Franklin Odo discussing Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month at U.S. Customs and Border Protection’s Office of Civil Rights and Diversity in 2015. (Photo by James Tourtellotte)

Scholar, historian, activist and author Franklin S. Odo, known for his contributions to the field of Asian American studies, passed away after a short bout with cancer on Sept. 28 at the age of 83 in Amherst, Mass.

Odo served as director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Program from 1997 to 2010, was the first Asian Pacific American curator at the Museum of American History, and taught American studies at Amherst College.

Born in Hawaii and a graduate of Princeton University (B.A. and Ph.D.) and Harvard University (M.A.), Odo was part of the movement that created ethnic studies in the late 1960s and early 1970s. An instructor for more than 50 years, he also taught at Occidental College, UCLA, CSU Long Beach, University of Pennsylvania, Hunter College, Princeton University, Columbia University, University of Hawai’i at Manoa, and University of Maryland-College Park.

He co-edited “Roots: An Asian American Reader” (1971) with Amy Tachiki, Eddie Wong and Buck Wong; co-authored “A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawai‘i, 1885-1924 (1985) with Kazuko Sinoto; authored “No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai’i During World War II” (2003); edited “The Columbia Documentary History of the Asian American Experience” (2003); and authored “Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai’i” (2013).

Franklin Odo (center) at the press preview for “From Bento to Mixed Plate: Americans of Japanese Ancestry in Multicultural Hawai’i” exhibition in the Arts and Industries Building, May 20, 1999. (Richard W. Strauss/Smithsonian Photographic Services)

Several tributes from institutions, organizations and individuals that have worked with  Odo have been posted on social media. Following are some of them.

Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, Washington, D.C.: Today we remember Dr. Franklin Odo, the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center’s founding director, who laid much of the foundation for how Asian American and Pacific Islander arts, history, and culture are preserved and shared.

Born in 1939, Odo grew up in Honolulu, Hawaii. He went on to earn both his B.A. and doctorate at Princeton University, becoming involved in the movement to create Asian American studies and other ethnic studies programs as a student in the late 1960s and early ’70s.

Prior to joining the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program (now Center) as its founding director in 1997, Odo was an established scholar, president of the Association for Asian American Studies, and the first Asian American curator at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.

During his tenure at the Smithsonian, Odo uplifted AAPI history, culture, and arts throughout the institution, and organized several influential exhibitions, including “Exit Saigon, Enter Little Saigon,” a project that sought to tell the story of Vietnamese American communities after the 30th anniversary of the Vietnam War. 

Odo’s memory lives on in the field of scholarship he helped inaugurate, the many organizations he helped grow and shape, the vast web of artists, scholars, students, cultural practitioners, and museum professionals he guided and mentored, and the investments in justice he passes down.

The thoughts of those of us at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center are with Odo’s family, friends, and community.

Japanese American National Museum, Los Angeles: The Japanese American National Museum (JANM) is deeply saddened by the passing of Dr. Franklin Odo on Sept. 28, 2022. Odo was an early consultant, supporter, and longtime friend of JANM. He was the founding director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC) from 1997-2010, a professor of ethnic studies at the University of Hawai‘i, and a visiting professor of history and American studies at the University of Pennsylvania, Hunter College, Princeton University, and Columbia University. Most recently, he was the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer in American Studies at Amherst College in Massachusetts. He earned his Ph.D. from Princeton University.

Odo provided invaluable counsel to JANM over the years. From 1987 to 1989, Odo participated in the National Scholars Advisory Council, which helped build JANM and shaped the theoretical framework of the museum’s inaugural exhibition, “Issei Pioneers, Hawai‘i and the Mainland, 1885-1924.” In 1990, he participated in the museum’s Pau Hana Plantation Fair in Hawai‘i, which was held to ensure that the Hawaiian story was part of JANM’s inaugural exhibition.

In 1994 Odo was the keynote speaker for JANM’s National Teachers Institute event in Hawai‘i. The institute was created to ensure that the stories of the Japanese in America were part of the school curriculum.

In 1999 Odo was an important advisor to JANM’s exhibition “From Bento to Mixed Plate: Americans of Japanese Ancestry in Multicultural Hawai‘i,” which he brought to the Smithsonian as the APAC director. APAC was an early project partner of JANM’s Discover Nikkei, which launched in March 2005.

JANM also hosted Odo for readings from his books, “No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai‘i During WWII” (2004) and “Voices From the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai‘I” (2013), and interviewed him on Discover Nikkei. He also participated in the museum’s 2013 national conference commemorating the 25th anniversary of the Civil Liberties Act of 1988.

