“So then I told my husband, ‘I hope you don’t mind, I want to get involved in the Movement. Don’t worry, I’ll take the kids with me.”
- Yuri Kochiyama
Leaving Jerome, Arkansas at last in 1945, Yuri Kochiyama moved to Hattiesburg, Mississippi to collaborate with the United Services Organization (USO), exclusively established for Japanese American soldiers since the white USO’s did not welcome Asians. It was in Mississippi, in the heart of the Jim Crow South, that Yuri began to realize the common prejudice that blacks, and particularly black soldiers, were receiving as well. She continued to volunteer and do community work, but in 1948, Yuri moved to New York to reunite with Bill, whom she married February of that year. They lived in the Amsterdam Housing Projects stretching from 62nd to 65th street for twelve years, and in 1960, they and their six children moved to the Manhattanville Housing Projects in Harlem.
“It was really exciting to be living in Harlem in the 60s…. There was a lot of political energy and activity and it changed my life,” Yuri explains. One of the first things Bill and Yuri did to delve into this bustle of activity was join the Harlem Parents Committee. On all the intersections on their street above 110th, there were no traffic signals, and so many children were being hit by cars, especially on 131st and Fifth Avenue where the local school stood. Committee leaders took action and organized a sit-in along the street. Parents had their children stand on the street in demand of more streetlights and among them were Yuri and her six children. Soon enough the city added these streetlights, and the committee further fought to improve other sanitation issues and living conditions within the city. They collaborated with other groups to shut down every public school in the city until the Board of Education passed reforms for improving education for Black children.
As Yuri made her plunge into the black movement, she felt that she needed to first gain a better understanding of African American culture and history. “Both my husband and I felt we didn’t know anything about black history, black thinking, or black culture, and in order to understand the black community and its people, we thought we’d better sign up,” she explains. Thus, she and Bill enrolled with their three eldest children, Billy, Audee, and Aichi, into the Harlem Freedom School, which taught Black children to take pride in their heritage despite such oppressive times. This involvement was Yuri’s first step across the borders into working outside of her ethnic and local community. Yet she would never forget nor neglect her own ethnicity, but as it had similar problems of its own, Yuri worked to form a bridge between different cultures to join in a common mission for human rights.
Yuri Kochiyama talks about the Harlem Parents Committee: from Yuri Kochiyama: A Passion For Justice