by Diana Bowers-Smith
Oct 30, 2018

Here at the Brooklyn Collection, one of our biggest collections is the records of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle newspaper. The eagle statue from the newspaper's downtown building has perched in the lobby of Central Library for over 20 years on long-term loan from the Brooklyn Historical Society, and you might have heard that due to a post on this very blog, the eagle was recently made a permanent gift to the library, where it will nest in perpetuity.

In addition to the eagle sculpture, we hold clippings and other materials from the Eagle offices, including over 200,000 photographs from their "morgue." About 10% of those have been separated into a smaller "Brooklyn subjects" collection which is mostly digitized (visit our new Digital Collections page to explore!). But the bulk of the collection remains undigitized and accessible only via its folder titles, listed here in the collection guide.

It was in that guide that I recently spotted an intriguing folder title, one which promised to tell a deeper story: "Tokuyasu, Tsuneko: Japanese-American Girl Sworn In As A Lawyer." Inside the folder, a single picture:

Portrait of Tsuneko Tokuyasu, Brooklyn Eagle, 1950
Portrait of Tsuneko Tokuyasu, Brooklyn Daily Eagle, October 1950

 

A small news clipping is pasted to the back of the picture, and it states that Tokuyasu was the first woman lawyer of Asian descent "to be admitted to the practice of law in any State east of the Mississippi." Quite an accomplishment! Especially if what the article says next is true: "There are probably not more than 150 women of Japanese ancestry practicing law in the whole world." I was not able to completely verify either of these claims, but I did find that a Japanese American woman was admitted to the bar in Illinois in 1937--Illinois is east of the Mississippi, but only just. It's still possible that Tokuyasu was the first Asian American woman lawyer in New York state; regardless of whether she was the very first or not, she was a trailblazer.

Tokuyasu got her law degree at Brooklyn Law School in 1948, and there was a short blurb in the Eagle at that time marking the occasion. She was sworn in two years later, in October 1950. The clipping attached to the back of her portrait appeared to be complete, but when I looked under her name in our Eagle clipping files, I discovered that it was actually only a portion of a much longer article, topped with this headline:

Brooklyn Eagle headline: "Nisei Girl Lives Her Dream"
Brooklyn Eagle headline, October 1950

 

"Nisei" is a term for second generation Japanese Americans. It signifies that the person was born in America to parents that emigrated from Japan. First generation immigrants are called "Issei." These terms are derived from the Japanese words for one and two, ichi and ni. While the headline leads with this culturally appropriate term, the second part of the headline is less politically correct by today's standards: "Is East's 1st Oriental Portia."

In addition to using language we would find offensive today, the article also glosses over the era of Japanese American internment, saying that when the Tokuyasu family was forced to relocate from California to Colorado in 1942, "they were given a choice of moving inland or being confined to camps." Not much of a choice. Nonetheless, the family gave up their cantaloupe farm in southern California and took to farming vegetables in Greeley, Colorado. Tsuneko--or "Eko" to her friends--was 18 years old.

Thanks to the California Digital Newspaper Collection from the Center for Bibliographic Studies and Research at the University of California, Riverside, I was able to see in the Calexico Chronicle that Tsuneko was cited many times as an honor roll student at her high school. In 1942, the same year her family had to relocate, she won a scholarship for college and headed off to attend the Colorado State College of Education.

Tsuneko Tokuyasu in her college yearbook, 1943
Tsuneko Tokuyasu as a freshman in the 1943 Colorado State College of Education yearbook, Cache le Poudre

 

Several issues of that school's newspaper, The Mirror, are available online via digital collections at the University of Northern Colorado. These tell us that Tsuneko was inducted into Pi Lambda Theta, an "honorary educational association," in 1944 as a sophomore, and was elected secretary of that organization in 1945. In addition, she pledged the Sigma Eta Chi sorority and was a reporter for The Mirror. Clearly, she was a busy and accomplished student.

Tsuneko Tokuyasu as a college senior in a 1946 yearbook
Tsuneko Tokuyasu as a senior in a 1946 yearbook. Found via Ancestry.

 

She also co-founded the Nisei Intermountain Collegiate Conference (NICC), a group and conference for Nisei college students in the Rocky Mountain region, and served as its first president. The NICC's bulletin is available online via the Auraria Library Digital Collections as part of the Mile High Japanese American Citizens League Collection, along with other publications that also mention Tsuneko Tokuyasu such as the Denver JACL Bulletin and Rocky Mountain Jiho. It is from these that I learned how she made her way to Brooklyn.

"Partial Scholarships Given Two Colorado Women," Denver JACL Bulletin, July 1946
 Denver JACL Bulletin, July 1946

 

After winning a scholarship to the "Encampment for Citizenship" in Riverside, NY for the summer after her senior year of college in 1946, Tsuneko decided to see if she could stay on the East coast and applied to Brooklyn Law School. She was accepted, and moved to Brooklyn that fall to begin her studies. According to her feature article in the Eagle, she had been interested in the practice of law ever since her "toddler's crush" on her family's lawyer in California, Don Bitler. Bitler was District Attorney of California at the time of Tokuyasu's swearing-in.

Brooklyn Law School 1949 graduating class with detail of Tsuneko Tokuyasu. Courtesy the Brooklyn Law School Archives.
Brooklyn Law School 1948 graduating class with detail of Tsuneko Tokuyasu. Courtesy the Brooklyn Law School Archives.

 

In 1948, Tokuyasu lived on Sidney Place, and in 1950 she lived on Joralemon Street, both very close to Brooklyn Law School's downtown Brooklyn campus. She told the Eagle in 1950 that she had "no romances," but according to records I was able to find via the library's subscription to ancestry.com, she married a man named Francis Columbia two years later, in 1952. According to city directories, she was still living in New York City in 1957, and by the time of her father Sojiro's death in 1963, the Rocky Mountain Jiho reported that she was still a New York City resident. That article also notes that Sojiro had six grandchildren between Tsuneko and her sister; according to a public Ancestry family tree, Tsuneko and Francis eventually had a total of seven children. Since Francis died in Queens in 1982, we can maybe assume that Tsuneko lived in New York at least until that year.

Tsuneko Tokuyasu died in 1992 in California and was buried with her parents in Colorado. She seems to have practiced law her entire life; her gravestone has the honorific "Esq." after her name. We can only imagine that she was able to live up to the ideals that she so eloquently expressed in that 1950 Eagle article: "I feel those of us who are well schooled in two cultures can help bring about the kind of understanding that is essential to real peace."

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