"Peace Empowers": the testimony of Aki Kurose, a woman of color in the Pacific Northwest.
This article responds to that call to share the lives of Pacific Northwest women of color in two ways. First, it examines some of the everyday acts of courage practiced by peace activist and award-winning teacher Aki Kurose, whose life and career combined principles of nonviolence and theories of progressive education to shape the lives of thousands of Seattle residents until her death in 1998. (1) Kurose's life was so exemplary that in 1999, a year after her death, the Seattle School Board renamed a school building the Aki Kurose Middle School Academy in her honor. Additionally, a peace garden, an affordable housing project, a scholarship, and a science fair were named for her. This article is also about the struggle by her supporters to name a school after her. As a result of these naming acts Kurose is remembered each time the school is mentioned in the news, another phase of the housing project is finished, the scholarship awarded, or the science fair held. This public commemoration of Kurose means peopl e continue to reflect on the meaning of her life. As time passes, however, will people remember how she lived her life committed to nonviolent direct action for social justice?
Kurose's contributions are now widely recognized and honored in Seattle and beyond, but her inspiration lives on in a second way: Her oral history was recorded for the Densho Project, a digital, interactive multimedia archive with a searchable computer database of experiences narrated by Japanese American women and men. The videotaped interviews, historic photographs, and documents help create a multilayered history of the Pacific Northwest to balance the dominant narratives of regional history that minimize women's experiences and foreground "heroic" actions of white males. The interview of Aki Kurose illustrates how a more complex and richer account of Pacific Northwest history is achieved by incorporating diverse women's voices, beliefs, and actions. (2)
Kurose was born Akiko Kato February 11, 1925, in Seattle. Her parents had met in Berkeley, California, where her father, Harutoshi Kato, had moved to work. He arrived with a degree from Yokohama School of Commerce having departed from Miyagi prefecture in Japan. Her mother, Murako Okamura, had come from Kumamoto prefecture to study, and mutual friends had introduced the two. After their marriage the Katos settled in Seattle, leasing an apartment house that was managed by Aid's mother. "Managing" meant that Aki's mother "got the engineer's license," and "ran the boiler room," and "cleaned the furnace," as well as "wallpapering right along with my dad, standing on a ladder and just going at it." (3) Aki's mother served as a role model, a woman not limited to traditional gendered roles.
Like many prewar Japanese Americans in Seattle, the Kato family lived in a diverse, working-class neighborhood of Asians, Jews, and African Americans in the Central District, also known as the Central Area. In contrast to the segregated lives led by most whites in Seattle, Kurose remembered her Jewish, Chinese, and African American neighbors coming to her family's apartment to enjoy the jelly rolls her father baked every Friday evening. "We'd just have a good time, listening to music and just being social," she later recalled. "And we went in and out of each other's homes all the time." Kurose noted that hers was "a very friendly, happy neighborhood."
Kurose's neighborhood elementary school was likewise ethnically diverse. "I went to Bailey Gatzert at the beginning, and then went to Washington," she explained. "And that's where all our classmates went--the Jewish kids, and the Japanese kids, and the Chinese kids, and the black kids." Lasting friendships developed, and Kurose's elementary class held a fiftieth anniversary reunion. One unique aspect of her education was that Kurose attended a Japanese language school that employed an African American teacher, Evelyn Whistler. Kurose believed that class issues explained the formation of such a diverse neighborhood: "Our living situation was determined by the economics. People of the same economic level lived in the area and we interacted with each other. And it wasn't by ethnicity ... although we were considered more or less like in the ghetto, so to speak."
World War II was a pivotal point Kurose's life. On the morning of December 7, 1941, Kurose had just come back home from church when she heard that Pearl Harbor had been bombed. She had no idea where Pearl Harbor was, nor did she fully comprehend what the consequences would be for her family. Her father said there would be trouble because the United States was at war with Japan. Aki's response was, "Why should it bother me?.. I'm an American." When she went to school the next day she discovered that for many Americans, Kurose was racially indistinguishable from the enemy Japanese. Race erased citizenship and civil rights. One teacher told her, "You people bombed Pearl Harbor." Kurose thought, "My people?" She said that at that moment, she became aware of "my Japaneseness.... I no longer felt I'm an equal American, that I felt kind of threatened and nervous about it."
Kurose's happy childhood was shattered when her family was forcibly removed from their multicultural, "very friendly, happy" neighborhood in Seattle and incarcerated under armed military guard in a U.S. concentration camp in Idaho. "It was a shock," she recalled, "to know that we had to leave by reason of race." In all, more than 110,000 Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes on the West Coast of the United States and incarcerated in inland concentration camps. Four decades later, Kurose would become active in the successful Japanese American redress movement that was "born in Seattle" and that led to the U.S. Congress passing the Civil Liberties Act of 1988. The Act acknowledged and apologized for the illegal incarceration of Japanese Americans in World War II, paid twenty thousand dollars compensation to each survivor of the incarceration, and set up an educational fund under the auspices of the Department of Justice for research for the education of the public about the Japanese America n experience. (4)
Kurose developed a lasting commitment to working for peace out of her wartime incarceration experience, but her parents had a role in shaping her thinking. Kurose said that her parents were "really positive thinking people." Her father and mother explained to her that war was the cause of irrational behavior. "We mustn't be bitter, but we must think in terms of never having war again," she was advised. "So we must work for peace." She later came to understand the influence her parents had on her attitude toward being incarcerated:
I realized what war can do and the injustices that occur for reason of the war. There is no justice when war takes place. And my folks emphasized the fact that this incarceration was due to war, this was an injustice due to war. And that we should always make sure that there is no more war, and we should work for peace.
