Fred Kawano, now 93 years old, is a Nisei, a person of Japanese descent, born and educated in the United States and whose parents were immigrants from Japan. But he is not the typical type of individual you would expect to embrace the Black culture in the 1960s. However, he did.
Kawano became the first teacher in the Los Angeles Unified School District (LAUSD) to openly support, advise and organize a Black Student Union in 1965. Along with his activism came two campus riots (March 1968 and March 1969), numerous protests, and a great Black history class.
Reportedly in 1965, Kawano also became the first teacher in the LAUSD to offer a full- fledged Black history course. He accomplished this after being transferred from Manual Arts High School to Carver Junior High School in the early part of the year. In 1972, Kawano disappeared from the Black community and the school; he and his nemesis, the Mormon Carver principal Dr. Andrew Anderson.
Our Weekly decided to find this unheralded father of LAUSD Black history. Our first clue was a Jan. 11, 1998 article written by Michael Krikorian on a famous downtown Los Angeles bar called Hanks. Kawano, then 76 years old, had been interviewed about his experiences as a patron veteran.
This was the first sign of Kawano, 24 years after he vanished from the campus of Carver in 1972.
A colleague, contributing writer Gregg Reese, suggested as a next step in the search for Kawana to look for archived newspaper articles on similar old-school, Bohemian establishments similar to Hanks. This lead to an image of what appeared to be Fred Kawano celebrating his 90th birthday party at the Dresden Restaurant in Los Feliz.
Patrons and staff at the Dresden Restaurant, a place that Kawano had in the past frequented three to four days per week, described Kawano as someone who seemed to have “lived the secret life of Walter Mitty, based on adventures he has shared.
According to a close friend, John Reneaud, the maitre d’ at the Dresden, said Fred had a sort of “rock star status” who interacted with people like actress Agnes Mooreheade and on a lark, once took an acting class with her. As a kid, he got in serious trouble with his mother, because he traded his lunch of traditional Japanese food with non-Japanese kids at school. He was picked up and taken on a “drive” by the FBI, in the late 1960s, after he went to a protest. And, unknownst to him, that day Kawano sat next to the student who was the leader of a radical underground movement.
Former Carver Junior High student Raypheal Clay (class of 1969) believes if you were a resident of the Eastside, and attended Carver Junior High School between 1965 and 1972, your memory of Fred Kawano was of an individual who spent every second thinking outside of the box. Clay remembers Kawano as someone who seemed to be trying to “make us whole and improve our self esteem.” He operated above the radar of the LAUSD, and was constantly threatened by the administration of Carver where he worked teaching Black history. But he taught with the support of Black parents. And despite the threats, he continued. In fact, comparing Kawano to Walter Mitty might be minimizing his impact on his students, because Kawano seemed to be the a leader of a micro-revolution.
Clay remembers Kawano wore the same signature outfit for six years (1966 to 1972)—a pair of black trousers, a black tee shirt and a green military jacket (maybe a United States Army issue). Once questioned about his attire by students. Kawano informed them he would change his style of clothing, when we got a decent principal at Carver.
According to Terry, a bartender at the Dresden Restaurant, Kawano wore his signature outfit to his 90th birthday party dinner there. The military fatigue jacket had been tapered to fit.
Clay smiled in response to that information, and added that in addition to the signature outfit, Mr. Kawano would often put on a black beret during staff meetings and BSU meetings. But he never wore it during the lectures he gave. That black beret was also worn during the two riots at Carver, according to Clay.
In addition to his signature outfit, Clay remembers that this 5 foot 3 inch tall guy was known to swat students, if you were disruptive in class. He would swat you regardless of your size.
Clay believes Kawano was truly in his element. He felt the discipline was necessary because he felt he only had less than an hour a day to empower his charges. Clay who lived near Ross Snyder Park in the late 1960s, says Kawano helped him realize he could escape his neighborhood which at one time was called the “dirty low bottom.”
A former Carver staff member, who worked with Kawano and still has a relationship with LAUSD, believes a lot of African American staff at Carver avoided interacting with Kawano fearing reprisals from LAUSD. But these same Black teachers and staff respected his knowledge of their history.
He (Kawano) was a no-nonsense type of teacher, said one student. He could command a classes’ attention just by walking through the door; he was a legend, said many students who attended the school.
Gladys Smith (class of 1967) also believes Kawano’s class was empowering, and in the BSU meetings, she said the students were taught the art of how to protest. Smith said she believes the BSU organization was started by Kawano at Carver after the Watts Riots (1965), and the Black Panther Party (1965).
At that time, students continuously complained about the condition of Carver in regards to infrastructure, learning materials and the food served.
