EL CERRITO -- Supporters of a proposal to rename Portola Middle School faced off against opponents of the name change in the second of a series of four community forums on the topic Tuesday evening.
The forums are being sponsored by the West Contra Costa school district to consider naming the new Portola campus now under construction at 7125 Donal Ave. after Fred Korematsu, a Japanese-American who resisted the internment of Japanese in prison camps during World War II.
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.
He was later tried and convicted in federal court of violating the executive order from President Franklin Roosevelt to move to the internment camps and he and his family were transported to a camp in Utah for the duration of the war.
Korematsu's case was reopened in 1983 by a pro bono legal team that showed that evidence had been suppressed in the case that intelligence agencies had denied that people of Japanese ancestry had committed any wrongdoing. The conviction was overturned the same year in federal court in San Francisco.
Korematsu received the Presidential Medal of Freedom from President Bill Clinton in 1998.
Several Japanese Americans spoke at this week's meeting at Fairmont Elementary School in favor of the name change, including 89-year-old Mary Kamiya, who was 16 when her family was sent to an internment camp in Colo.
Toru Saito of El Cerrito said he was one of 11 students who attended Portola immediately after it opened in 1951 only six years after the end of the war.
He said some Japanese Americans resented Korematsu because they felt that he was resisting the war effort.
"It's time we were recognized and honored," Saito said. "It's sad Fred had to suffer from the hatred not only of others but of his own people."
Yosh Murakama said Korematsu is a very important historical figure for many younger Japanese Americans, while Portola is a name from the distant past.
"My daughter went to Portola," Murakama said. "I told her about the name change idea and she said 'I know who Fred Korematsu was, but who was Portola?'"
Kazue Nakahara, a 39-year El Cerrito resident, said she never knew about the internment until she was 40 and her mother, who had spent the war years in a camp, finally told her about her experience.
Nakahara, a retired Portola teacher, said the revelation came when her mother refused to go into a shopping center on the San Francisco Peninsula that was built on the site of a staging area for Japanese residents who were being sent to the camps in California and other western states.
"Korematsu did a lot for the community," said Nakahara, who pointed out that the district has renamed schools after Martin Luther King and Cesar Chavez. "I would like to see him acknowledged along with King and Chavez."
Five other speakers favored either keeping the Portola name or changing the name to honor El Cerrito civic benefactor Sundar Shadi or Spanish pioneer Don Victor Castro. The new Portola campus is being built on the site of the former Castro Elementary School.
"Victor Castro is a great name to keep," said El Cerrito resident Cliff Nuzman. "Let's keep his name fresh, keep it as Castro Middle School."
Ray Dennen, who said his children attended Portola and his grandchildren will attend, spoke in favor of keeping the Portola name while giving an account of Portola's expeditions to California during the eighteenth century.
"I have nothing against Korematsu, but I don't know how it came about to pick his name," Dennen said. "Portola himself was an historical figure."
About 35 people attended the meeting.
The district will be holding more community forums on the name change proposal at Harding Elementary School in El Cerrito on June 26 and at Stege Elementary School in Richmond on July 1. Both meetings start at 7 p.m.