Tag Archives: Tacoma

Nihongo Gakko: Tacoma’s Japanese Language School

Interviews and Project By Brenda Sonnier; blog post written by Erika Wigren

“It was through the Japanese Language School that we learned how to respect our parents, our elders, and how to behave in public … but [our principal] always stressed our allegiance is supposed to be American.”  Yoshiko Sugiyama, former Japanese Language School student.

A group of students and faculty outside the Tacoma Japanese Language School, May 22, 1927. Photo from University of Washington Libraries, Special Collections.

In 1911, the Tacoma Japanese Association opened Nihongo Gakko, a Japanese Language School in Tacoma, Washington. Every weekday, after attending public school, Japanese-American students would attend Nihongo Gakko.

From left to right: sisters Yoshiko, Tadaye, and Kimi.

In this oral history project, UWT student Brenda Sonnier interviews former Japanese Language School students Sadako Hirose, Tadaye (Teddy) Kawasaki, and Teddy’s sisters Yoshiko Sugiyama and Kimi Tanbara.

Nihongo Gakko had nearly 300 students in attendance, including Sadako, Teddy’s, Yoshiko, and Kimi.

Students would attend Nihongo Gakko after public school every day to learn about Japanese culture, art, language, and history.

In their interview Sadako, Teddy, and her sisters, reflect on their time at the Japanese Language School and learning Japanese calligraphy, grammar, and gardening.

“In the summer we had a victory garden on the side of the building [and] every classroom had a garden” explained Teddy.

The sisters also discussed their principle Masato Yamasaki and his wife Kuni Yamasaki, who they remembered as being passionate and dedicated to teaching their students.

“They didn’t get much pay, but they enjoyed it!” Sadako said. “They were dedicated people,” Teddy added.

Additionally, Teddy and her sisters explain the changes they witnessed in Tacoma and Nihongo Gakko’s transition into the official registration location for Tacoma’s Japanese community and their relocation to internment camps in 1942.

Kimi explained that “they choose Japanese School mainly, not because of anything other than the fact that it was a good meeting place for the people…If it hadn’t been there it would have been the Church.”

Sadako, Teddy, Yoshiko, and Kimi were all initially sent to Pinedale Assembly Center, California, then later relocated to Heart Mountain Relocation Center in northwestern Wyoming.

From left to right: Yoshiko, Sadako, and Tadaye.

Due to WWII and the internment of the Japanese community, Nihongo Gakko was closed and left abandoned.

In 1951, Teddy’s mother asked her to buy the school, so she did, explaining it was “for sentimental reasons.” The school was used mostly as storage.

Then, in 1993, Teddy sold the school to the University of Washington, Tacoma and due to excessive damage the building was demolished.

In order to commemorate and honor Nihongo Gakko and the Japanese community of Tacoma, UWT installed a Japanese Language School memorial sculpture and plaque along the Prairie Line Trail in 2014.

View the complete oral history Tacoma’s Nihon Go Gakko: Japanese Language School by Brenda Sonnier 

Willie Stewart and the Desegregation of Tacoma Public Schools

Oral history and blog post by Katherine L. Jennison

“There would be many black students who would just come to my door and peek just to make sure. A couple of them even wanted to touch my hands to make sure I was real. It was a culture shock for the black students as much as it was a culture shock for me to be in that environment…. Many of the white students had never seen a black teacher” — Willie Stewart.

On the heels of the Brown v. Board of Education decision and the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the Tacoma School District took voluntary measures to desegregate a select number of schools with high non-white enrollment. The district superintendent, Dr. Angelo Giaudrone, drew attention to the de facto segregation, and primarily focused on two elementary schools: Stanley Elementary, with a black population of 64 percent and McCarver Elementary, with a black population of 84 percent. In 1963, a subcommittee was formed to analyze and study the de facto segregation and provide recommendations for potential solutions. On July 8, 1966, a plan was announced by the school board for an optional enrollment program that relied on closing McCarver Junior High and to provide limited open enrollment to students affected by the closing.

In 1960, Willie Stewart was hired by Tacoma School District and assigned to Gault Junior High to teach life science and physical science. Stewart taught at Gault until 1966, when he was promoted to assistant principal. He stayed at Gault for three years until he was hired at Lincoln High School as assistant principal. A year later (1970), he became that first black principal in the Tacoma School District.1.

Willie Stewart c. 1966

According to Stewart, the biggest hesitancy for black families was the loss of historical lineage with their neighborhood school. “I’d have to work with the family, whose school is no longer there, and the principal by convincing them that this was the best program and most viable option for these kids based on where they lived.”

Stewart was often a liaison between the black community and the school district. “When there was a decision to close McCarver…. I was asked to be the person to stand between the school district and the black community to accept their students being bused between their home and different schools throughout the city.” When asked to look back on the effectiveness of the voluntary desegregation plan, Stewart said, “I wish there were have been more African American counselors, but we used everyone we had; we just didn’t have enough. We could have used a two-year education process, rather than one year. Many teachers had never talked to a black student, so those were some of the apprehensions.” Stewart thought the district could also have improved their plan, by having high school regional meetings with schools and the community as well as separate meetings for the black community to help with the transition with the loss of school lineage.

Stewart led the counseling program for two years before stepping down to focus on his duties as principal at Lincoln. In 1972, according to the Tacoma News Tribune, the schools district declared an end to de facto segregation in fifty-eight school buildings; with all buildings at or below the forty-percent threshold for black student enrollment. According to the United States Commission on Civil Rights a decade later, the summer counseling program was pivotal to the success of the voluntary desegregation program in the Tacoma School District.