers

Muriel Matzkin Shapp (1919–99), wife of Governor Milton J. Shapp (1912-94), received her undergraduate degree in biology from Brooklyn College in 1940. During the first years of American involvement in World War II, she served as a federal civil servant working in a government clerical pool in Washington, D.C. While there, she answered an advertisement seeking teachers for the relocation centers that had been recently created for the internment of Japanese Americans who had been forced from their homes along the West Coast.

Ten camps had been created by the federal government and were located in mostly arid climates in seven different states. Young Muriel Matzkin took a teaching position in the camp at Topaz, Utah, in 1943. “I worked at one of these so-called relocation centers,” she stated in 1974. “I called them concentration camps, which was really what they were.” At Topaz High School she taught physiology, biology, physical education and health. Although she enjoyed her work, she did not have anything positive to say about the camps in general. “The only good thing I can say about them was that nobody was physically mistreated . . . there was absolutely no reason to intern these people.”

The Pennsylvania State Archives recently acquired a donation of Milton and Muriel Matzkin Shapp papers from the couple’s son Richard and daughter Joanne. Included with the collection are two felt pennants from Topaz High School and Muriel’s personal copy of Education Program in War Relocation Centers, a booklet published in Washington, DC., by the U.S. Department of the Interior’s War Relocation Authority, which provided an overview of the program and was intended to be useful to principals at the various schools the relocation center children would attend after the war.

Established by Presidential Executive Order No. 9102, signed on March 18, 1942, the War Relocation Authority was directed to provide for the relocation and needs of Japanese Americans excluded from the Western Defense Command area during the war. The total population of the relocation centers was around 120,000 people, including approximately 27,700 school-age children. The lack of adequate transportation and the desire not to have a negative financial impact on the public school systems in the states that hosted the centers led the War Relocation Authority to set up complete educational units at each center.

The schools directed much attention to American ideals, practices and institutions. Never meant to be permanent, they aimed at preparing students for re-entrance into normal community life and outside educational facilities. Teachers were recruited nationwide and were required to have valid teaching certificates. Schools were accredited and approved by the states in which they existed.

Secondary relocation schools like the one in which Matzkin taught comprised grades seven through twelve. Each teacher in the secondary grades taught about 35 pupils per class. This high student to teacher ratio was due to budgetary limitations but was alleviated somewhat by uncertified evacuee assistants. Three major programs were available to high school students: college preparatory, general and practical arts. Adult education was also provided for those who wished to improve their understanding and use of English and to increase their familiarity with American customs, habits and community life.

Muriel Matzkin taught at Topaz through the end of the war. She then returned to Washington, D.C., and taught classes at veterans’ centers to American servicemen returning from the war who had not yet finished their high school education. She married Milton J. Shapp in 1948 and was first lady of Pennsylvania during Shapp’s two terms as governor from 1971 to 1979.


Richard C. Saylor is an archivist for the Pennsylvania State Archives and author of the national award-winning book Soldiers to Governors: Pennsylvania’s Civil War Veterans Who Became State Leaders.