“We are deeply saddened by Franklin’s passing. He was a respected scholar and pioneer in Asian Americans studies and a great friend to the museum. His contributions to JANM, academia, and Japanese American history will always be treasured,” said Ann Burroughs, president and CEO.

Franklin Odo co-edited “Roots: An Asian American Reader” (1971), now regarded as a classic.

Amherst College: Amherst College mourns the passing of Franklin Odo, the John Woodruff Simpson Lecturer and former John J. McCloy ’16 Visiting Professor of American Institutions and International Diplomacy in the Department of American Studies, on Sept. 28, 2022.

Provost and Dean of the Faculty Catherine Epstein wrote the following in a Sept. 30 email to faculty and staff: “We have been fortunate to have Franklin as a member of our community since 2015. His colleagues praise his tremendous intellect and range of knowledge; his generosity of spirit and kindness; his modesty; and his mentorship of faculty and students. I understand that a private family memorial service is being planned.

“A renowned scholar, activist for racial justice, steward of Asian American culture, and internationally recognized leader in the field of Asian American studies, Franklin focused his life’s work on the history and lived experiences of Asian Americans. He was educated at Princeton and Harvard and went on to serve in many important roles over the course of a long and distinguished career, including as founding director of the Ethnic Studies Program at the University of Hawai`i at Mānoa; president of the Association for Asian American Studies; senior advisor to the National Park Service’s National Historic Landmarks Program; chief of the Asian Division of the Library of Congress; and founding director of the Smithsonian Institution’s Asian Pacific American Center.

“Franklin was a prolific writer, authoring, among other works, books that included ‘Voices from the Canefields: Folksongs from Japanese Immigrant Workers in Hawai`i,’ ‘No Sword to Bury: Japanese Americans in Hawai`i during WWII,’ and ‘A Pictorial History of the Japanese in Hawaii, 1885-1924’ (with Kazuko Sinoto), and ‘In Movement: A Pictorial History of Asian America.’ He also co-edited a groundbreaking anthology titled ‘Roots: An Asian American Reader’ and served as a curator and was involved in numerous media projects.

“At Amherst, Franklin taught courses on race and public history and memory, among other topics, inspiring our students inside and outside the classroom. He supervised multiple theses in Asian American studies, helped his students create a podcast on Asian Americans and affirmative action, and worked with the Mead Art Museum.

“Franklin provided students with unique experiences, including a field trip in 2017 over spring break to Washington for students in his course ‘Japanese Americans and WWII,’ accompanied by Professor Robert Hayashi. As part of the trip, Franklin arranged for a tour of a Smithsonian exhibition commemorating the 75th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066 by Franklin Roosevelt, which authorized the forced removal and incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans. He had been the principal scholar-advisor to this project and co-led the tour along with Smithsonian curators.

“More broadly, Franklin was a deeply admired advisor to the Asian Students Association and was very involved in the Five College Asian/Pacific/American Studies Program. He also has played a key role in current efforts to establish an Asian American Studies program at the college (the foundation of which is under way with a current ‘cluster hire’ in three departments). His loss will be deeply felt.”

University of Hawai’i: Odo was appointed director of the UH Mānoa ethnic studies program in 1978 and also served on the editorial board of UH Press. He returned to the islands after spending years in college campuses around the country promoting Asian and ethnic studies programs.

“Franklin was a smart, passionate and committed leader whose vision of a more just future rivaled only his sense of historical humor,” said Professor Ty Tengan, acting director of the Center for Oral History, Department of Ethnic Studies. “He fought to establish Ethnic Studies as an internationally recognized program and later a department that was (and continues to be) grounded in activist research and community-based teaching of ‘Our History, Our Way.’ He will be dearly missed; we in ethnic studies will continue to honor his legacy through a fund in his name.”

From 1989 to 1991, Odo served as the president of the Association for Asian American Studies, and during the 1990s, he held visiting professorships at the University of Pennsylvania, Hunter College, Columbia University and his alma mater Princeton University.

Odo became a board member of the Hawaiʻi State Foundation on Culture and the Arts in 1981 and served as its chair from 1986 to 1989.

In a 1990 interview with the Center for Oral History at UH Mānoa, he described the role of cultural activities in mobilizing and empowering people: “If you don’t control your own culture, and your own vision of life, and your own participation in life, then you don’t control anything. And that’s what we’re about. The true spirit ofany kind of democracy is to have people be autonomous at the same time that they know that they’re dependent on the community around them.”