Kurose noted that her father was a confirmed pacifist. "And he was a real peaceful man," she said, "and my mother too." Even prior to the war Kurose's father had introduced her to the idea of pacifism. He had spoken of Kagawa, the Japanese Christian minister who was a pacifist, and other pacifists, including members of the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers). He told her that Quakers "didn't believe in war and did good things as an alternative." Kurose believed her father's message was, "You don't just say something's good, you work at it.... You can talk about it, but if you don't act, then it's just as bad as not believing in it." When Kurose attended Friends University, a Quaker college in Wichita, Kansas, after the war, she realized that peace activism would always be a part of her life. "That was what I wanted, to spend my life doing this to work for peace," she explained. A commitment to peace and the peace testimony marks the rest of Kurose's private and public life, beginning with her work after t he war with peace activist Floyd Schmoe as his secretary in the Seattle office of the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a friendship that lasted until her death. About that association Kurose said, "It wasn't the typical secretarial position where you sit and take diction, but you just learned so much. And I learned a lot about what the Service Committee was doing and had done all over the world... as a peace organization. And it just fit right in with a lot of my beliefs." She stated that her entire life had been influenced by Friends' activities. At one point she went to Hiroshima with Schmoe on his missions to rebuild houses there.
Much had changed in Seattle after the war. "All the porters, before the war, were Japanese," she explained. "And when we were all incarcerated, then most of the porters became blacks." When Japanese Americans were released from the concentration camps and returned to Seattle in 1945, the railroads began to give the Japanese their jobs back. Black porters feared that the returning Japanese would take away their new jobs. Kurose's father, who was a porter at Union Station, then helped to form a multiracial porter's union so that Japanese Americans and African Americans could work together. Kurose's father told her, "You know, we're just being pitted against each other. We need to pool ourselves together and form a union, and we'll both benefit." It was one of the first multiracial unions. She became the secretary for the union and soon thereafter became involved with the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE).
CORE had been founded in 1942 in Chicago by an interracial group of students, many of whom were members of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR), a pacifist organization that sought to change racist attitudes through nonviolent direct action for social justice. (5) Kurose's life intersected with CORE in several ways. Kurose had been influenced by literature from FOR while in she was in the concentration camp during the war, and an active CORE chapter existed in Wichita, Kansas, mainly comprised of students from Friends University. From 1948 until 1950, she lived in Chicago. CORE, with its commitment to a strategy of interracial, nonviolent direct action, must have appealed to Kurose. She commented that her involvement with CORE "seemed like a natural thing to do, and just kind of worked." The Seattle chapter of CORE was active in the 1960s in direct-action campaigns for black employment, open housing, school desegregation, and desegregation of the construction unions. (6)
In 1948 Aki Kato married Junelow (Junx) Kurose, who had been recently discharged from the U.S. Army. Junx was Aki's brother's best friend, and Aid was Junx's sister's best friend before the war. After they married the couple moved first to Chicago to join Junx's parents because he was their only surviving son. After a couple of years they returned to Seattle because Junx decided he did not want to raise children in Chicago and he missed the Northwest.
The couple experienced different forms of discrimination upon their return to Seattle in 1950. Junx found work at Boeing as a machinist after discovering he could not get unionized work as an electrician because the electrical unions in Seattle excluded Japanese Americans in the construction unions. The construction unions continued to discriminate against nonwhites well into the 1960s. In 1969, out of twenty-seven hundred electrical workers in the Seattle building trade unions only two were nonwhite. (7) The couple initially lived with Kurose's parents while they searched for their own housing but quickly learned that restrictive housing practices in Seattle presented barriers to finding a place to live. As a result of this experience, Aid Kurose became active in the open-housing movement through the AFSC. During the 19505 she and others identified real estate companies and other groups that practiced discrimination in housing and areas where discrimination existed. In recognition for her role in the open-h ousing movement, the Low Income Housing Institute (LIHI) in 1999 named its North Seattle affordable housing development for families with children the Aki Kurose Village. Aki Kurose Village provides for a place of transition for such families, from area homeless shelters to permanent housing in Seattle. (8)
Aid and Junx raised six children, whom she involved in her activist causes, which included the work of the AFSC, the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom, and the activist branches of the YWCA. She believed that "education involves more than just reading, writing, and arithmetic, that they [children] have to know about our society and about justice." Attending civil rights marches and antiwar demonstrations helped instill those values in her children. She also enrolled her children in the Freedom School held at Madrona Presbyterian Church in Seattle, where they learned about civil rights issues and race relations. CORE, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), and the NAACP first established freedom schools in Mississippi with the 1964 Freedom Summer campaign to promote voter registration and community mobilization. (9) Later CORE promoted freedom schools in other areas, including Seattle.
