Aki Kurose was a Seattle teacher, peace and social activist who devoted her life to advocating for the neglected, the disadvantaged and children. She helped to establish Seattle’s Head Start program to bring comprehensive early childhood education, health, nutrition, and parent involvement services to low-income children and their families.
Kurose was born in 1925 in Seattle, Washington. Her parents had emigrated from Japan, and were forced to leased an apartment building, as the Washington state constitution prevented “alien residents” from owning property, they were also prohibited by law from naturalised citizenship. Kurose’s parents had an egalitarian relationship, with her mother in charge of operating the boiler room, furnace and doing general maintenance of the apartment building and her father baking jelly rolls every Friday evening when visitors from their diverse neighbourhood would come to their apartment. Red-lining and restrictive covenants meant that most of the city’s neighbourhoods were off limits to people of colour and Jews.
In 1941, during Kurose’s senior year of high school, the Japanese empire attacked Pearl Harbour. She was unconcerned, as she was an American citizen but the next day at school she was face with discrimination from her own teacher who told her “you people bombed Pearl Harbour.” Kurose stated that her “Japaneseness became very prominent to me … in a scary way.” In 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066 leading to around 120,000 Japanese Americans to be sent to internment camps. Kurose and her family were sent first to the Puyallup Assembly Center, and later transferred to the War Relocation Authority camp at Minidoka, Idaho. Kurose was able to complete her high school education, and became involved with the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) which helped college age Nisei obtain leave to enrol in universities outside of the exclusion zone. Kurose first left to attend the University of Utah, but later transferred to the LDS Business College and then Friends University in Wichita, Kansas. While in Kansas, Kurose began to realise the importance of the pacifist ideas her parents had introduced her to.
In 1948, Kurose married Junelow Kurose and the couple settled in Chicago. Two years later, they returned to Seattle with their first child. Due to discriminatory housing practises, and the fact that the electrician’s union in Seattle did not admit Japanese electricians, they found it difficult to find either housing or work. Kurose’s husband eventually found work with Boeing as a machinist, but the continuing racism and hostility that the couple experienced because of prejudiced attitudes towards Asian Americans led Kurose to devote herself to fighting for peace. She joined an open housing movement led by the AFSC to campaign on housing issues. She also became active in the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom, the activist branches of the YCA and the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), who were fighting for the desegregation of schools, housing, and construction unions, and to end employment discrimination.
In the early 1960’s, Kurose led a Girl Scout troop (she had been a Girl Scout herself), as well as serving as a den mother to a Cub Scout troop while studying early childhood education. This led to her establishing a Head Start preschool program in her neighbourhood, she let that “there were a lot of kids that were just being ignored … not being cared for properly.” In 1965, her preschool became the first official Head Start program associated with Seattle Public Schools in Washington. Kurose loved working with children, and her own children were educated at the Freedom School, where they learned about civil rights and race relations. Kurose would take her children to civil rights marches and anti-war demonstrations to put their lessons into practise.
In the 1970’s, she became a teacher herself in an elementary school. Two years later, after Seattle had been forced to desegregate its public schools, Kurose was transferred from Martin Luther King Jr. Elementary, an urban, predominantly African American school, to the exclusive Laurelhurst Elementary in North Seattle. The white parents were outraged, and a parent told her “If you want to bring your rice bowl and chopsticks, it’s okay” while doubting her teaching credentials. In her first month, two parents would monitor her teaching each day until she gradually won them over. She would become one of the school’s best loved and respected teachers, and her hands-on style of teaching led to her receiving numerous awards. She continued her activism, and in 1978 she helped organise Seattle’s Day of Remembrance, where more than 2,000 former internees and their families gathered at Sicks Stadium in Seattle before riding to the Puyallup Fairgrounds where many had previously been interned. A decade later, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act which awarded $20,000 to each Japanese-American internment survivor.
In 1980, Kurose was appointed to the National Advisory Council on the Education of Disadvantaged Children by President Jimmy Carter. She continued her own education, and received a Master of Early Childhood Education degree in 1985. That same year, she was named Seattle Teacher of the Year and five years later, she was awarded the Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics. In 1992, she was honoured for her work advocating for peace when she received the United Nations Human Rights Award.
In 1997, when Kurose retired, she was honoured by the Laurelhurst students and parents with the dedication of the Aki Kurose Peace Garden on the school grounds. That same year, she received a Living Pioneer award from the Northwest Asian Weekly Foundation and January 30th, 1997 was proclaimed Aki Kurose Day by Mayor Norm Rice. The following year, she died following a long battle with cancer. Following her death, the Seattle Japanese American Citizens League (JACL) created the Aki Kurose Memorial Scholarship, which is awarded annually to a Seattle Public Schools graduate applying to a Seattle community college or Washington state public university. In 1999, the Aki Kurose Village, a family-friendly affordable housing community in North Seattle Aki Kurose Village honouring her name was opened and in 2000 the Casper W. Sharples Junior High was renamed the Aki Kurose Middle School Academy, the first Seattle school named after an Asian American woman.