According to Smith students did not have textbook in the Black history classes. But we had Afro-centric posters in class pasted on bulletin boards, clippings from Ebony and Jet magazines, Black Panther literature, as well as other Black literature and books he purchased himself or were loaned to him by Alfred Ligon of the Aquarian Bookstore.
A student was selected to read the book to the entire class.
Smith said, “we would recite and analyze speeches and writings by Malcolm X, Angela Davis, Bayard Rustin, Stokely Carmichael, and other Civil Rights leaders.” Smith believes Kawano’s class was for ninth graders (14 year olds), and its format was borrowed from the way that colleges and universities ran their courses.
Donald Clay (class of 1970),Raypheal’s brother believes Mr.Kawano was a grassroot movement and he was instrumental in the re-establishment of the free school lunch program in 1969.
The slight Japanese American man, along with 1,500 African American middle schoolers, and militant parents like Bennie Mae Benjamin and Mildred Coe, could have been unstoppable, if our politicians had jumped on the bandwagon to improve the school. He believes the politicians like 9th District Gilbert Lindsey were afraid to get involved, because it was rumored that Kawano had passed out copies of Chairman Mao’s little red book to students at Carver.
The “ Little Red Book” was a book of quotations from Chinese Premier Chairman Mao Tse-Tung which had selected statements from speeches and writings by Mao Tse-Tung, the former Chairman of the Communist Party of China, published from 1964 to about 1976
Another former student at Carver (Covington) (class of 1973) remembers a conversation his grandmother had in the late 1960s about Fred Kawano. He had heard about things from two older kids girls that attended Carver.
The girls explained that Mr.Kawano was teaching them how to protest and organize. They also explained how he taught Black history and not regular history. His grandmother asked if Kawano was a African, and they both said “no he was Japanese. But he is different from the Japanese at the B and B market, located on 54th Street and McKinley Avenue. He was pro-Black power.” His grandmother responded with the question “why would a Japanese have them kids starting all that trouble.”
The trouble she referred to was the protest Mr. Kawano organized that led to a riot March 8, 1968.
Kawano and his crew of middle schoolers made so much noise that their protests were included in a report of by the U.S. Senate that detailed four years of riots, civil and criminal disorder. Called “Riots, Civil and Criminal Disorders” Carver was the only middle school included in this report of the Senate Committee on Government Operations, Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations, in 1968.
In an excerpt from the 5,000-plus page report read on the U.S. capital floor: “The high school Black radicals appear to be far better organized than their White counterparts. This is due in part to the strong and very immediate influence of the Black Panthers. During the last two years in particular, Black student unions (BSUs) Have been forming in high schools throughout California. In Los Angeles high schools and college, BSUs have united to form the “Black Student Alliance.” This organization reportedly played an important role in the Carver Junior High sit-ins of March 7, 1969.
Those sit-ins eventually escalated into a full-fledged riot between students and the Los Angeles Police Department. It was the second riot at the school no less than a year later.
In a May 3, 1991, Los Angeles Times article, staff writer Elaine Woo described how in 1943, William McKinley Junior High School was renamed George Washington Carver Junior High School, an acknowledgment of the predominantly Black community that had grown up around the South-Central Los Angeles campus.
She went on to describe how in the 1970s, parents and students, swept up by the Civil Rights Movement, named the school’s social studies building after Malcolm X and the math and English building after Martin Luther King. What the article failed to mention, according to ex-Carver student Arthur Douglas was that the renaming of the buildings took place after the riots and BSU protests organized by Kawano.
Kawano chose to study the “Negro” culture as opposed to pledging his allegiance to the United States, according to former student and Black Student Union president Theodore Gibson (in 1969).
This was not the first time someone had asked, “why is Kawano so involved with Black Liberation?”
However, Our Weekly was unable to locate Kawano and ask how did he get involved with a mission to uplift children of the bottom. Those children, now adults in their mid fifties to early sixties, all smiled and shared their memory of Kawano.
Many who were interviewed believe Carver was a great location for Kawano, because of the school’s location—it was close to Thomas Jefferson High School—a school that was also making cultural demands on LAUSD, according to Douglas. “We were a few blocks from the Black Panther Southern California Chapter on 41st Street and Central Avenue. Douglas remembers the Panthers asking about the BSU and Kawano, when he and other Carver students ate at the free breakfast program on their way to school. Douglas said Carver was a famous school even before Kawano arrived. He said, “it was the first LAUSD school named after an African American.”