During her own children's early years, Kurose began to work in preschool programs and found that she enjoyed working with children. She started taking early childhood education and development classes, and the more classes she took, the more excited she got about teaching. In the late 1960s Kurose was involved in establishing the Head Start program in Seattle. "We were very concerned that there were a lot of kids that were ... not being cared for properly," she explained. "And so a group of us parents in this neighborhood...said, 'Let's start a...preschool for these kids so they could learn to be with each other and have fun."' With a couple of portable classrooms and a grant that they got from the school district, the group started Seattle's first Head Start program. By way of Head Start, Kurose began working for the Seattle Public Schools, and after working as a curriculum and educational development specialist, Kurose began her extraordinary career as an elementary school teacher.
Kurose's start as an elementary classroom teacher coincided with the intensifying of efforts to desegregate public schools in Seattle. The school board had initiated a voluntary racial transfer (VRT) program in 1963 to improve racial balance in schools through voluntary transfer of students. (10) In 1970 the board adopted the Middle School Desegregation Plan, a non-court-ordered mandatory plan that assigned students between Meany-Madrona Middle School in the Central District and three predominately white middle schools that had been established in the north end of Seattle at Hamilton, Eckstein, and Wilson junior highs. Desegregating the middle schools was the first of three phases of a plan to desegregate Seattle schools by 1973. However, full implementation of the three-phase plan was delayed by the intense opposition of whites to mandatory desegregation. (11) Not until December 1977 did the board pass the Seattle Plan, a comprehensive school desegregation plan. Meanwhile, between 1975 and 1976, the U.S. Dep artment of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) had found the Seattle public schools to be out of compliance with the civil rights assurances given by school officials in order to receive desegregation funds under Title VII of the Emergency School Aid Act. HEW found that the school district did not adequately service non-English-speaking students and that the teaching staff assignment policies led to a segregated teaching staff. In 1976, the Office of Civil Rights found that faculty and support staff were assigned on the basis of their race. Teachers of color were assigned to minority-impacted schools. (12) The district was then required to upgrade its bilingual program and transfer 280 staff members in order that a comparable percentage of minority staff would exist in each building. (13)
Thus, initially assigned in 1975 to teach at Martin Luther King Elementary in Seattle's Central District, a "minority-impacted school" that was predominately African American, Kurose, as a teacher of color, was transferred in 1976 to Laurelhurst Elementary, a predominately white school in an affluent residential area of Seattle that had earlier been exclusively white. (14) Even twenty years later, in a 1996 Seattle Post-Intelligencer news article, a reporter would note that the Laurelhurst community was "disproportionately white" with a "WASPY, blue-blood reputation" and residents who "typically earn more and are better educated than the average Seattle resident." (15) As one of the token faculty of color at Laurelhurst, Kurose experienced what she called the "subtleties of racism." For example, Kurose said that the Laurelhurst School community "was very upset" because she was replacing a respected white teacher who had been transferred to teach in a minority-impacted school in the Central District. In late summer before school started, the principal at Laurelhurst called Kurose to tell her that the parents wanted to talk to her because they were concerned about her becoming a teacher at Laurelhurst. The Laurelhurst community was "very highly educated, and very education oriented," Kurose explained. "I think they were very concerned that here comes this stranger with a different ethnicity coming to teach their kids."
Forty parents gathered in the downstairs living room of a Laurelhurst lakeside home, which included a squash court and indoor swimming pool. "I was being really on trial," Kurose recalled. The parents questioned her about her educational qualifications and her teaching philosophy. It was apparent that the parents had little experience with teachers of color and questioned the ability of a woman of color to teach their children. The parents "wanted the best for their children," she explained, "and here was this unknown Asian teacher coming to their building. They didn't know what to expect." In a repeat of Kurose's World War II experience almost four decades earlier, the parents saw her as Japanese, not American. They worried that their children might pick up a Japanese accent from her (of course, she had none). One of the parents magnanimously told Kurose, "Well, if you want to bring your chopsticks and rice bowl, it's okay." Kurose laughed when she recalled, "And this is in the 1970S.
The parents wondered, too, if Kurose would be able to deal with their gifted children. One parent told her: "Our children have had privileges all along. Are you going to be able to meet, you know, their standards? Can you teach kids that are so highly motivated and qualified?" The parents asserted a right to observe and evaluate her teaching, stating that it was their school and their right to visit the classroom. Kurose welcomed the parents to visit, and two parents came to her classroom every day for a month. She finally passed their scrutiny, "but it wasn't easy," she admitted. One angry parent dressed in a beautiful tennis outfit told her, "You know, the only reason you have this job is because you're a minority. . . . I don't think you're a good teacher at all." Apparently the parents believed that it was a privilege for a woman of color teacher to teach their gifted white children.
