Fred Korematsu in 1998 (Tom Gallagher/Staff)
Fred Korematsu in 1998 (Tom Gallagher/Staff)

RICHMOND -- The new middle school campus now under construction in El Cerrito could very well have a new name soon.

A plan to rename Portola Middle School for the late Fred Korematsu, who refused to cooperate with the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II, will be on the agenda for consideration by the West Contra Costa school board on May 14.

The idea is the brainchild of school board President Charles Ramsey, who said more public awareness of Korematsu's story will "open up the opportunity to talk about what was happening in the East Bay during the war."

After the Pearl Harbor attack in 1941, Americans of Japanese descent, many of whom worked in the East Bay flower growing industry, were transported to isolated internment camps in California, Utah and elsewhere for the duration of the war.

"Japanese-American were citizens, and they were treated like foreign enemies," Ramsey said.

Korematsu, who was born in Oakland in 1919 and grew up in San Leandro, went into hiding after the internment order but was arrested in May of 1942.

The arrest was used as a test case against the order by the American Civil Liberties Union.

Korematsu was later tried and convicted in federal court of violating the internment camp executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt, and he and his family were relocated to a camp in Utah for the duration of the war.

While he was in the camp, Korematsu appealed the federal court's decision, but the ruling was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1944.


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Korematsu's case was reopened in 1983 by a pro bono legal team, which showed that intelligence agencies had kept evidence from the Supreme Court that showed people of Japanese ancestry had not committed any treasonous acts that would justify mass incarceration. The conviction was overturned that same year in federal court in San Francisco.

Korematsu, who returned to the Bay Area in 1949, was awarded the Medal of Freedom by President Bill Clinton in 1998, and was active in legal efforts to protect the rights of people of Middle Eastern descent following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in 2001. He died in 2005.

School board member Todd Groves said the board plans to form a committee at the May 14 meeting that will investigate the merits of naming the school after Korematsu, prepare the necessary documentation and present the proposal to the full board for a vote.

"We're going to draw up the background (around Korematsu) and do a little education as to what the significance is," Groves said. "A lot of civil rights leaders went unacknowledged, and he was one of them."

Ramsey said there is a precedent in the district for changing school names to honor historic figures as they emerge and make them more relevant to new generations of students.

President Bill Clinton presents Fred Korematsu with a Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House on Jan. 15, 1998. (AP Photo/Dennis
President Bill Clinton presents Fred Korematsu with a Presidential Medal of Freedom during a ceremony at the White House on Jan. 15, 1998. (AP Photo/Dennis Cook)

The name of Pullman Elementary School in Richmond was changed to Marin Luther King Elementary in 1968 and Belding Elementary in Richmond later became Cesar Chavez Elementary, he said.

The original Portola Middle School building opened in 1951 and was torn down in 2012 after studies determined that the building, perched on a hillside, could be a landslide risk during an earthquake,

The school is being housed in portable classrooms on a flat portion of the original site on Navellier Street between Portola Drive and Moeser Lane while the new campus is being built on the site of the former Castro Elementary School at 7125 Donal Ave.

"The school is moving away from Portola Drive, so there is no geographic sense in naming it Portola," said Groves. "There are many schools in our district whose names don't resonate in our community."