Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Yuri Kochiyama: Humanity's Heroes

I first met Yuri Kochiyama in the year of 2003 while working on a book project. She was living in a small, one-room apartment in Oakland, California. Her living quarters were not what one would call spacious, but the world which she inhabited went well beyond the walls of this environment. She was 81 at the time, a fragile body, supporting a hundred pound frame inhabited by the spirit of a lion. The walls of her room were peppered with pictures of her Japanese and mixed-race grandchildren.

Our first meeting, scheduled for a week earlier, had been postponed because, as explained to me later, she was to take part in candlelight vigil for a California man on death row. She was a vocal opponent of the death penalty, and keenly aware that many of those waiting to walk that proverbial last mile were there because they couldn't afford the kind of representation that would get them a lighter sentence, or, they shouldn't have been there in the first place.

Yuri had first-hand experience with unlawful and forced incarceration. At the age of twenty, she and her family had been swept-up and forced to abandon their home in San Pedro, California, following the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor. Because her father was in the fishing business and had a friend who occasionally visited from Japan, he was immediately arrested. He suffered from ulcers and was sent to San Pedro Hospital which was also the facility where wounded soldiers from Wake island were hospitalized. A sheet was tied around his bed with the words "Prisoner of War" written on it, making him a target, if not of physical attack, certainly verbal. Within a few days he was released and sent home where he died the next day. Shortly afterward, Yuri and her family were sent to an internment camp near Little Rock, Arkansas.

Because she was young and pretty, Yuri was given the option of working at a USO club at Camp Shelby, Mississippi. There, the all-Japanese unit of the 442nd Infantry Regiment was going through basic training. She met a young man who would later become her husband. In Mississippi, both she and her husband-to-be witnessed the forced segregation and Jim Crow laws that Blacks experienced both in war and peace time. Blacks and Japanese were inducted into the same army, but from the beginning, the Japanese were allowed to fight if not in the same units, alongside white soldiers. Not so for Blacks. The officers were white for both the Japanese and Black units. The 442nd became one of the most highly decorated units ever to serve in the military. In the air, the Tuskegee Airmen won their honors. And because of the exploits of Japanese and Black fighting men, President Truman eventually desegregated the Armed Forces.

After the War, Yuri and her husband moved to Manhattan in New York. As the family started to grow and the years passed, they settled in Harlem. There Yuri and her husband came under the influence of Malcolm X. "Before Malcolm I was a Civil Rights worker," she said, as she fumbled around in a box near her bed. "After I met him I became revolutionary." This marked the beginning of her career as a political activist that would continued for years to come. He husband worked and supported her until his dying day.

"I often went to hear Malcolm speak, and also invited him to our home where he met some of our friends. We exchanged letters, and he sent me cards from his travels to the Middle East and Mecca," her hands now filled with the items of which she spoke.

Her passion for justice and equality was passed on to her children, two of whom, upon graduation from high school, went South to work on the voter registration drive for Blacks.

On February 21, 1965, Yuri went to the Audubon Ballroom in Harlem to hear Malcolm speak. She remembered him appearing a little anxious, and then, like an explosion, the shots. Stepping over fallen chairs, she made her way to the front where her champion was sprawled in a pool of blood. "I got down and put Malcolm's head in my lap, until his wife, Betty Shabazz came."

As she remembered, while holding his head, he didn't say anything. "He was just trying to breathe; he was having a hard time breathing." She wasn't quite sure, but she either thought or said, "please Malcolm, live!"

I didn't see Yuri again for a year or so. It was in Little Rock, Arkansas where I was working on a project called "Voices of Civil Rights," sponsored by AARP, (American Association of Retired People). We set up shop at a local hotel where residents were invited to come and tell their stories relating to the Civil Rights movement. In that same hotel were hundreds of Japanese attending a conference dealing with the internment of Japanese Americans at the former camp near by. I wandered into one of the conference rooms where, to my great surprise, Yuri was speaking. I made my way to the edge of the stage to take some pictures. Yuri looked down at me and acknowledged my presence to the audience. We can't all be a hero, but it's my honor to be a friend of one.

Sunday, March 8, 2009


The old man sat in the corner of the one-room schoolhouse watching the ebb and flow of people coming through the front door. His dress was reminiscent of the legendary Buffalo soldiers—blue wool shirt with lighter-colored pants and a yellow scarf tied loosely around his neck. The sun, on its westward journey, sent a shaft of light along the side of his face. Smooth brown skin betrayed his 80 years; a tear, which he absentmindedly neglected to wipe away, hung tentatively on his right cheek.

“I didn’t come here to do interviews or take pictures,” he said. “I came here to talk and entertain the people.” I lowered my camera, but he didn’t speak as he watched the crowd milling around the room.

“Please don’t touch the exhibitions,” he finally admonished. “Be considerate of others coming after you.” Cornelius “Ed” Pope is no song-and-dance man, but a teacher, a griot, an elder among a group of volunteers calling itself “The Friends of Allensworth.” Neither a failing heart nor the effect of chemo treatments keeps him from his appointed task. He spearheaded the establishment of Allensworth State Park and remains a resident of Allensworth, past and present.