Relations with other teachers at Laurelhurst were at first tinged with racism) too. Kurose related:
When I first went there, one teacher came and said, "What are you?" And I said, "What do you mean, what am I?" And she says, "Well, who are you?" And I said, "I'm Aid Kurose." And she said, "Well, what are you?" And I said, "I'm a teacher." And she said, "Where did you come from?" And I said, "From Madrona." And she was getting furious with me, and she said, "No. You know what I mean, where did you come from?" So I said, "Oh, Martin Luther King School." And she said, "I'm asking you where you came from?" So I said, "Are you trying to ask my ethnicity?" I said, "I told you I'm from Madrona, I told you I'm from Martin Luther King School, you know... and you're still asking me where I came from." And she said, "Oh." And I said, "Are you wondering whether I'm Japanese, or Chinese? Well, I'm Japanese American." And she said, "Oh." And she walked away.
Later that year at the school Christmas party, another teacher asked Kurose if her husband was coming to the party. She told Kurose, "Our husbands were in the service, and so they won't feel comfortable if your husband comes." Kurose told the teacher that "My husband was in the service, too." Two other teachers joined in saying, "No, we mean the American army." Kurose added, "Well, my husband was also in the American army." "They couldn't quite understand that," she explained. Nearly four decades after World War II, the teachers still could not understand that Japanese Americans were Americans and that Kurose's husband had fought as an American in the American army. Not only were they ignorant of the history of valor of Japanese American women and men in the U.S. military in World War II, but they also held a racial assumption that an Asian-looking person could not be an American. When she told her husband about the incident he said, "Thank goodness! I don't want to go to a teacher's party anyway!"
Kurose faulted such ignorance on inadequate staff training in the school system. She stated: "I've complained a lot about how they really aren't teaching the teachers, or exposing them, or sharing them the beauty of a multicultural...education. And so I really like to emphasize that peace and cultural pluralism ... should be. . . integrated into the whole curriculum. You're not getting a true education unless those things are considered." Kurose believed that teachers and staff, too, needed to have a multicultural education.
Kurose related how even young children had absorbed the racism of those around them. A child who had been assigned to Kurose's class told her, "I'm not supposed to have a Jap for a teacher.... My mom says I'm not supposed to be in this class." When the principal called his mother, she told him, "Oh, he wasn't supposed to say that out of home," but she added, "I really don't want him in her class," and she immediately withdrew her son from Kurose's classroom. Nevertheless, some of Kurose's greatest critics later became her strongest advocates. Three years after this incident, the same woman who withdrew her child from Kurose's class requested that her other son, who was not wanted by any of the other teachers, be assigned to Kurose's class because, the mother said, "He is so difficult, and I'm sure he could fit into your room because, you know, you're real nice to kids." And, indeed, the difficult child "just needed the special kind of attention, and he turned out very nicely," Kurose explained. Subsequently, his mother became one of Kurose's strongest supporters. One of the parents at Kurose's "trial" by parents later became one of her best friends and was part of the committee that built a peace garden at Laurelhurst Elementary School dedicated to Kurose after her retirement due illness in 1996. Over time, Laurelhurst parents nominated her for numerous other awards and honored her in many different ways.
Why did Kurose's worst critics become her strongest advocates, and how did she find the strength to continue despite racism she personally experienced? Kurose credited her religious faith. "If I didn't have the commitment to peace and the peace testimony, my teaching at Laurelhurst would have been very difficult," she admitted. The Quaker peace testimony means bearing witness to peace through one's life, actions, and choices. Like her longtime friend, colleague, and mentor, Floyd Schmoe, Kurose became a well-known "Public Quaker," living her life "as an example" after the teaching of the Religious Society of Friends. Her Quaker faith became a living and transforming power in her life. As a Quaker she believed that each human being had unique value because there is a "seed," a light, something of God in all people. As a Friend she was committed to "answering that of God in everyone" and opposing any action that diminished, harmed, or threatened human beings. Her concern for peace came from that belief as well as her concern for equality and social justice worldwide. She believed that we must sometimes do things that are hard but that we know are right, and to do what one believes is right whether or not we may readily achieve the desired results. She also believed that love leads to action, and that if a person knows the cause of suffering, that person is bound to speak out and work for change. More could be achieved by appealing to the seed of God, that capacity for love and goodness within all people, she believed, than could be achieved through weapons that harm. She also advocated resolving conflict without deliberate harm and with healing. (16) She stated that her faith had led her to engage in postwar change movements, and her faith and commitment to peace and peace testimony empowered her to continue in what she believed right in the face of hostility.
Kurose's teaching made learning fun for her students and won over her severest critics. Her cognitive curriculum of hands-on discovery rather than rote learning excited her students and their parents. For example, to make sure school was "egg-citing" for her students, she often performed her favorite science experiments: learning how to get boiled eggs into narrow necked bottles and hatching salmon eggs and later releasing the fish into a local creek. Her students left the classroom to observe the sky, learn about clouds, track the phases of the moon and the position of the sun. Seasonal flowers decorating each table grouping in the classroom became the subjects of science lessons, art projects, and even spelling bees. Her learning-through-doing curriculum extended to writing stories in journals to express their thoughts. Consequently, Kurose's students learned to spell words such as metamorphosis, photosynthesis, waxing, waning, gibbous, and crescent because they had observed the processes in nature.
