Chalkboard Champion Aki Kurose: Civil Rights Activist and Tireless Advocate for Minority Students

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American history yields numerous examples of inspirational teachers who have devoted their talents to important social causes, including advocating for better conditions for the poor and promoting racial equality. One such teacher is Akiko Kato Kurose, an elementary school teacher from Seattle, Washington, who was also an nationally-recognized social activist who worked tirelessly to increase access to education and affordable housing for low-income and minority families.

Akiko, who was always known by the name Aki, was born in Seattle, Washington, on February 11, 1925. She was the third of four children born to Japanese immigrants Harutoshi and Murako Kato. Aki’s father was a railroad station porter, and her mother was the manager of an apartment building. In the Kato home, traditional gender roles were reversed: Aki’s mother studied engineering, learned how to operate the building’s boiler room and furnace, and served as the building’s handyman, while her father enjoyed baking jelly rolls which were served to friends and neighbors at social gatherings he organized every Friday evening.

As a young girl, Aki was active in Girl Scouts, and was also active in her high school band and drama club. She also attended Japanese language school once a week. The Kato family’s typical American middle-class home life was dramatically altered when the Empire of Japan bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Aki was a high school senior at the time. In February, 1942, when President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, the Kato family was among the 112,000 Japanese Americans who were forcibly removed from their homes and relocated to internment camps throughout the United States. The Katos were sent first to Puyallup Assembly Center at the Washinton fairgrounds, and were eventually consigned to the internment camp set up in Minidoka, Idaho.

Aki completed the requirements for her high school diploma at Minidoka, where the plucky teenager became actively involved with the American Friends Service Committee, a Quaker organization, which donated books to camp schools and helped college-age internees obtain permission to enroll in universities outside of the camps. She was able to gain permission to enroll in the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, but shortly after her arrival there transferred to nearby LDS Business College. At the conclusion of WWII, the Aki pursued her college education at Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. In 1981, she earned a master’s degree in Early Childhood Education.

After her graduation from Friends University in 1948, Aki married Junelow Kurose, the brother of her best friend. Junelow had been recently discharged from the United States Army. After their marriage, Aki and Junelow settled in Chicago, where her husband’s parents had moved following their release from internment. Junelow was an accomplished electrician, but due to discrimination against Japanese American citizens, he was unable to find work in that field, even though he was a veteran who had been honorably discharged. Returning to Seattle in 1950, Junelow was eventually hired as a machinist at Boeing, while Aki found employment as a secretary for the railroad porter’s union. Influenced by the discrimination she and her husband faced in their search for a home, Aki became involved in the open housing movement in the 1950s, working first with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), and later, in the 1960s, joining the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE). Over the years, the couple enlarged their family to include six children, which Aki enrolled in Seattle Freedom School, an offshoot of the Mississippi Freedom Schools established as part of the Civil Rights Movement. When she participated in CORE civil rights marches and anti-war demonstrations, she took her children along. She was also active in the Women’s International League for Freace and Freedom and the activist branches of the YWCA.

Aki possessed a lifelong passion for education, so she began taking courses in early childhood education and development and devoted her talents to working in preschool programs. In 1965, she collaborated with a group of neighborhood parents to form Washington State’s first Head Start program.

Aki began her career as a professional educator by teaching for Seattle Public Schools through the Head Start program, eventually accepting a job at a local elementary school in 1974. Two years later, as part of the city’s move to desegregate its public schools, she was transferred from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, an urban, predominantly African-American school, to Laurelhurst Elementary School, an affluent, predominately white school located in suburban North Seattle. Because of strong anti-Japanese sentiment, Aki had to work hard to overcome opposition to her transfer there, but she eventually won over the parents. When the first students of color were bused to the campus, Aki worked hard to ease their integration and also advocated strongly for the adoption of a multi-cultural curriculum for the school.

In the classroom, Aki emphasized collaborative learning and encouraged her students to learn through hands-on experience instead of rote memorization, and she received numerous awards for her innovative teaching style. She taught principals of peaceful co-existence to even the youngest of students, her first graders, telling them, “If you’re not at peace with yourself, with your neighbor, with your community, you can’t really learn very much. We have to get rid of all this garbage, this angry, competitive feeling. Then we’ll all get along.”

Over time, Aki became one of the schools most beloved and respected teachers. In 1980 she was appointed by President Jimmy Carter to the National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children. In 1985 she was honored as Seattle Teacher of the Year, and in 1990 she was awsarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics. Because of her innovative work to integrate peace advocacy with education, she was awarded the United Nations Human Rights Award in 1992. The Seattle Times said of Aki that she had “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.”

This talented and dedicated educator retired in 1997 after 25 years of service in Seattle public school. to honor her, students and parents from Laurelhurst school build and dedicated the Aki Kurose Peace Garden on the school campus. This Chalkboard Champion passed away the following year, on May 24, in Madrona, Washington, following a sixteen-year battle with cancer. She was 73 years old.

Educator Eulalia Bourne: She’s Part of the Colorful History of the West

EulaliaBourne2[1]American history is full of colorful individuals who made significant contributions to the settlement and development of the West. One such individual is teacher Eulalia Bourne. This remarkable educator, whose career spanned more than four decades, taught elementary school in rural areas, mining camps, and Indian reservations throughout Arizona during some of our country’s most challenging periods: World War I, the Depression, and World War II. This women’s libber was ahead of her time, becoming one of the very few women in her day to own and run her own cattle ranch.