From 1997 until 2010, Odo served as founding director of the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Program in Washington, D.C., where he worked to bring more attention to Asian American and Pacific Islander history, arts and culture. Odo also served as the first Asian Pacific American curator at the National Museum of American History.

After a year as interim chief of the Asian Division at the Library of Congress, he returned to teaching, this time at Amherst College. Odo also spent time at UH West Oʻahu serving as a distinguished visiting scholar in December 2011.

The family is holding a private memorial service, and asked that, in lieu of flowers, donations be made to the Franklin Odo Fund to carry on his legacy at UH.

Densho, Seattle: We are saddened to share the news of Franklin Odo’s death and ask that you join us in honoring his memory. Odo was a trailblazing scholar and leader in the movement for Asian American studies during the late 1960s and early 1970s and, later, one of Densho’s first board members.

Densho’s Founding Executive Director Tom Ikeda recalls that “during board meetings he always emphasized the importance of Asian American stories to the larger quilt of American history.” Ikeda went on to say, “He was a quiet giant, using his intelligence, wisdom, sense of humor, and strong moral compass to change the people around him. I would especially appreciate the long evenings when Franklin would ‘talk story’ about his student days at Princeton and the early work to establish Asian American studies in universities.”

Thank you, Franklin, for a well lived life of service.

Phil Tajitsu Nash, University of Maryland: I have over four decades of memories of Franklin, going back to my earliest days as a teacher of Asian American history and using “Roots,” a book that he co-edited in 1971, as one of my textbooks. Looking back on those days, I realize even more how visionary he was to create teaching materials and syllabi and other tools that the rest of us could use as we built Asian American studies at schools all over the country.

Going beyond materials, however, Franklin had the charisma and infectious smile and generosity of spirit that drew everyone to him as he became the Johnny Appleseed of Asian American studies. He had the credentials to make a career for himself at a prestigious private school, but he chose to work at many public and private universities with the children of all classes so that ethnic studies and cultural competence would be available to everyone, not just a few elites.

As I worked with Franklin over the decades on big and small projects at the Smithsonian, at the University of Maryland Asian American Studies Program (AAST), and in conferences and Day of Remembrance ceremonies and so much else, I realized that he was still the kid from Hawai’I who had taken the best of the “aloha” spirit and used it as a shield against the hazing and credentialism and elitism that was (and is) prevalent in universities and other settings where privilege rules the day. He had internalized the lessons of the 1960s civil rights movement and lived its idealism every day, despite the contradictions he confronted as he sought to break down barriers and build new institutions based on compassion and fairness.

Here at AAST, Franklin was not only a popular professor for his own classes, but he made sure to reach out and enrich the lives of his students and colleagues. His suggestions of books, his offers to make personal connections, and his advice about careers and strategies were made to all who needed them, elevating our program and every one of us in it.

At the Smithsonian, I was privileged to work with Franklin on many programs and exhibitions. Whether it was the heartbreaking photographs of Filipino American workers, the controversial “A More Perfect Union” exhibition on the Japanese American internment, or the rich tapestry of Hawai’ian life in the homage to the “Mixed Plate” lunch tradition, Franklin brought a sense of history, a sense of humor, and the ability to push back against entrenched interests just enough to let the rest of us express our creativity and share our perspectives.

Franklin also used his power and privilege to elevate the rest of us in important ways, as he did when he had me appointed as a curator at the Smithsonian for the Asian Pacific American Program at the 2010 Smithsonian Folklife Festival. I had been teaching Asian American history for 26 years by that time, but I had no idea how to curate a program on that scale: ten days of programs on the National Mall and online. Luckily, Franklin knew all of the people to talk to, the arcane processes to follow, and the bridges to build to make the program successful.

I was deeply moved by the irony that Franklin ended his career as a John J. McCloy Visiting Professor at Amherst College, because McCloy was one of the architects of the Japanese American incarceration during World War II and Amherst is one of the most elite private universities in America. Franklin had not only brought Asian American studies into this bastion of privilege, but he had used the legacy endowment of one of the most rabid anti-Japanese American voices in FDR’s administration to fund it.

And on top of that, as the recent Facebook post of one grieving Chinese American Amherst student made clear, the arc of history will continue to bend toward justice long after he is gone, because his message of hope, empowerment and social concern continued to resonate with his students right up to the end.

RIP, Franklin, and thanks for all you shared with us all these years.

Eddie Wong: I’m still processing feelings of grief from the news that Franklin Odo passed away on Sept. 28. He was someone many of us young activists admired and wanted to emulate. Franklin and Enid were the type of hip, curious intellectuals we wanted to become. And they carried themselves with humility and grace, always taking the time to talk to us as peers and being present at community events.