Inextricably intertwined with her hands-on teaching of math and science was her peace curriculum emphasizing peace from within, peaceful conflict resolution, and cultural pluralism. For example, in order to dispel any ethnocentric perspective held by her students, Kurose had a map of the world painted on the classroom floor so that they could see that Seattle and the United States were just little parts of the whole planet. Students sang greeting songs of all the countries in different languages so students of all backgrounds could feel represented in the classroom and so students could realize that different languages and cultures are beautiful. She told them that their class was a peace class and that it was important to learn about peace. She had them talk about how they felt about peace, read about peace, and take field trips to plant trees at the Seattle Peace Park. She sewed them peace pillows and baked them peace cookies. A morning ritual for the children was tai chi exercises outside the classroom in which they exercised, breathed, and gathered up all their anger, frustrations, and sadness and threw them out into outer space. Kurose would tell them not to worry about polluting outer space with their feelings because the bad chi would disintegrate in the air. She would conclude the morning ritual by saying to them that they were energized and refreshed, and ready to make the world a better place for all.
Her students say that Kurose was not afraid to talk to them about hard issues like her wartime incarceration or her battle with cancer. They learned from her the need to work for peace and social justice from her stories about the violation of civil rights of Japanese Americans during World War II and from her own incarceration. They learned lessons about courage and dedication when she continued to teach as she underwent radiation treatment and chemotherapy for numerous reoccurrences of cancer. They also remember her humor and the healing power of laughter as they recall her wearing a "clown" rainbow-colored wig to school when her hair fell out from radiation treatments. (17) They remember, too, that she always wore a button promoting peace. One of her favorites was a round green one with a quote from Gandhi saying, "If we are to teach real peace in this world, we will have to begin with the children." (18)
Kurose believed that "learning can't take place unless a child feels very comfortable and peaceful with him- or herself." As children became comfortable and peaceful, their parents, too, became comfortable, peaceful, and happy with Kurose. As one parent told Kurose with great delight: "My son is reading so beautifully. His math is wonderful, and he treats his younger brother so nicely. He's not a mean kid anymore. And he likes to talk things out." (19) A parent of former students of Kurose spoke of "the miraculous partnership she formed between parents, school, and community." Kurose's "greatest lesson plan, probably without knowing it, was teaching us to give of ourselves--and, of course, to be peaceful within," the parent explained. (20)
Kurose was acutely aware of class inequities at Laurelhurst. "I realized right away, the inequities that go on," she stated. "Because Laurelhurst is like an academy, you know, like a private school, with all the support from the parents and the community. And they could raise ... $46,000 over the weekend at an auction. And whereas a school like Dearborn Park, or whatever, talk about, 'Wow, they made $200,' you know. And so the services to the students are, again, much less.... It's a monies game as far as I feel the school district is concerned. Because every school does not ... offer the same kind of education, although they are part of the public school system." Kurose pointed out that class was even a factor in her being honored and acclaimed as an outstanding teacher: "If I worked in a very poor area, they wouldn't know how to nominate me for these awards.... The resources wouldn't be there. There're many, many teachers equally as good, if not even better, that have not been honored because of where they 're working because they don't have the same kind of resources." Referring to the Aid Kurose Peace Garden that Laurelhurst parents built in her honor upon her retirement in 1997, she asserted, "Now come on, in a poor area, they couldn't do that."
But class alone does not determine who is honored. After Kurose died in 1998, efforts to honor her educational legacy led to a proposal to name a school for her. It was natural to think that Laurelhurst Elementary School might be renamed for Kurose, one of their most honored teachers, but a school in a poorer, multicultural community was renamed for Aki Kurose. (21) In the fall of 1999, South Shore Magnet Middle School was to move to the Sharples Building in Rainier Valley and the Sharples Alternative School was to move to the South Shore Building. (22) African American educator and community activist Leahe "Mom" Wilson, who had worked with Kurose on political campaigns and other movements, suggested this switch of buildings provided an opportunity for the renaming of the relocated South Shore Middle School for Kurose.
Statistics from the 1990 census and other records indicate the socioeconomic differences between the Laurelhurst neighborhood, where Kurose taught, and the Rainier Valley neighborhood, where the proposed Aki Kurose school would be located. Over 28 percent of families in Rainier Valley lived below the poverty level; none lived below poverty level in Laurelhurst. The median income of the Rainier Valley community was one-half of the median income of the Laurelhurst community, and its median house value was one-fourth that of Laurelhurst's. The majority of people living in the Rainier Valley community were nonwhite. Asian/Pacific Islanders made up 37.7 percent of the population; 32.2 percent were black; 1.7 were Native American; and 1.5 percent were of "other" ethnic-racial origins. Only 26.9 percent were white compared to 90 percent in Laurelhurst. A 1997 newspaper reporter characterized the Rainier Valley as Seattle's most racially diverse community. "It also is a neighborhood on the mend after years of econom ic neglect and white flight," wrote the reporter. (23)
South Shore Middle School had the lowest Washington Assessment of Student Learning (WASL) test scores and the worst behavior and discipline record of all Seattle public middle schools, according to the year 2000 school comparison guide put out by the Seattle Times. (24) South Shore School faculty and staff wanted a fresh start and also desired to disassociate their newly moved school from the Sharples Building name, which had become negatively tied to catchall programs for troubled and previously expelled students. The community wanted a new name that would inspire the kind of changes it hoped to achieve with their new start in a new location. Aki Kurose seemed to be the perfect role model to inspire those changes.