Eulalia thought outside the box in many ways. Every year on the first day of school she would wear a new dress, usually blue to complement her eye color. Every day after that, she wore jeans, Western-style shirts, cowboy boots, and Stetson hats to class. She was once fired for dancing the one-step, a new jazz dance, at a birthday party some of her students attended, because the clerk of the board considered the dance indecent! She even learned to speak Spanish fluently and, when confronted with non-English-speaking students, taught her classes in Spanish, even though it was against the law to do so.

Eulalia is probably best known for producing a little classroom newspaper entitled Little Cowpunchers which featured student writings, drawings, and news stories about classroom events. Today, these little newspapers are recognized as important historical documents of Southern Arizona ranching communities from 1932 to 1943. Additionally, Eulalia published three critically-acclaimed books about her teaching and ranching experiences: Ranch Schoolteacher, Nine Months is a Year at Baboquivari School, and Woman in Levi’s. These volumes, although now out of print, can sometimes be purchased at used book stores and sometimes can be found at online sites featuring royalty-free works. The read is well-worth the search, particularly for those interested in Arizona history.

You can read about Eulalia’s intriguing life in a book entitled Skirting Traditions, published by  Arizona Press Women. You can also find a chapter about her in my first book, Chalkboard Champions.

Chalkboard Champion Eliza Mott: She founded a frontier school in her kitchen

6afce522c185bef1aa208a6dec7502e0One of the most celebrated pioneer teachers in Nevada history was Eliza Mott, a remarkable educator who is credited with founding the first school in Carson Valley, Nevada. In 1852, this enterprising pioneer wife and mother set up her school in her farmhouse kitchen. Her students sat on bare logs around a crude, wooden table. Armed with a couple of McGuffey Readers, a speller, and an arithmetic book, Eliza welcomed into her school boys and girls dressed in plaid shirts or gingham dresses and home-knit stockings. Some were barefoot and some were wearing rough shoes with hard leather soles. The students in Eliza’ s class ranged in age from five to eleven years in age. Some of the pupils were her own children, and some were her nieces and nephews. 

Eliza was born on January 13, 1829, in Toronto, Canada. Her family immigrated to Lee County, Iowa, in 1842, and it was there that the young Eliza developed her skills as a teacher. She excelled at academic subjects and vowed to make great strides in the field of education. At the age of 22, she met and fell in love with Israel Mott, and on April 10, 1850, the pair were married.

As soon as they were married, Israel and Eliza decided to go West . The fledgling pioneers set out in a Conestoga wagon pulled by two sturdy oxen. In early 1851 they landed in Salt Lake City, where they joined a Mormon wagon train and headed for California, one of a party of thirty families led by the famous frontiersman Kit Carson. When the caravan stopped to rest at Mormon Station in northern Nevada in July, 1851, Israel decided he liked the area so much he wanted to stay there. The couple homesteaded a 2,100-acre section of land along the Carson River route, and on this homestead Eliza established her school.

As more pioneer travelers established their farms in the area, the name of Mottsville was given to the settlement. It quickly became apparent that a school was needed. In addition to her teaching responsibilities, Eliza still had to run the farm. On an average day, the young pioneer woman would rise before dawn to care for her children, milk the cows, cook breakfast for her family and hired hands, prepare lunches for her students, and then complete her lesson plans. By fall, 1855, the Mottsville School had officially outgrown Eliza’s kitchen, and by the next year a schoolhouse was built in town. A schoolmaster was hired from the East, and Eliza resigned as the teacher to care for her family full-time.

This chalkboard champion will always be remembered fondly as the founder of the first school in Carson Valley, Nevada. 

Chalkboard Champion Fanny Barrier Williams: Teacher, Activist, Author, and Orator

12743675_10153478013117252_3150327098952225529_n[1]Throughout our country’s history, there have been many examples of talented and dedicated educators who have made a mark on society as a whole. On such example is Frances “Fanny” Barrier Williams, a 19th-century teacher and activist. 

Born on February 12, 1855, in Brockport, New York, to free parents, Fanny and her siblings attended the local public school. In 1870, Fanny became the first African American to graduate from the State Normal School in Brockport. When the Civil War was over, this energetic educator accepted a teaching position in the south to help educate newly freed slaves. 

In 1893, when she was 38 years old, Fanny moved north to the city of Chicago, a city which experienced a boom when it hosted the World’s Fair. When Fanny and other black women leaders protested their exclusion from the fair’s planning, this leading-edge teacher was appointed to gather exhibits for the women’s hall. She was also selected to give two speeches during the fair. In her speeches, Fanny argued to a predominantly white audience that African American women were eager and ready for education and to learn new skills. Fanny’s speeches were so well received that she soon became a popular author and orator.

Once the fair was over, Fanny helped form the National League of Colored Women in 1896. She also donated her energy to assist other African American women when they migrated to northern states.

Fannie Willimas dedicated her whole life to aiding and uplifting those in need, improving inter-racial relations, and working for justice for all. This remarkable chalkboard champion passed away of natural causes on March 4, 1944. She is buried at High Street Cemetery in Brockport, New York.

Terry Marzell’s book Chalkboard Champions mentioned on Asian American Journal

I am always gratified when I discover that others are supportive of my efforts to honor remarkable teachers, so I was excited to learn that my first book, Chalkboard Champions, was recently mentioned on the website for Asian American Journal. A chapter of my book explores the life and work of Japanese-America educator Mary Tsukamoto, an elementary school teacher from northern California who was incarcerated in a Japanese-American internment camp during WWII. Her life story highlights a shameful episode in American history, but the good that comes out of her family’s misfortune truly inspires the reader.

You can check out the mention on the website at this link: Asian American Journal. Enjoy!

Japanese American Journal