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Manzanar Committee Chair Sue Kunitomi Embrey Dies

Manzanar National Historic Site

National Park News

Educator, activist, author, and Manzanar committee chair Sue Kunitomi Embrey, 83, died on May 15, 2006 in Los Angeles.

Born on January 6, 1923, Sueko grew up in Little Tokyo as one of eight children of Gonhichi and Komika Kunitomi. Less than a year after graduating from Lincoln High School in 1941 and in the aftermath of Japan’s attack on Pearl Harbor, Sue was among more than 110,000 Americans of Japanese ancestry exiled from their West Coast communities by Executive Order 9066.

The Kunitomi family was interned at Manzanar in the dust-swept Owens Valley of California. Encircled by a barbed wire fence and eight guard towers, the Manzanar War Relocation Center was home to 11,070 Japanese Americans from 1942 to 1945 - two-thirds of whom were American citizens. They were incarcerated without due process in what Senator Sam Ervin would later call "the single most blatant violation of the Constitution in our history."

At Manzanar, Sue wove camouflage nets to support the U.S. war effort and eventually became the editor of the ironically-titled camp newspaper, the Manzanar Free Press.

Because Japanese Americans were forbidden to return to the West Coast until 1945, Sue relocated from Manzanar to Madison, Wisconsin in late 1943, and a year later moved to Chicago, Illinois. She returned to California in 1948 and became involved in her first political campaign, supporting Henry Wallace and the Progressive Party. While Wallace was defeated, Sue stayed true to progressive politics for the rest of her life.

In 1949, she married Texan Garland Embrey, with whom she had two sons, Gary Kinya and Bruce Takeshi. Told by her father when she was a young girl that “you have two strikes against you; first you are a Japanese and second you are a woman,” she set out to break down barriers facing women and minorities everywhere.

She attended Los Angeles City College in the 1960s, graduated from Cal State Los Angeles with a BA in English in 1969, and earned a masters degree in education from the University of Southern California in 1972.

Reflecting on her father’s admonition, she later said “My father died in 1938. I carried the burden of his advice until 1972 when I received my master’s degree from the University of Southern California. No bells rang, no bright lights flashed; there was only my mother’s delight and astonishment that I had gotten the diploma.”

Sue taught kindergarten, first and third grades, and English as a second language, and was active in the United Teachers of Los Angeles (UTLA). Sue also fought for worker’s rights through the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) and the United Farm Workers (UFW) and worked at the UCLA Labor Center. She could be found on picket lines or board rooms advocating for social justice.

She was an early supporter of Edward Roybal, the first Mexican American Congressman, and continued to fight for the inclusion of minorities in the politics. Sue served on the Los Angeles City Status of Women Commission during Mayor Bradley’s tenure. In 1980 Sue was selected to be part of the U.S. delegation to the United Nations Second World Conference on Women.

In 1969, Sue returned to Manzanar for the first time. She later recalled her visit as a pivotal point in her life. She was one of the first of her generation to speak out about the injustice of the World War II internment and the importance of keeping the memory alive to insure that such an injustice would never be repeated.

In the years that followed, she became the driving force behind the Manzanar Committee and worked tirelessly to insure that Manzanar and its stories would be preserved. She organized the annual Manzanar Pilgrimage for 37 years and was instrumental in Manzanar’s designation as a State Historic Landmark in 1972 and as a National Historic Landmark in 1985. Ultimately, Sue and the Manzanar Committee successfully lobbied the U.S. Congress to establish Manzanar National Historic Site in 1992.

She served as the first chair of the Congressionally-authorized Manzanar National Historic Site Advisory Commission and worked closely with the National Park Service to develop the 813-acre site and its facilities and programs. Sue was intimately involved in every step of Manzanar’s development including planning exhibits, publications, film, education programs, and more.

More than 2,500 people attended the grand opening of the Manzanar National Historic Site Interpretive Center on April 24, 2004. As a keynote speaker, Sue said, “People ask me why it’s important to remember and keep Manzanar alive with this Interpretive Center. My answer is that stories like this need to be told, and too many of us have passed away without telling our stories. The Interpretive Center is important because it needs to show to the world that America is strong as it makes amends for the wrongs it has committed, and that we will always remember Manzanar because of that.”

In addition to her work as an educator, Sue wrote several books including The Lost Years: 1942-1946, and Manzanar Martyr: An Interview With Harry Ueno. Her essays are included in numerous other books, including Last Witness: Reflections on the Wartime Internment of Japanese Americans in which she wrote “As I meet earnest young men and women who feel strongly about our nation and the ideals on which it was founded, I am optimistic about our future. With the vision of these young people, human and civil rights are being strengthened for future generations so that all Americans can share equally in the bounties of our country.”

Sue is survived by her son Bruce Embrey, daughter-in-law Barbara Becker and grandchildren Monica Mariko and Michael Tetsuo of Chicago; brothers Jack and Kinya “Kimbo” Kunitomi of Los Angeles; numerous nieces and nephews; and scores of friends and admirers. A public memorial service is planned for June.


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