Wilson, who was a Family Center consultant for South Shore Middle School helping primarily disadvantaged students and their families, led a multicultural, community-wide effort to name the Rainier Valley school the Aki Kurose Middle School Academy. There was broad-based community support for the name change. Over one thousand community members, alumni, students, and staff of South Shore School had signed petitions supporting the new name. (25) A letter to the school board from the staff of South Shore Middle School stated that Kurose would "provide an inspirational model for our students." (26) The South Shore PTA supported the proposal to rename the school the Aki Kurose Middle School, stating, "Ms. Kurose's ideals of peace and cooperation provide a valuable vision for the Rainier Valley and our school community." (27) A multicultural elite group of politicians, including Governor Gary Locke, King County Executive Ron Sims, school board member Jan Kumasaka, Representative Sharon Tomiko-Santos, Assistant Dem ocratic Whip of the Washington State House of Representatives and State Representative Kip Tokuda, King County Council member Larry Gossett, and Seattle City Council member Richard McIver were supporters of the name change. But naming a building is not a simple process and often provokes heated debates as to who is most worthy of the honor. School boards across the nation have been challenged to choose school names to recognize and honor multiculturalism and the growing diversity of school districts no longer clearly dominated by a majority racial or ethnic student population. This name change to Aki Kurose Middle School Academy was fraught with much controversy and illustrates lingering issues of what it means to be a woman of color in the Pacific Northwest. Although the name change was requested by the South Shore School community, the renaming of their school also meant changing the name of the Sharples Building they relocated to. Thus, the desired fresh start with the inspirational name of Kurose meant th e erasing of the name of Sharples.
Caspar Wistar Sharples (pronounced Sharp-less), who had been a physician and was founder of the American College of Surgeons and Children's Hospital in Seattle, served on the school board from 1922 to 1931. As an early-twentieth-century school board member, he was associated with the construction of the major public schools in Seattle built during these years of expansion. He died in 1941, and in 1952 the Caspar W. Sharples Junior High was established in Rainier Valley in Seattle. Seattle Times staff columnist O. Casey Corr portrayed Sharples as representative of "a great phase in Seattle's history, when prominent families considered it a duty to donate time to the School Board." While Corr acknowledged that Kurose was "a deserving teacher, a star of the generation that followed Sharples," he claimed that the school board did not thoroughly discuss Sharples's "place in history" and showed "ignorance" and "a preference for marketing over tradition." The leader of Seattle elites opposing the name change was Jo seph "Bill" Baillargeon, whose class and social standing Corr noted as "former chief executive of Seattle Trust and Savings Bank and a descendent of a family that settled here in 1881." Corr said that although Baillargeon had only the faintest memories of Sharples, who once treated him for a facial cut, Baillargeon opposed the name change because he wanted to preserve history. Indeed, history and tradition were at stake in this naming debate. (28)
But whose history and whose tradition? A Seattle Times editorial aptly summed up the roles of Sharples and Kurose in history: "Sharples, who died in 1941, personally supervised the construction of many of the schools; he personified the energy and talent that took care of bricks and mortar. Kurose, who died last year, touched thousands of children, drew parents into the district, inspired many into public service, set an example for many teachers; she personified the best of what happens inside a classroom." (29) Without a doubt, both had cared for education. Advocates for the name change believed that the troubled academic past of Sharples School, not personal history of Caspar Sharples, was at stake, and that Kurose's name would signal a new beginning inspired by Kurose's devotion to peace and social activism.
In the end, the school board confirmed the renaming of Sharples/South Shore School to Aki Kurose Middle School Academy. The name change has had an effect. Former school board member Al Sugiyama claims that the name change was a catalyst for new volunteerism at the school, and the school has received help and donations from the Seattle Rotary and the Japanese American Citizens League, among others. (30) Wilson says that students are proud of the name and their school symbol, the peace crane. (31) Colorful drawings of peace cranes fly along the interior hallway walls. The 2001 school yearbook has the peace crane on its cover, and the school is engaging in a discussion of how to redesign the current peace crane logo to more inclusively incorporate the many ethnic cultures represented in the multicultural student body. That discussion alone will be productive in building a more inclusive sense of ownership in the school body. The theme for the 2001 yearbook, "A Name You Recognize, Yeah, That's Us!" seems to indic ate that the name of their school is promoting school spirit and pride among students. Yearbook class members commenting on the theme stated: "It means we are becoming a school that you will recognize in the future," and "I think it represents us, the cool school. (32) Aki Kurose's legacy of social justice, education, and peace will live on in this "cool" school.
