Dutch-Indonesian Immigrants, Segregation, and the CRC in the 1950s
On 21 March 1956, my grandparents, Arie and Martha Verhagen boarded KLM flight 603 with their two small children from Amsterdam to New York City. A week earlier they had received visas under the Refugee Relief Act of 1953, allowing their immigration to the United States. This legislation permitted thousands of families displaced by World War 2 to immigrate to the United States during the 1950s.
The Verhagen family was distinct from many of the Dutch families that came before them in several ways, however. They were an interracial family from the Molucca Islands in the former Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia—and destined for the American South just as the civil rights movement was intensifying.
The Moluccas are a small archipelago situated west of Papua New Guinea in the Banda Sea. This province was an area of colonial interest due to its native spice crops, including cloves and nutmeg. Portugal, the Netherlands, Spain, and Britain had all been involved in conquest in the Moluccas with the Dutch East India Trading Company eventually taking the islands as a colony by the late 1700s. Over the next 200 years many in the native population on the islands intermarried with Dutch people and adopted pieces of their culture including the Christian Reformed faith.
During WW2, the Netherlands lost control of the Moluccas to the Japanese. In the Netherlands attention turned first toward combating Nazi Germany on the Eastern front. When the war ended, however, a newfound sense of patriotism motivated many Dutch men to join the effort to reclaim Indonesia as a colony. My grandfather, Arie Verhagen, was one of those Dutch soldiers.
While on the island of Java, he met a Moluccan woman named Martha Tupamahu who would eventually become my grandmother. By 1947, they were married. The church where they were wed had a red carpet decorating the aisle and my grandmother cried during the sermon because she was filled with joy.
Despite a short stay in the Netherlands early in their marriage, my grandfather wanted to raise his family on the island of Ambon, growing authentic Dutch produce. So, in 1949 he rented out his farmland in the Netherlands and returned to the Moluccas. Six kilometers from Ambon, my family built a house and planted cauliflower, endive, and apple trees.
At the same time, the Indonesian independence movement was brewing. While the Moluccas had a strong pro-Dutch and Christian bloc, the rest of Indonesia was opposed to the idea of returning to colonial rule, like many other European colonies in Asia and Africa. As the independence movement progressed, many Dutch nationals and sympathizers began to fear for their safety, prompting the Queen of the Netherlands in a radio broadcast to urge all Dutch people to leave Indonesia.
On December 29th, 1949, the Netherlands relinquished colonial rule of Indonesia, prompting the exodus of thousands of Dutch nationals, Moluccans, and their families. My grandparents were not able to withdraw their money from the bank and were only allowed one piece of luggage when passing through customs. Arie, Martha and their one-year-old daughter began their journey to the Netherlands in the spring of 1950. During the 28-day voyage, they stopped in Singapore and the Bay of Biscay, passed through the Suez Canal, and encountered storms in the Mediterranean Sea.
The arrival of tens of thousands of Dutch nationals, Moluccans, and their families to the strained the resources of the Netherlands. WW2 had left the nation’s infrastructure and resources devastated. Then, in February 1953, a North Sea flood sent water into the southern province rivers at a height of over eight feet. The flood, in combination with the effects of war, prompted the United States Congress to allow for the immigration of up to 15,000 flood evacuees to the United States under the 1953 Refugee Relief Act.
Like many other Dutch families, the Verhagens applied for immigration to the United States with help from the Christian Reformed Church and a cooperative agency in the Netherlands. My grandparents and their now two children, faced unique obstacles in the process, foreshadowing what waited for them when they arrived in the United States. After a failed visa application for placement at a farm in New Jersey, due to Martha’s Indonesian ethnicity, a man by the name of Henrik Van Dorp took interest in the family.
Van Dorp was the founder of Terra Ceia farms. It was a tulip business that since the 1920s had attracted Hollanders of the Christian Reformed faith from across North America to the inner banks of North Carolina. After Van Dorp learned of the Verhagen family in 1955, he went to great lengths to ensure their successful immigration to the United States. The community had welcomed many Dutch immigrants before, and the subtropical climate of North Carolina seemed well suited for the family.
In February 1956, Martha’s visa was again stalled due to questions surrounding her race. In response, Van Dorp enlisted his congressman to write to the Dutch government on the Verhagen family’s behalf. His frequent communication with the CRC refugee resettlement committee ultimately resulted in their visas being approved within three weeks.
