RICHMOND — The West Contra Costa Unified School District (WCCUSD) Board of Education at its meeting on Wednesday night voted unanimously to rename Portola Middle School after Japanese American civil rights icon Fred T. Korematsu.
Board President Charles Ramsey originally suggested the name change, saying that honoring Korematsu is “a reminder that injustice should never be accepted and to teach our children to always stand up against injustice.”
“I am proud that a school in El Cerrito can be a part of the civil rights legacy Mr. Korematsu championed through his willingness to challenge injustice,” Ramsey said. “This is not simply about a name; this is about honoring people who have risked their lives battling injustice and ensuring that our children come to know about their sacrifices.”
The committee tasked to evaluate the name change hosted four public hearings on the subject and the district received hundreds or written and verbal comments from community members, both in favor of and against the proposal, before recommending the change to the Board of Education.
During World War II, Japanese Americans were ordered to internment camps despite the lack of cause for the detentions. Korematsu was arrested and convicted for defying the internment order. On appeal, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld his conviction.
In 1983, the case was overturned in U.S. District Court, and President Bill Clinton later awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. After 9/11, Korematsu spoke out to protect the civil rights of Muslim inmates and U.S. citizens. He passed away in 2005 at the age of 86.
The school is currently housed in portable buildings as its new campus is being built on Donal Avenue, four blocks away from its original location on Navellier Street between Moeser Lane and Portola Drive. The school is scheduled to open in its new location in January 2016.
Public schools in Oakland, where Korematsu was born, in San Leandro, where he resided after the war, and in Davis also bear his name.
Some opponents of the name change argued that Korematsu did not have specific ties to El Cerrito and suggested keeping the name of Gaspar de Portola, the Spanish explorer who “discovered” San Francisco Bay.
Margaret Miche offered three alternatives: Pina J. Barbieri, a celebrated Richmond educator and businesswoman; Spanish pioneer Don Victor Castro, who established a ranch where the school now stands; or keeping the Portola name and naming the gym in honor of Korematsu.
Kathie Weinstein put forth the names of Castro and El Cerrito civic benefactor Sundar Shadi, and also suggested the school should be named after a local family, such as the Adachis, who ran a nursery in the area.
Mike Douthit recommended another local nursery family, the Sakais.
John Veirs submitted the name of his grandfather, Phillip Lee, the first mayor of El Cerrito.
Ray Dennen preferred keeping the Portola name, but also suggested the late civil rights activist Yuri Kochiyama. He charged that the committee was not considering any name other than Korematsu.
Some of the calls received by the school district were more pointed:
Barbara Campbell: “This is the dumbest thing I’ve ever heard. Honor him in a different way, but not a school.”
Emma Dawley: “I live in El Cerrito and I don’t agree with it at all. I don’t see the need for it. I’ve never heard of him.”
Barbara Bacon: “Portola has a very historic background for California. Portola is the gentleman who discovered San Francisco Bay. I think it’s a mistake to change it to someone I don’t think El Cerritans know.”
The school district said on its website, “Due to the abusive nature of some calls, only comments where a name was given are included.”
In some cases, Korematsu’s Japanese ancestry was an issue.
Philip Zimmerman wrote, “Japanese Americans were not treated particularly badly during WWII. Though they often lost their property as a result of the internment, it was not purposefully harsh, and in no way compared to the way Americans in Japan and American prisoners of war were treated by the Japanese Empire. The fact that Fred Korematsu survived and later flourished in our society despite his activities is to America’s credit, not his.”
Another opponent, Anna-Marie Hertzer, identified herself as “granddaughter of Johannes and Barbara I.M. Schoon, who, as prisoners of the Japanese, were cruelly treated by the Japanese during World War II.”
One couple wrote, “We don’t think Mr. Korematsu ranks with Martin Luther King or Cesar Chavez.”
Korematsu’s daughter Karen, director of the San Francisco-based Fred T. Korematsu Institute for Civil Rights and Education, said, “Two-thirds of the people that were incarcerated were American citizens. My father thought this was wrong. He learned about the Constitution in high school. He went to Castlemont High School in Oakland … My father’s fight for justice wasn’t just for himself. And not just for the Japanese American people. It was for all Americans.”
Contra Costa County Superior Court Judge Joni Hiramoto supported the name change. As a member of the Adachi family (her mother is the youngest Adachi daughter), she respectfully declined any suggestion to name the school after her family.
Rev. Ken Omi of nearby Sycamore Congregational Church said that both his and his wife’s families were interned and that the name change will serve as a unique opportunity to educate young people for generations to come.
Mary Kamiya, who was interned when she was 16, talked about her experiences and said that Korematsu inspired the people in the camps.
Laura Iiyama said the name change will “reflect a national name with a national story.” She read a letter from the Contra Costa JACL detailing Korematsu’s court case. Her mother, long-time civil rights activist Chizu Iiyama, also spoke.
Toru Saito, a former Topaz, Utah internee, was one of the first students at Portola when it opened in 1951. Although Korematsu was seen as a “troublemaker” because of his civil disobedience, it’s time for him to receive his due recognition, Saito said. “It’s sad Fred had to suffer from the hatred not only of others but of his own people.”
Yosh Murakawa, whose daughter attended Portola, said that he supported the name change as a believer in diversity. He was interned as a child and has lived in El Cerrito for 50 years.
Joanna Pace, who shared pictures from the El Cerrito Historical Society, said changing the name to Korematsu would help teach students to treat each other with respect and kindness.
Kazue Nakahara, a retired Portola teacher who has lived in the area for 39 years, said she liked all the names submitted and initially favored Shadi, but changed her mind after learning more about Korematsu.
The district received letters from Dale Minami, lead attorney in the 1983 reopening of Korematsu’s case, and Don Tamaki, a member of Korematsu’s legal team, both of Minami Tamaki LLP in San Francisco.
“A school bearing Fred’s name will be a constant reminder of how fragile our civil rights are and how one person’s courage can have an immense impact on securing those rights for our children and grandchildren,” Minami wrote.
As a Nikkei who attended Portola (and later El Cerrito HIgh), I am very pleased with this decision. Children who attend Korematsu in the future will have the opportunity to learn about the internment camps and the devestating effect it had on the local community – most of the area Nikkei families were involved in the flower-nursery business. More than half of these businesses never opened back up after the war. Rather, many of the Nisei then went into the auto repair business with shops all over San Pablo avenue.
I recall Portola having a large Nikkei student population back in the 60s and 70s. So large that we used to divide ourselves up by church basketball teams (Sycamore, Free Meth, Berkeley Buddhist, Layman, BMU, etc) and play all day on the school courts. Not sure how many JAs still live in the area, but there is a long list of successful graduates like Joni HIramoto who are still active in the community.