Fresh from the hospital, he paces himself as he greets six busloads from the Bay Area—800 visitors in all. They’re among approximately 70,000 people who tour Allensworth annually. They come to learn about the place Ed Pope is dedicated to preserving—Allensworth State Park, the vestiges of California’s first, and last, all-Black settlement.

Today’s guests come for a special day of food, music and lecture. The agenda is interesting but it is the place that matters. Fourteen refurbished historic structures survive here in the desert 35 miles north of Bakersfield. Together they represent not a dream deferred but a dream realized.

Ed Pope explained that the town was the vision of Colonel Allen Allensworth. Born into slavery he escaped to freedom as a young boy, joined the army as chaplain and moved up in the ranks. After serving in the Spanish-American War, he retired to California.

Colonel Allensworth admired Booker T. Washington’s admonitions of self-help and self-sufficiency for African Americans. From them he drew the mandate for an ideal community: One farm bought, one house built, one home sweetly and intelligently kept, one man who is the largest taxpayer or who has the largest banking account, one school or church maintained, one factory running successful, one garden profitably cultivated, one patient cured by a Negro doctor, one sermon well preached, one life clearly lived, will tell more in our favor than all the abstract eloquence that can be summoned to plead our cause.

To the surprise of Allensworth and his partner, teacher William Payne, the white-owned Pacific Farming Company offered to sell them prime land in Salito, a rural area in Tulare County. In 1908, they created the California Colony and Home Association with offices in downtown Los Angeles. These were dire times for Blacks. Jim Crow laws chewed up their recently won freedoms, and racism was rampant throughout the land.

After its 1850 statehood, California was populated by Southerners and Northerners insensitive to African Americans. Forty years prior to the creation of Allensworth, Blacks in California were denied homestead lands. The law prevented a black man from buying a plot of ground. If he managed to purchase a house and a white man claimed it, the black man could not testify against a white man in court. Blacks enjoyed no more rights in California than they did in the South. Some of these restrictions existed into the 1960s, enshrined in restrictive covenants and other forms of de-facto segregation.

Against these odds the August 7, 1908 Tulare Register reported “The Town, which is to be called Allensworth, is to enable colored people to live on an equity with whites and to encourage industry and thrift in the race.” It also declared that “Allensworth is the only enterprise of its kind in the United States.” The town was on it way.

In truth, black settlements like Allensworth were nothing new. Going back to colonial times, communities like Massachusetts’ Parting Ways sprung up in reaction to racism. There were some 50 all-black towns by the 20th century. Allensworth differed in the sense of mission and the desire of the founders to create “a thriving city on a hill,” a showcase for black accomplishment, a Tuskegee of the West. Nationwide, Blacks were starved for race victories. The birth of Allensworth was chronicled by the New York newspapers and The California Eagle proudly claimed “there is not a single white person having anything to do with the affairs of the colony.”

The Los Angeles Times described Allensworth as “an ideal Negro settlement.” And by 1913, the Oakland Sunshine, the leading Bay Area black newspaper, boasted that “the citizens of Allensworth generated nearly $5,000 a month from its business ventures.”

The town was complete with all the expected services and institutions. The Allensworth Water Company started in December 1908, followed by a school district. Classes began in a private home in 1909, but by 1910 a one-room school was up and running under William Payne’s direction. Heavy enrollment soon made it necessary to build a larger school. With funds donated by Colonel Allensworth and his wife, the old schoolhouse became a library. Soon, it was one of the state’s largest. Baptist, Methodist and Seventh Day Adventist churches saw to the citizens’ spiritual needs.

To say that racism didn’t raise its ugly head would paint a false picture. The Santa Fe Railroad refused to change the depot’s name to Allensworth, allowed Blacks to hold only the most menial jobs and eventually moved to nearby Alpough. Lack of rail service severely crippled Allensworth. Today, loaded freight trains still etch their way across the sun-baked landscape, greeted by an occasional jackrabbit.

Water soon posed another problem. The Pacific Farming Company reneged on its promise to meet Allensworth’s irrigation needs. The community sought redress through the courts and eventually gained control of the company. However, the town inherited an outdated water system at a time when they were strapped for cash. By the time they could afford to upgrade the pumping machinery, the water table had dropped below the point where the new equipment could be effective.

Attempts to build a state-supported industrial school, modeled after one established by Booker T. Washington in Alabama, also faltered. Members of both the white and black communities called the lack of county-backing racist in nature. The multiple setbacks were intensified by the loss of Colonel Allensworth. On September 13, 1914, the visionary was struck by a speeding motorcycle in Monrovia, California. He passed away the next day.

The dream didn’t die with the dreamer. Newly elected Justice of the Peace Oscar Overr and schoolteacher Payne continued to pursue innovation. To deal with the diminished water supply, some residents raised livestock instead of water-dependent crops. Others opened new businesses.

By the time Ed Pope was born in Allensworth, many citizens had had enough of a separate lifestyle that was anything but equal. As the years dragged on, some moved to Los Angeles or Oakland for jobs. The exodus intensified during World War II. In 1966 arsenic was found in the local water supply, and the population numbers continued to decline.

