It Happened Here: How Internment of Japanese-Americans Shaped the History of North Seattle College

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From (L to R): Akira, Haruo, Mr. Kumasaka, Mariko, Mrs. Kumasaka, May (via Densho)

In 1911, Japanese immigrants Shoji and Matsuma Kumasaka founded Green Lake Gardens on the spot where the College stands today. The whole area around Green Lake was farmed by Japanese immigrants and their families. By the 1920s, Japanese-American farmers supplied 75% of King County’s vegetables and half its milk supply, and more than half of Pike Place Market’s farmers were Japanese. The Kumasaka family used greenhouses to grow flowers and vegetables, and they built a small Japanese Language School and Community Center that stood on the southeast corner of the property, so second and third generation folks could bring their kids to learn the culture. This entire area was a thriving hub of Japanese-American community, up until World War II. 

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This Sunday school was started by three missionaries from the Seattle Japanese Baptist Church in the early 1920s. Back row (L to R): Miss Rumsey, Naoshi Kumagai, Kay Suzuki, Tadashi Kumagai, unidentified, Akira Kumasaka. Middle row (L to R): Tak Nakawatase, unidentified, unidentified, May Kumasaka, Kimi Taguchi, Ko Suzuki, unidentified. Front row (L to R): Sam Taguchi, Toshiko Suzuki, unidentified, Haruo Kumasaka, Kazuko Sasaki, Nobi Sasaki, Takako Kumagai. (via Densho)
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By the late 1930s, many Issei-operated floral greenhouses existed in the North Seattle area. The flowers were sold at Seattle’s Public Market, retail stores, and wholesale companies. (via Densho)

 On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, leading to the forced removal & incarceration of more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry on the West Coast. They were taken from their homes and sent to internment camps for the “crime” of looking like the enemy. The vibrant Japanese-American community that had lived and farmed here for decades was  gone in a matter of days. This happened here, less than 80 years ago, on the land where our college is now built. 

Akira Kumasaka (the son of the original owners) and his wife Sayo and their children were interned at camps in Puyallup and Minidoka, Idaho. After the war, the Kumasakas came home to find their greenhouses seriously damaged, and the community school burned to the ground. The Kumasakas were one of the few families who chose to stay and try to rebuild their farms. The neighborhood was changing as the city of Seattle expanded, with Northgate Mall being built in 1950. 

In 1952, Akira was driving the family’s garden truck and suffered a stroke. Police assumed he was driving drunk and threw him in jail, and he died days later. Sayo was pregnant at the time. She had never driven a truck or written a check. But she learned fast because she had to. She managed to take over running the farm while providing for her kids.  

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Kumasaka family, date unknown.

In 1968, when the State went to buy the land where North would be built, they offered people pennies on the dollar to buy their property. Sayo Kumasaka was still alive then. She died in 2007 at age 90—again, this wasn’t long ago. She got all the residents organized to negotiate, and in the end, the State was forced to offer them all a fair price. All the homes that were there got bulldozed and plowed over, and the College opened in 1970. Today you can still see what’s left of those homes, out by the north parking lot. They look like weird mounds under the grass that don’t look like the rest of the land. Now it’s just the ghost of what used to be there, and it’s possible to pass by them hundreds or thousands or times and never know.    

Today, we stand in solidarity with all humans who are being detained because of race, religion & national origin. We learn the history, hoping we can stop it from happening again. 

Sources: 
We have done our best to tell this story accurately and respectfully with the information that is available to us, using a combination of oral histories and conversations on campus, and the following sources. If you have more information or would like to offer a correction, please email us at StudentLeadershipNorth@seattlecolleges.edu  

https://densho.org/ 
http://ddr.densho.org/ddr-densho-134/ 
https://www.historylink.org/File/298 
https://historylink.org/File/3447 
https://www.seattlepi.com/local/article/Sayo-Kumasaka-Harmeling-1916-2007-Gardens-1228100.php 

Additional stories and education about Japanese Internment can be found on this YouTube Channel curated by Densho:
https://www.youtube.com/channel/UChP_ZwM13TCNSqNJl5SDlsA

And this resource list curated by North Seattle Library:
https://libguides.northseattle.edu/dayofremembrance

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