On 21 March 1956 the Verhagen family began their journey from Amsterdam to New York City. Martha was five months pregnant with her third child. After a brief landing in Newfoundland for refueling, the family arrived at LaGuardia International Airport. Van Dorp met the family in New York and drove them the rest of the way to North Carolina. The Verhagens settled into their new home next to Van Dorp’s gladiola farm. My grandfather started his job as a dairy farmer. Their eldest daughter, who was 6 years old, enrolled at the Terra Ceia Christian school.
Even before my family arrived in Terra Ceia there had been concern about bringing an interracial family into the Southern community. While some in Terra Ceia, primarily of Dutch descent, understood that interracial marriage was an acceptable practice in the colonies, the belief that integration was immoral in the eyes of God resonated strongly with a native-born Southerner segment of Terra Ceia and among some Christian Reformed people. Van Dorp had tried to leverage his standing in Terra Ceia to overcome the concerns of community members in advance. There was immediate opposition to their presence in the church and the school, however, once the family arrived.
Within months, it became clear that the issue could not be resolved at the local level. A division emerged in the local Christian Reformed Church congregation, with many refusing to take communion with the Verhagen family. Board members of the Terra Ceia Christian School resigned and asked that the child of “indonesian blood” be removed from the school. The consistory of the church and school board stood by their decisions to welcome the family into the congregation and school. Despite many attempts to sway those who were opposed to integration, over the course of several years the church lost about a third of its members.
The loss of members was a significant blow to a congregation that was hoping to evangelize the surrounding community. There was a feeling among some in the community that although they personally did not take issue with the idea of integration, it was rude or impractical to expect their Southern neighbors to change their values to accommodate my family.
Terra Ceia looked to governing bodies in the Christian Reformed Church for assistance in resolving the issue of segregation within the church. In January of 1957, months after the arrival of the Verhagen family in North Carolina, Classis Hackensack adopted a race resolution. Hackensack hoped to provide moral and religious guidance not only to the congregation of Terra Ceia but other congregations facing the challenge of segregation. Two years later the Synod of the Christian Reformed church adopted classis Hackensack’s race resolution, its first official statement opposing segregation in the church.
Although those left in Terra Ceia had decided to support my family’s presence in the community following the initial uproar, the pressures of the Jim Crow South proved to be too much for my grandparents to endure. Scrutiny from the surrounding community intensified in a way that could not be contained by the church. Interracial marriage was still illegal in North Carolina and would remain so until 1967, when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down state anti-miscegenation laws. During their short time in Terra Ceia, my grandmother had given birth to two children—one in the summer of 1956 and my mother in the fall of 1957. By the summer of 1958, the Verhagens stopped taking communion and requested that their membership be transferred to a Christian Reformed Church in Sussex, New Jersey.
My grandfather’s decisions were motivated by three principles in the early days of coming to America: his Christian Reformed faith, farming, and desire for a better future for his children. For the next seven years after leaving North Carolina, he tried to reconcile all three, shuffling through Christian Reformed communities along the eastern seaboard. However, farming was a tough business, and the family was forced to move multiple times due to fire, bankruptcy, and other misfortune.
Eventually, the desire for stability led the family to western Michigan where the automotive industry was booming and there was a Dutch community with shared faith and values. My grandfather needed to make a living and ultimately gave up farming to work in a factory. His disappointment was palpable and my mother recalls asking him why, if he was so unhappy, didn’t he move back to the Netherlands? His response was “this is where my children live”.
In the end, family was the most important part of life, and my family’s story is emblematic of the dream of prosperity juxtaposed with the sacrifices and challenges immigrants face when coming to America.
Anna Verhagen Gamble, MD, is a Pediatric Resident at the Boston Combined Residency Program in Massachusetts.
The cover image for the blogpost is an unnamed family at Westerbork, NL, October 19, 1950. (It is not the Verhagen family.) The former German concentration camp ‘Westerbork’ was renamed Schattenberg. It became a complex to house repatriates from Indonesia while waiting for permanent housing. Staying in the camp typically lasted several months and on occasion a year or longer. Collection Anefo, made by NN Winterbergen. Wikipedia Commons.
The family photographs in this blogpost were provided by the author. The letter by Henrik Van Dorp is from the records of the Christian Reformed Church and is courtesy of Heritage Hall.