In 1969 Ed Pope, then a state landscape architect, and Ruth Lasartemay rallied to rescue Colonel Allensworth’s dream. They created an organization to garner support for a state historic site at Allensworth. In 1973, California purchased the land and work began. By spring 1976, plans were approved, and by October the park was dedicated.

Ed Pope grew up in Allensworth and went to school there. He credits his mentor, Mr. Heinzman, the owner of the general store, with teaching him history—especially that of Allensworth—and with instilling in him an appreciation of the Colonel’s dream.

On the day I visited it was apparent amid the picture taking and conversation that he was growing weary. He took a deep breath and pointed at the photograph of a woman who was his teacher so many years ago. Then as the late afternoon sun continued its lazy journey west, Ed Pope rested on the schoolhouse steps.

“Who,” I asked, “will continue your work? Who is going to keep teaching others about
the dream that now lives on as this park?”

“There are thousands waiting to continue where I leave off,” he answered. “The first step is to reconnect with the past. This little town is like an umbilical cord connecting to an original source. When I die, spokesmen will come out by the thousands. In fact, there are people out there right now.”

Note: An African Museum of Los Angeles’ traveling exhibit about Allensworth will open at the State Capitol’s rotunda in Sacramento February 1. It will remain there throughout Black History Month. For more information about this and other presentations visit www.caam.ca.gov.

Access Allensworth via Bakersfield with United Express service to and from Los Angeles and Denver.

Courtesy of SkyWest Magazine

Lester Sloan

A Long Journey Home

I was returning to a place that I had never really known, the South. It was both my end station and my beginning. A little over a year ago, when I signed on to work on a project called “Voices of Civil Rights,” I had no idea that it would put me in touch with a part of me that had been snuffed out for more than 50 years. The journey started in Washington, D.C., and it would end nine weeks later in Topeka, Kansas.

Sponsored by AARP and The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights, a team of some half dozen reporters worked in three-week shifts, collecting stories and pictures of those unknown foot soldiers of the civil rights movement. I was the project photographer and was lucky enough to go for the entire time. The tour was a symbolic gesture, with the stories and pictures donated to the Library of Congress as the beginning of an archive.

Contrasting Journeys

The earliest memories of my childhood were about the trips to the farm of my maternal grandparents—“going down home,” we called it. We were one of those northern or Midwestern families, in our case Detroit, who every summer would pile in a car and make the trek back to the places of our roots: Georgia, Alabama, Mississippi, Florida. We had family in every stop along the way. But back in the 1950’s, getting there could be pretty hazardous.

Those trips began with my mother standing at the kitchen sink plucking a freshly killed chicken and singing, “Jesus keep me near thy cross,” the sound of running water her only accompaniment. My father had already bought several loaves of day-old Wonder Bread and Fago red pop for the journey. There were blankets, paper towels, and toilet paper for the pit stops beyond Indiana where we were not allowed to stay at motels or use bathroom facilities. It was a picnic. We laughed at the roadside Burma Shave signs and played car tag with friends we met along the way. Years later I learned that these were not chance meetings, but part of a strategy worked out by my father and his friends so that we didn’t have to travel on long stretches of dangerous road alone.

On the Voices tour, we traveled like rock stars in an air-conditioned bus, stocked with food and drink, replete with fax machines, satellite dish, and two wide-screen television sets, front and back, with a drawer full of recent films. And at every stop along the way, there was someone waiting with hotel keys to our rooms.

But the real joys were not the amenities on the bus, but the people I met on the way. They came out in their Sunday best, singing some of the songs my mother sang. They told their stories, shedding them with tears of joy for being able, at last, “to put their burden down.”

In Birmingham an old man sat in a barber chair like a great warrior king, his ebony face and head freshly shone, while off in a corner his grand nephew told the story of his uncle’s life. These were the men, young and old, who had run the gauntlet of police dogs and cattle prods, who had fought America’s second revolution in order to realize the promises of the first.

In New Orleans a young woman sat with her 100-year-old grandmother while she told her story. She seemed amused that so many people were making such a fuss over her. She had grown old in a white world where people called her by her first name, or “auntie,” and now she was finally being honored.

In Baton Rouge, I met the four men who called themselves the “Deacons for Defense.” They looked like the aging frontline of a professional football team. Actually, one was known for rushing a quarterback, but collectively for standing up against the onslaught of a system that set out to destroy them.

At every stop along the way, I met strangers who were my kin. “Boy, where did you say you was from? Who’s you say your people were? Sloan? I don’t know no Sloans, but you show remind me of some Baileys and Borroughs.”

At the beginning of this tour I felt estranged from my southern roots, maybe also a little ashamed. In much the same way that some Europeans wanted to make their children Americans by not speaking the language of the old country, I realized that at some point in my life I turned my back on the birthplace of my parents and, by extension, a part of myself. When I went “down home” again, the South embraced me with open arms, and it was good to be back.

Courtersy of Nieman Reports