As part of Women’s History Month, KQED Pop is highlighting female trailblazers from the Bay Area’s past. Our fourth installment honors Tsuyako Kitashima.
On February 19, 1942, in response to the devastating attack on Pearl Harbor two months prior, Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. This hastily enforced directive effectively sentenced 120,000 Japanese-Americans to an undetermined prison sentence. In the Bay Area, 8,033 men, women, and children were forced to abandon their homes and possessions, and move to an internment camp on the site of the Tanforan racetrack in San Bruno.
At the time, Tsuyako "Sox" Kitashima (her nickname was born out of the difficulty most of her classmates in Hayward had pronouncing her first name) was 23 years old. Moving into a single horse stable -- hay and manure still present on the floor -- with her parents and five siblings was both a humiliating blow, and a far cry from the small, idyllic strawberry farm she had grown up on. Her neighbors at Tanforan that didn't end up in a stable were housed in either shoddily constructed barracks or the racetrack's grandstands.
After a few months, the family was moved to Topaz, Utah, to what was politely referred to as a "relocation center." In reality, it was a glorified concentration camp. It was here that Kitashima found her feet as a force to be reckoned with. She acted as a messenger between residents and the camp's government officials, and, for the three years she spent there, she fought for better conditions for her fellow residents.
In 1945, upon release, her entire family volunteered to assist fellow camp survivors in getting relocated in San Francisco. As her family gradually returned to regular life, Tsuyako continued to fight hard for her community, becoming one of the most actively outspoken people in America when it came to talking about life in the camps. Knowing the pain that talking about it brought, she also helped to organize an annual day of remembrance every February 19, as a means to heal and unify the Japanese-American community.