A new book tells the story of how two immigrant families intersected on the path to desegregating public schools in Orange County and across California.
“The Kindness of Color” was written and self-published by Janice Munemitsu, whose rich family history is intertwined with one of the state’s most far-reaching court cases, Mendez, et al v. Westminster. Noting that next year marks the 75th anniversary of its resolution, the author said she wanted to commemorate the groundbreaking case in the first book of its kind for high school students and adults.
“I wanted to tell this true story of two families, Munemitsu and Mendez, behind Mendez v. Westminster that led to desegregate public schools for generations,” Munemitsu said.
The foundation for Brown v. Board
If you’re not familiar with the backstory, it goes like this: During World War II, the Munemitsus were forced from their Westminster farm into internment camps with other Japanese American families as the result of Executive Order 9066. Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez leased their property, having moved from Santa Ana to Westminster to fulfill a dream of running their own farm.
Yet when the Mendez family tried to enroll their daughter Sylvia and sons Jerome and Gonzalo, Jr. at their local neighborhood school, they were denied admission because of their Mexican heritage. Despite being American citizens, they were sent to the “Mexican” school based on a policy that provided separate facilities for White students.
Felicitas and Gonzalo Mendez and four other families filed a lawsuit in federal court and would go on to claim a landmark victory in 1947 with the case of Mendez v. Westminster. That legal action laid the foundation for the U.S. Supreme Court to outlaw racial segregation in schools seven years later in the celebrated case of Brown v. the Board of Education.
Opening paths to solutions
The Munemitsus included Seima and Masako Munemitsu, along with their sons Saylo and Seiko — he went by “Tad” — and daughters Akiko and Kazuko, who were twin sisters. Reunited after the war, they eventually returned to their land, and for a brief time they lived and worked alongside the Mendez family, forging a lasting bond that continues to this day.
Sylvia Mendez was just 8 years old in 1944 when she was denied admission to the “White school.” In her post-retirement life, she has worked to raise awareness of the case that bears her family’s name, and in 2011 she was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom. Underscoring the connection between the two families, Sylvia has authored the foreword to “The Kindness of Color.”
“Despite the discrimination and racism the Mendez and Munemitsu families encountered, there was one thing that helped them persevere,” said Janice Munemitsu, the daughter of Tad Munemitsu. “Acts of kindness by friends, neighbors and strangers encouraged their hearts and souls, opened paths to solutions, and created communities of support and kindness.”
Resources for educators
Those personal accounts are shared in the book, which Munemitsu envisions as a supplement to classroom lessons about the case and its sweeping impacts on education systems across the country.
To that end, she is working to develop an interactive website with resources, group discussion questions and related website links for readers to take a deeper dive. With the help of the Orange County Department of Education, the site will also include curriculum tips and classroom project ideas that educators can use to incorporate the history into their lessons. The website — www.thekindnessofcolor.com — is expected to be completed by mid-October.
“This is the family story behind the case, highlighting the beauty and power of ‘The Kindness of Color’ that led to this landmark case,” Munemitsu said. “What I love about our story is that it is not just a Mexican American story or just a Japanese American story. It is an American immigrant story of collaboration, community and kindness to one another.”
Readers can find digital and paperback formats of “The Kindness of Color: The Story of Two Families and Mendez, et al. v. Westminster, the 1947 Desegregation of California Public Schools” on Amazon. To learn more about the book and the stories behind it, follow the account, “TheKindnessofColor,” on Facebook and Instagram.