The renaming effort proved that a less affluent community than Laurelhurst could both recognize the importance of naming their school for a woman of color dedicated to social justice and mount a successful campaign to secure that naming, which was accomplished in the fall of 1999. The Aki Kurose Middle School Academy was the first Seattle school named for an Asian American and recognized not only the achievements of Kurose, but also the presence of Asian Americans in Seattle who make up almost 25 percent of the public school student population of Seattle. Amid charges that the school board did not follow proper procedure, the name change is still being contested, and many still harbor deep resentment against the change.
Kurose's life story of activism was digitally recorded for the Densho collection. Kurose's laughter, smiles, energy, caring, commitment, and peaceful presence are communicated through her own words, voice, and image. More than words on paper, digital images and voices enable the viewer to "meet" the narrator, to link the past to the present and to the future. The Densho digitized narratives ensure an enduring historical presence for women of color whose lives are left virtually unrecorded in traditional, written accounts of Pacific Northwest history. In the closing minutes of the Densho interviews narrators are asked if they would like to share something with future generations. Aki Kurose looks at the viewer and says: "Always realize that not to get involved when you should get involved is an act of violence. And that you should always work for peace. Peace does empower you. Peace is the most empowering and productive way to go. I wish that there would be peace for all people in all nations."
GAIL M. NOMURA is an assistant professor in the Department of American Ethnic Studies at the University of Washington. An historian, her publications include two edited anthologies and numerous chapters and articles on Asian American history and Asian American women's history. Her works in progress include a book manuscript, Contested Terrain: Japanese Americans on the Yakama Indian Reservation, a project on the history of Japanese Americans in the Midwest, an anthology edited with Shirley Hune on Asian American and Pacific Islander women's history, and an anthology edited with Louis Fiset on the history of Nikkei in the Pacific Northwest. She is a past president of the Association for Asian American Studies.
(1.) In her lifetime Aki Kurose won many awards and honors, including the Presidential Appointee, National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children (1980); the Seattle Public Schools Teacher of the Year, Excellence in Education Award (1985); a Presidential Award for Excellence in Education in Teaching of Science and Mathematics (1990); the United Nations Human Rights Award (1991); and the Women's International League for Peace and Freedom Award (1991). She was one of seventy older Americans interviewed for Studs Terkel's book Coming of Age: The Story of Our Century by Those Who've Lived It (New York: New Press, 1995), 55-63. Although Terkel set a minimum age of seventy for the people he included in his book, he was so taken by Kurose's perspectives that he included her by listing her as "approaching 70." See also Sue Davidson, "Aid Kato Kurose: Portrait of an Activist," Frontiers: A Journal of Women Studies 7:1(1983):91-97.
(2.) The Densho Project is a nonprofit educational organization whose mission is to preserve the history of Japanese Americans and communicate this history through building a digital archive for use in classrooms and libraries. The word Densho in Japanese means transmission or to tell (a story) from generation to generation. The Densho archive includes a visual history archive of more than two hundred hours of videotaped interviews, an image library of more than one thousand historic photographs, a document library of diaries, letters, court cases, legislation, and newspaper articles, and a series of curriculum modules. By February 2002, a Densho educational website will be launched that will provide a secure internet access to the Densho archive. The interviews have been indexed by topic in a 125 gigabyte digital archive designed with an easy-to-navigate interface. Researchers can search the archive by keyword and subject indexing, and view the video interviews with a written transcript of the interviewee vi sible. The Densho Project is located at 1416 5. Jackson Street, Seattle, Wash., 98144, and can be reached at email@example.com, by phone at 206-320-0095, and by fax at 206-320-0098.
(3.) Akiko Kurose, Densho visual history interviews of July 17, 1997, December 2, 1997, and December 3, 1997, Seattle, Washington. Unless otherwise noted, quotes of Kurose are from these Densho interviews.
(4.) A movement within the Japanese American community beginning in the 19705 called for redress for the wartime forcible removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans. This led to the establishment by the U.S. Congress of a Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civlians (CWRIC) in 1980. The Commission presented its findings in a report titled Personal Justice Denied, which was originally published in two volumes by the U.S. Government Printing Office in 1982 and 1983 and was reissued by the Civil Liberties Public Education Fund and published by the University of Washington Press in 1997. The Commission concluded that the incarceration of Japanese Americans was not due to military necessity but instead to "race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership" (18). The Commission recommended a presidential apology, a cash payment of twenty thousand dollars to each survivor, and a program to educate the American public on issues involved with incarceration of Japanese Americans. Based on these CWRIC recommendations, Congress adopted and President Reagan signed into law on August 10, 1988, the Civil Liberties Act of 1988 (Public Law 100-383). For background on the Seattle redress movement, see Robert Sadamu Shimabukuro, Born in Seattle: The Campaign for Japanese American Redress (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2001); and Yasuko Takezawa, Breaking the Silence: Redress and Japanese American Ethnicity (Ithaca NY: Cornell University Press, 1995). See also Michell T. Maid et al., Achieving the Impossible Dream: How Japanese Americans Obtained Redress (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999).
(5.) For a history of CORE, see August Meier and Elliott Rudwick, CORE: A Study in the Civil Rights Movement, 1942-1968 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1973).
