Skip to main content
Patti Hirahara (center) is recognized by Vichar Phonkumnerdsub and Vanessa Sing, co-chairs of WSU’s Asian Pacific American Student Coalition, for her contributions to the organization. Photos by Steve Nakata,WSU

As part of the university’s celebration of Asian Pacific American heritage, students were given the opportunity to preserve their ancestral history.

By Steve Nakata, WSU

Patti Hirahara and Washington State University President Elson S. Floyd

Patti Hirahara and Washington State University President Elson S. Floyd

As Washington State University’s annual April month-long celebration of Asian Pacific American heritage came to an end, students were given a challenge to begin to research their family’s roots as well as document and preserve their history to share with future generations.

The challenge came during a keynote address given by Patti Hirahara as part of the Asian Pacific American Student Coalition’s closing ceremonies on April 27. WSU donor Hirahara, of Anaheim, Calif., shared with students why, in 2010, she gifted to WSU more than 2,000 photographs taken by her father, Frank, a 1958 WSU alumnus, and grandfather, George, while they were incarcerated in the Heart Mountain Relocation Center during World War II.

“In making this donation, many families finally became aware of who had taken their family photographs in Heart Mountain and for some, received a piece of history that they never knew existed,” Hirahara told the crowd. “I have been told that the Hirahara collections will be a legacy for my family, but it is also a tribute to the brave Japanese pioneers who came to this country many years ago. My family’s artifacts have become a vehicle to help other Japanese families tell their story.”

The George and Frank C. Hirahara Collection of the WSU Libraries Manuscripts, Archives and Special Collections has been a valuable resource for many scholars and people researching their family histories, as well as provides a new photographic resource for documentary and musical producers. The collection also provided the inspiration for the making of the Emmy Award-winning documentary “Witness: The Legacy of Heart Mountain,” was used in the world premiere of the new American musical “Allegiance” and was shown at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History in February.
At WSU last fall, the collection also provided the foundation for an unprecedented semester-long focus on the Japanese incarceration.

The morning after delivering her speech, WSU President Elson S. Floyd welcomed Hirahara into his office and shared how appreciative he was that her family entrusted WSU to be the custodians of such an important historical collection.

“We’re very grateful to you for allowing us to preserve this history in a way that will benefit people for generations to come,” said Floyd.

“For me, this collection is an excellent reminder that we need to always treat one another with humanity, dignity and respect — that’s what it’s all about.”

As a way to foster cultural interaction and understanding at WSU, Floyd recently announced plans to build a new Multicultural Center on campus that will provide a place where students, faculty and staff can immerse themselves in different cultures by attending classes and seminars there, as well as enjoy diverse visual and musical arts in the new facility.

“It is important that we can devote an entire structure for this purpose,” said Floyd. “The architects have been meeting with students and others in the WSU community, and we’re very excited that this project is underway.”

Hirahara envisions the new building as a place where students can gather to share their own histories and cultures with the larger Pullman community.

After the speech, WSU sophomore Jordyn Yahata thought about one of his relatives, a member of the famed 442nd Regimental Combat Team during World War II, and also remembered stories he had heard about the racism his grandfather experienced.
Senior Vanessa Sing shared how her grandparents emigrated from China to the United States and decided to change their last name to one that would be more palatable to Americans at that time.

Both Yahata and Sing said they were inspired to keep developing their family histories.

“You may find that you are holding a very significant piece of history to fill in the gaps of your Asian American roots here in America and of those of your ancestors,” Hirahara told them. “We need to take the initiative to have our stories told here in America, and you are the perfect generation to undertake this task. You are our future and our voice in the years
to come.”

Correction 5/19/2015: Frank Hirahara did not graduate in 1958. He graduated in 1948 from WSU.