Mt. Diablo High to bestow diplomas to incarcerated Japanese American students of WWII

Mt. Diablo High to bestow diplomas to incarcerated Japanese American students of WWII

Mt. Diablo High to bestow diplomas to incarcerated Japanese American students of WWII
Mt. Diablo High School during the 1900s. (Photo courtesy Concord Historical Society)

CONCORD, CA (May 17, 2022) — During World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered Japanese Americans into War Relocation Centers. This year marks the 80th anniversary of that decision.

Now, Mt. Diablo High School will grant retroactive diplomas to students forced to leave the school in 1942. The  presentation will take place alongside its Class of 2022 graduation ceremony on May 24.

This historic effort came about due to the tireless work of Class of 1958 alumna Kimiyo Tahira Dowell and Ethnic Studies teacher Laura Valdez and her students. The group lobbied the Mt. Diablo Unified School Board to confer the diplomas to former students or their families. A California law passed in 2003 allows school districts to retroactively grant diplomas to students who had not received them due to their incarceration during World War II, among other provisions. Dowell was herself incarcerated with her parents as a toddler.

The School Board agreed to revise its policies on March 23, 2022. This paved the way for the presentation as part of Mt. Diablo High School’s graduation ceremony this month. Dowell, Valdez and her students pored over the school’s 1942 yearbook. They identified approximately 40 students sent to War Relocation Centers with their families.

Families to attend

Many of the former students are now deceased and those who are still alive are in their 90s. This makes it difficult for them to attend the ceremony in person. However, the school expects up to two dozen family members of the former students to attend. They will accept the retroactive diplomas on behalf of their parents, grandparents, uncles and aunts. Valdez said some of these relatives came close to tears when she told them about the school’s efforts on the phone. Some of their relatives, she said, have never spoken of the incarceration because it remains painful.

Valdez said she has incorporated the research for this effort into her ethnic studies class. It became part of students’ education about the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans allegedly suspected of being disloyal to the United States. Her students have watched propaganda about Roosevelt’s order from that time period. It shows Japanese American families loaded onto buses with their belongings. The students also read news accounts of the ordeals these people faced.

The school will seat the families in a special section of the pavilion where they will receive the diplomas. Dowell will announce the names of the former students immediately before distributing the Class of 2022 diplomas.

The school’s 2022 graduating class will include these students as honorary members of its class.  Organizers will hold a small “tailgate” style reception for the families in the parking lot after the graduation.