El Cerrito: Portola Middle School has been renamed after Fred T. Korematsu

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Fred T. Korematsu (left), the Japanese American civil rights icon.

Portola Middle School in El Cerrito has been renamed after Fred T. Korematsu, the Japanese American who famously defied an order to be placed in internment camps during World War II.

At its Wednesday meeting, the West Contra Costa Unified School District Board of Education voted unanimously to rename the school. Board President Charles Ramsey, who suggested the name change, said honoring Korematsu is “a reminder that injustice should never be accepted.”

“I am proud that a school in El Cerrito can be a part of the civil rights legacy Mr. Korematsu championed through his willingness to challenge injustice,” Ramsey said in a statement. “This is not simply about a name; this is about honoring people who have risked their lives battling injustice and ensuring that our children come to know about their sacrifices.”

This YouTube clip provides a nice summary of Korematsu’s inspiring story.

There was some opposition to the name change, as Portola honored Gaspar de Portola, the first Spanish explorer to the Bay Area. A committee was formed to evaluate name changes and hosted four public hearings. The district said it received hundreds of written and verbal comments from community members before recommending the name change to the Board of Education.

When Japanese-American citizens were forced into internment camps without cause during World War II, Korematsu was arrested and convicted for defying the internment order. In 1983, however, his case was overturned in U.S. District Court and President Bill Clinton later awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. He remained a civil rights activist thereafter.

The school bearing his name is currently housed in portable buildings as its new campus is being built on Donal Avenue, four blocks away from its original location on Navellier Street between Moeser Lane and Portola Drive. The school is scheduled to open in its new location in January 2016, according to the district.

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