The same week that Philadelphia hosted the Democratic National Convention, where people both in and outside the convention recalled the violence that has spawned concern for Black and blue lives, David Oh remembered his killed cousin, In-Ho Oh, and hope an Asian-American family’s spiritual response can help a nation heal.
"When we accept that wrongs were done and focus on how to prevent them, not through hatred or vengeance or retaliation, but through the public interest, then I think we can find reasonable and sustainable solutions."
On Friday, David Oh, an at-large Republican member on the Philadelphia City Council and the first Asian-American elected official in that city, stood at 36th and Hamilton Streets and unveiled a street sign that will mark the place of the 1958 killing of In-Ho Oh.
The killing is mostly forgotten, but David Oh wants people to remember how, instead of seeking a vengeful justice, the family chose to forgive, he said.
“When people hear the story, it creates a bridge of understanding,” Oh told NBC News.
In-Ho Oh was a 26-year-old graduate student from Korea studying at the University of Pennsylvania. On April 28, 1958, he was walking from a mail box back to his home when he was beaten to death by a group of 11 black youth who had been turned away at a neighborhood dance, according to reports at the time.
“They just attacked,” Ho said. “They didn’t attack because he was an Asian American, but just because he was mailing a letter.”
Oh, 56, wasn’t yet born, but the legacy of his cousin’s death has been a large part of his life.
His father, Ki Hang Oh, who founded and ran Philadelphia’s first Korean-American church from 1953 until his death in 2006, housed In-Ho Oh in the family home.
“It’s not what the authorities expected…It was not their plan. And it made it more challenging when the murder victim’s family is raising money for the kids.”
Ki Hang Oh described In-Ho Oh to The Reporter as “brilliant, shy, kind, perceptive and full of promise,” and a “practicing and dedicated Christian,” who wanted to return to Korea and be a statesman. He also believed in peaceful resolutions. “My nephew,” Ki Hang Oh said in the report, “did not believe in violence, he did not understand violence. If somebody would hit him he would not think of defending himself.”
At the time, Philadelphia was outraged by the killing, and the story drew national interest, according to The Reporter. The District Attorney called for the juvenile suspects to be tried as adults.
“Society reacted to these black kids,” Oh said. He said when the violence stays mostly in the black neighborhoods, it gets ignored, but in his cousin's case, “it spilled out to this Ivy League community and a student from Korea.”
“People were concerned that black youths were out of control and were murderers, and how we needed to set an example with the death penalty,” Oh said.
But then In-Ho Oh’s father in Korea sent a letter that tried to make sense of the crime.
It offered the city an option — forgiveness.
“When the letter came in it was very moving,” Oh said. “It’s not what the authorities expected … It was not their plan. And it made it more challenging when the murder victim’s family is raising money for the kids.”
The letter, published in The Reporter is from In Ho Oh’s parents, Ki Byang Oh and his mother Shin Wynn H. Oh. It’s also signed by 20 other family members.
The letter mourned the loss of a son “by an unexpected accident,” and expressed disbelief, but no rage.
“We are sad now, not only because of In Ho's unachieved future, but also because of the unsaved souls and paralyzed human nature of the murderers,” the letter read.
But then it revealed how to turn sorrow into a higher “purpose.”
“It is our hope that we may somehow be instrumental in the salvation of souls, and in giving life to the human nature of the murderers,” the letter read. “Our family has met together and we have decided to petition that the most generous treatment possible within the laws of your government be given to those who have committed this criminal action without knowing what it would mean to him who has been sacrificed, to his family, to his friends, to his country … Our whole family has decided to save money to start a fund to be used for the religious, educational, vocational, and social guidance of the boys when they are released.”
Given the national attention given the crime and the public reaction to the suspects, the grace of the Oh family was seen as astonishing and hard to understand, Oh said. But he said the family’s approach was ultimately seen as positive for addressing related issues like rehabilitation, education, and employment.
It also established a history of caring and love, Oh said.
“There’s a lot of people in the African American community who view Asians as coming to America in the ‘70s and exploiting their communities, and not caring. They’re seen as foreign,” Oh said. “The In Ho Oh story predates that and creates a forgiving and warm feeling between the African-American and the Korean-American community that goes back to 1958. It casts the history of the communities differently … It’s a very healing story.”
“[My family’s] forgiveness didn’t come from a haughtiness, it came from a sincere concern for the circumstances of the murderers. It comes from love. It didn’t come from hate.”
The funds raised by the family established the “In-Ho Oh Memorial Korea Center,” as well as a scholarship fund in conjunction with the University of Pennsylvania.
From time to time, Ho speaks about his cousin’s legacy in community speeches. The effort to name the 3600 block of Hamilton Street “In-Ho Oh Memorial Way” in the memory of his cousin was new this year, and marks the first time a street in Philadelphia has been named for a person of Asian descent, according to Oh.
Oh believes his cousin’s story coincides with a real need in our nation today for understanding among our different communities. He said In-Ho Oh’s story shows that forgiveness worked then, and can also work today.
“When we accept that wrongs were done and focus on how to prevent them, not through hatred or vengeance or retaliation, but through the public interest, then I think we can find reasonable and sustainable solutions,” Oh said. “[My family’s] forgiveness didn’t come from a haughtiness, it came from a sincere concern for the circumstances of the murderers. It comes from love. It didn’t come from hate.”