August 2023 – After the surprise attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It authorized the U.S. government to forcibly uproot 125,000 people of Japanese descent and incarcerate them in remote, desolate concentration camps for the duration of World War II. Only in 1988 did the government apologize and offer redress for this policy – pursued under the pretext of national security, but without true cause and in flagrant violation of constitutional liberties.
Seventy-five years removed from the last Japanese American incarceration camp, these bare facts are all that many Americans know about this ignoble chapter in our nation’s history.
Sally Sudo (née Ohno) has made it her life’s work to change that – to reinforce the human element of this story. “I experienced it all myself,” the 87-year-old Edina resident shared. “I was born to Japanese parents in Seattle, ninth of 10 children. Born in 1935, I turned 6 around the time of the Pearl Harbor bombing."
She retains vivid memories of the traumatic experiences that followed. “I remember they gave us little time to pack, but required us to bring along our own eating utensils. I [remember] train cars with armed guards and blindfolds … I remember that when we finally got to the camp at Minidoka [Idaho], it was hot and sandy – no green in sight.”
While the forced relocation affected everyone, Sudo knows it was hardest on her father. “He immigrated from Japan in 1899, and had lived for 40 years as a respectable immigrant. The internment experience, coming when he should have been thinking about a quiet retirement, really devastated him.”
After the war, Sudo’s older brother Joe facilitated the Ohno family’s resettlement in Minneapolis. Most would never return to Seattle.
Sally Sudo attended the University of Minnesota and graduated with a degree in elementary education. Over a long career in that field, she received occasional requests from colleagues asking her to speak to social studies classes about her first-hand experiences at the Minidoka internment camp.
After retiring from full-time work in 1995, Sudo decided to revisit and redouble those efforts.
“In 1997, I became education committee chair for the local chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League,” she said. “I continued in the role until 2015. During this time, we established a speaker’s bureau to field requests from schools and community groups interested in hearing from a Nisei speaker about their wartime experiences.”
Sudo has taken it upon herself to travel and speak more than anyone – in settings as varied as universities, libraries and historical societies, and even condo and senior living associations.
Out of countless appearances, Sudo says that a recent invitation from the Minnesota chapter of the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR-MN) stands apart as particularly memorable.
“As part of a panel in St. Cloud, I shared my stories about camp life – and also about facing housing discrimination in Minnesota in the 1950s,” she said. “Muslim immigrants today face the same kinds of racism, with discriminatory housing experiences remaining the [easiest] thing to point to as proof.”
“Discrimination is not just a thing of history. It is something we need to be on guard for today … and that’s why I share my family’s story.”
In recognition of her tireless efforts, the Edina Human Rights & Relations Commission recognized Sally Sudo as the recipient of the 2022 Tom Oye Award.