(6.) See Quintard Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community: Seattle's Central District from 1870 through the Civil Rights Era (Seattle: University of Washington Press, 1994), 198-201, 205, 210-11.
(7.) Taylor, The Forging of a Black Community, 229-30.
(8.) Katy Carter, "LIHI Bigger, Better, More Purple," Real Change News, January 1, 2000, http://www.realchangenews.org/pastarticles/features/articles news u use jan 01 00.html.
(9.) Meier and Rudwick, CORE, 273, 278.
(10.) Ann La Grelius Siqueland, Without a Court Order: The Desegregation of Seattle's Schools (Seattle: Madrona Publishers, 1981), 11-12. "Racial imbalance" was a code word for segregation.
(11.) Siqueland, Without a Court Order, 13-14.
(12.) Siqueland, Without a Court Order, 31-32, 196.
(13.) Siqueland, Without a Court Order, 32.
(14.) In a conversation with Seattle School District archivist Eleanor Toews on July 26, 2001, at Kenmore, Washington, I discovered that the school board had renamed an elementary school for Martin Luther King, Jr., but in the naming process had mistakenly left out "Jr." According to Toews, the error was only recently discovered, and there are efforts underway to rectify the error.
I could find neither records nor individuals to accurately place the year Kurose started teaching at Laurelhurst Elementary School. Seattle School District archivist David Kennedy examined school directories and established that Kurose is listed in the 1976-77 school directories as teaching at Laurelhurst. Although no school directories were published in 1975-76, Kurose must have started teaching at Laurelhurst in 1976 because she is listed in the 1974-75 school directories as teaching kindergarten at Stevens, and she taught at Martin Luther King, Jr. Elementary School for a year before transferring to Laurelhurst.
(15.) Mark Higgins, "Roots That Grow Deep Bring Folks Back to Their Well-to-do 'Hometown,"' Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 30, 1996, D1, D2.
(16.) At the memorial service for Aki Kurose held June 6, 1998, at the Asian Resource Center in Seattle, Ward Miles, a Quaker and friend of Kurose, explained Kurose's spiritual grounding in the Society of Friends.
(17.) Memorial talk by Kurose's former student Frannie Hays at the June 6, 1998, memorial service for Kurose; phone conversation with the author and Kurose's former student Diana Proctor, June 3, 2001, Seattle, Washington; and conversations with former students of Kurose on June 14, 2001, Seattle, Washington.
(18.) Rebekah Denn, "School Name Honors Teacher Who 'Believed in Peace,'" Seattle Post-Intelligencer, November 2, 1999, B1, B3.
(19.) This anecdote is taken from Terkel, Coming of Age, 61.
(20.) Talk by Michelle Krippaehne at the June 6, 1998, memorial service for Kurose, taken from a copy of talk received from Michelle Krippaehne as well as loan of a videotape of memorial service.
(21.) When late in the renaming process some Seattle elites opposed the renaming of the school for Kurose, Laurelhurst was contacted to see if there was support to rename Laurelhurst Elementary for Kurose, but the school site committee decided not to pursue the idea of singling out one teacher in the naming of the school itself. Dennis Fitzgerald, "Aid Kurose School to be Dedicated on March 23," The South District Journal, March 15, 2000, 1-2. This was also confirmed in an interview with Nancy Chin, the principal of Laurelhurst Elementary School, on June 15, 2000.
(22.) See neighborhood profiles compiled by the Seattle Past-Intelligencer at http://seattlep-i.nwsurce.com/neighbors/rainiervalley/numbers.html, and http://seattlep-i.nwsource.com/neighbors/laurelhurst/numbers.html.
(23.) Mark Higgins, "Community is On the Mend," Seattle Post-Intelligencer, October 11, 1997, D1-D2.
(24.) See http://texis.seattletimes.nwsource.com/cgi-bin/texis/schoolguide/
(25.) Memorandum from South Shore School principal BiHoa Caldwell to Seattle School Superintendent Joseph Olchefske, October 5, 1999, in Leahe "Mom" Wilson's personal papers.
(26.) Letter from Jay Gainer, Chair, Instructional Council to School Board, October, 15, 1999, in Leahe "Mom" Wilson's personal papers.
(27.) Letter from Maureen O'Reilly, president, South Shore Middle School PTA to School Board, October 15, 1999, in Leahe "Mom" Wilson's personal papers.
(28.) O. Casey Corr, "School Board's Clumsy Act Embarrasses and Annoys," The Seattle Times, January 26, 2000, B4.
(29.) Editorial, "District should honor Kurose and Sharples," The Seattle Times, February 9, 2000, B6.
(30.) Corr, "Schoolboard's clumsy act embarrasses and annoys."
(31.) Interview with "Mom" Wilson, June 15, 2000, Aid Kursone Middle School Academy, Seattle, Washington.
(32.) Aki Kurose Middle School Academy 2001 Yearbook.
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|Author:||Nomura, Gail M.|
|Publication:||Frontiers: A Journal of Women's Studies|
|Date:||Sep 1, 2001|
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