Shigeru “Fred” Kawano was born Feb. 9, 1923, in Stockton, Calif. Government records show his parents, Otokichi and Haru Kawano, were both immigrants from Japan and arrived in the United States in 1917.
Government records also indicate that both parents were fluent in Japanese and English, an asset Fred would utilize later in organizing African American middle school students in the 1960s. Fred ended up attending Ohio State University where, since his contemporaries having no knowledge of the strong foundation his English-speaking parents gave him, they felt he had taught himself the ability to publicly speak in an amazing manner, and he was asked to give the valedictorian speech for his graduating class.
In 1942, Kawano (19 years old) along with both parents, his older sister Hatsuki Kawano (21 years old), his younger sister Kaoru Kawano (18 years old), and his younger brother Yoshihid Kawano (13 years old), were removed from their home in Lodi, in the San Joaquin valley placed on a truck with other neighbors and moved to the Stockton Assembly Center (an inernment camp).
Government records also show this first camp was one of 15 temporary detention centers administered by the Wartime Civil Control Administration. Most Japanese Americans forcibly removed from the West Coast during World War II were sent to one of these centers during the spring and summer of 1942 while the more permanent concentration camps were being prepared.
The Kawanos were later moved to the permanent Tule Lake internment camp, near Oregon. Tule Lake was different from other internment camps, prisoners held frequent demonstrations and engaged in strikes demanding their rights under the U.S. Constitution. This may have been Fred’s first introduction to protest.
Living conditions would have been a distinct contrast to Fred and his family, according to Japanese American Museum (in Los Angeles) historian Evans Fugi. According to Fugi, living conditions were only marginally better than prisons that were managed by the California State Detentions Bureau.
Families, regardless of size, were cramped into 20-foot by 25-foot rooms and forced to use communal bathrooms. No razors, scissors, or radios were allowed. Children attended War Relocation Authority schools.
Fuji believes as a teen, Fred Kawano would have seen numerous hotels where agricultural laborers would stay in the winter. Community institutions included the Buddhist Church, a Christian church or two, a Tenrikyo church, and Nippon Hospital. The Buddhist Church Japanese school had a boarding house for students whose families lived on distant islands in the Delta. In 1940, the Buddhist Church had just built a new, larger sanctuary and separate hall/gymnasium.
Stockton was one of California’s largest and most complex Japanese American communities, according to Japanese American museum historian Fuji.
According to Fuji, Kawano’s life and community as he knew it at the age of 19 would have changed drastically with the internment of Japanese Americans.
His father’s listed occupation was “truck farmer”and his mother’s occupation was “farm hand,” according to information that was gathered by the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation working in conjunction with the War Relocation Authority.
Fuji say’s the Kawanos were not poor. A truck farmer was a grocery wholesaler, in essence which made Fred’s parents entrepreneurs. This business may have allowed Kawano to interact directly with African Americans, according to Fugi, a lot of African American farm hands worked for Asians, because they were treated better than White farmers down South. Fuji does not believe interacting with African American farm hands would have impacted the 19 year old Kawano in reference to becoming a pro-Black Power Asian. Fuji believes Kawano may have begun embracing the Black culture during his internment.
According to Scott Kurashige, Ph.D., University of Washington and author of “The Shifting Grounds of Race: Black and Japanese Americans in the Making of Multiethnic Los Angeles” describes how as a Nisei youth in a concentration camp, Frank Kawano developed a consciousness of racial oppression by reading books by Richard Wright and Gunnar Myrdal.
The authors Kurashige identified in his book as favorite readings of Kawano were African American novelist, poet, essayist, short story writer Richard Wright, and Gunnar Myrdal, a Swedish Nobel laureate economist, sociologist, and politician. In 1974, he received the Nobel Memorial prize in economic sciences best known in the United States for his study of race relations, and his book “An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy” (1944).
Kurashige explained in his book that Kawano continued to immerse himself in all aspects of the Black culture for almost two decades. He enlisted in the United States Army Air Force in 1944, when the United States military began allowing interned Japanese enlist. There were concentration camp Neisi working in intelligence units, however that was not known to the public.
Fuji thinks Kawano would have more than likely acquired the books on Black literatuure at the Stockton Assembly Center.
At the Stockton Assembly Center, documented reports said that the interned Japanese Americans would often have visits from African Americans and they were numerous, Fuji says this is documented in Matthew M Brones book, Jim and Jap Crow, A Cultural History of 1940’s Interracial America According to Fuji Roi Ottley An African American journalist and writer during the mid-20th century documented that almost a fourth of the visitors the interned Japanese Americans were receiving were Black. This was during a time when Ottley was accusing the United States of recording the names of Black Families visiting interned Japanese Americans.