I enjoyed working with him as a TA in his “Asians in America” course at UCLA and later as a co-editor of “Roots.” He always encouraged us to follow our instincts in developing content for that pioneering book. Many years later, I enjoyed meeting him in WDC as NAATA (National Asian American Telecommunications Association) would often showcase documentary films at the Smithsonian. And over the years, we would meet up at AA studies conferences and other events.

Probably the most meaningful conversations I had with Franklin were in the company of fellow “Roots” editors Amy Uyematsu and Buck Wong just last year as we all wrote new introductions for the upcoming digital edition of “Roots: An Asian American Reader.” We had a chance to look back at our younger selves and what we wrote in 1971 and write new commentaries that reflect not only current conditions but how we’ve changed as individuals.

Franklin was an influential part of our journey and his work, writings, and wit have left an indelible mark.

Filmmaker Renee Tajima-Peña: We are all reeling from the loss of a giant in Asian American studies, Franklin Odo. Like many, it seems like I’ve known him forever. I was incredibly lucky that, for some reason, Franklin and Enid actually trusted my debauched 14-year-old self to babysit their kids. The kids survived. My life was changed.

Franklin and the pioneers of AAS and the Asian American Movement gave me a way to harness my anger. This was the 1970s and I realize now how blessed we were in our community. In addition to having Franklin there, Warren Furutani and Rod Ogawa worked at my school, Muir HS. With guidance from those mentors we put together a student-led mini-course on Asian American history and made lots of good trouble.

I still have my copy of “Roots,” now worn into three dog-eared pieces after traveling with me to different cities, years, eras. We were still using it for research for the production of #AsianAmericansPBS and the May 19th Project.

And over all those decades, Franklin himself remained at the heart of AAS. Always teaching, writing, new programs, new ideas. The Smithsonian APA Center is as indispensable as “Roots” was back in the day. Rest in power, Franklin. We are all honored to have known you, and to have learned from you.

Little Tokyo community leader Mike Murase: Franklin was a gentle man with strong convictions, a folksy Hawaii native with intellectual rigor and a progressive world view.

Decades ago, when I was a student at UCLA, we fought for ethnic studies … and won! But in the early days, we had no Asian American textbooks and no professors to teach the courses. Franklin was one of the few grownups that stood with the youthful and impatient undergrads. He was instrumental in co-editing the nation’s first AA textbook called “Roots: An Asian American Reader.” 

Today, we can fill an entire bookcase. or even a library room with Asian American titles. Franklin, along with Yuji Ichioka, Emma Gee, and a handful of others were truly the pioneers. RIP Franklin!

Leslie Ito, Armory Center for the Arts, Pasadena: I’m so sad to learn that Franklin Odo has passed away. The summer of 1996 I worked with Franklin in the Smithsonian APA Studies office. I learned so much from him that summer. We kept in touch over the years and he wrote many letters of rec for me. Every time I would ask him, he would say. “Leslie, you want me to lie for you again?!” I loved how he used humor and his Hawaii spirit to disarm people. He was a true force and I feel blessed to have be one of many, many people whose lives were impacted by him.

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Odo’s wife and children posted the following message on his Facebook page:

Franklin Odo’s family posted this photo on his Facebook page after his passing.

Thank you all for the incredible outpouring of support for our family. We very much appreciate all of the wonderful memories and stories that you are sharing, each one brings a measure of great comfort during this sad time. Franklin deeply valued every relationship in his life and your messages here would have meant so much to him. It’s amazing to see how many people, individuals from so many different backgrounds, are coming together here to remember and to celebrate him.

Franklin once said: “If you don’t control your own culture, and your own vision of life, and your own participation in life, then you don’t control anything. And that’s what we’re about. The true spirit of any kind of democracy is to have people be autonomous at the same time that they know that they’re dependent on the community around them.”

As a family we are grateful for this beautiful community. Many of you have asked about services, sending cards and flowers. The family is planning a private memorial.

In lieu of flowers, please consider donating to a fund in Franklin’s honor, which will help carry on his legacy of social justice, scholarship, and mentorship at the University of Hawaii: https://giving.uhfoundation.org/funds/13014604

Mahalo and Aloha,

Enid, David, Rachel, and Jonathan

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  1. Greatly saddened to hear of Franklin Odo’s passing on 28 September, I’m deeply grateful for his bringing vital attention to Asian-American artists and especially for his personal guidance from his post at the Smithsonian in DC as I searched for ways to highlight artists of Filipino heritage in Hawai’i and Asia.