I was delighted and amazed to receive news that this portrait of Fred Korematsu’s family in their greenhouse in Oakland, California will be displayed in the National Portrait Gallery at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C. It will be the first portrait of an Asian American to be featured in the gallery’s civil rights exhibition, A Struggle for Justice.
Fred Korematsu was a civil rights hero: he refused to report to the euphemistically named “relocation centers” that imprisoned over 110,000 Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans during World War II. Gordon Hirabayashi of Seattle and Min Yasui of Hood River, Oregon also refused to obey racist curfews or group incarceration. Korematsu fought his case to the Supreme Court and was defeated repeatedly until 1983, when he was finally exonerated. Gordon Hirabayashi passed away recently, and I fear future generations will not be fully aware of his contributions to American history. There were many other, lesser-known resisters to wartime incarceration whose devotion to the U.S. Constitution exceeded President Roosevelt’s closest advisors.
But there is another reason I was happy that Smithsonian visitors would see this portrait. Korematsu’s family were California flower growers, helping lay the groundwork for what became our nation’s wealthiest agricultural state. Although Oakland today is almost completely urban, neighborhoods like the Fruitvale are a reminder of the area’s beginnings as greenhouses and fruit orchards. My great-grandfather Isaburo Adachi was also a flower grower in nearby Richmond, California, growing carnations and other flowers for the booming San Francisco market. The 1906 earthquake and 1942 imprisonment twice almost destroyed the business he built from scratch. But our family’s store Adachi Florist is still holding on, 107 years later.
In 2009, President Obama appointed a new head of civil rights at the Department of Agriculture, Dr. Joe Leonard, to reform the agency’s lending practices and make sure all Americans have equal access to food and if they want it, farming. He recently spoke at the National Immigrant & Minority Farmers Conference in St. Paul, Minnesota on the challenges faced by today’s refugee, immigrant and small-scale farmers (many of which are frustratingly similar to those faced by my great-grandfather and the Korematsu family almost a century ago). Dr. Leonard said something that made me think. He said, “Immigrants don’t come to the U.S. for our jobs, they come for our civil rights.” Those rights are never guaranteed, and indeed the American-born Korematsu was intimately aware of American hypocrisy and unequal justice. But he was a stubborn flower grower, and he didn’t give up. That legacy inspires me and I look forward to seeing this portrait—our portrait—in the Smithsonian.