August 30, 2016

This weekend, Seattle lost two pioneering figures in the city’s civil rights history, Robert Santos and Charles Z. Smith. Densho Executive Director Tom Ikeda pays tribute to them both. 

What I will remember most are the bright smiles each of them had when they greeted friends. Even as their bodies aged, their faces would light up when they saw you, showing their passion and joy for life.

And the stories they could tell.

Photo credit: Dean Rutz/The Seattle Times

Robert “Uncle Bob” Santos told me about playing his favorite Maryknoll Mission picnic game, the cone fight, where contestants would tie an empty ice cream cone on the top of their head, roll up an old newspaper and start swinging at each other until only one person was left with an unbroken cone. You could see him transported to another time when he told the story. And then he would smile in delight when I told him that his favorite game continues 75 years later at my family reunion of the Kinoshita clan, a family that also belonged to the Maryknoll Mission before the war.

Photo credit: Benjamin Benschneider/Seattle Times

Charles “Charlie” Z. Smith also shared his childhood memories and how they shaped his beliefs and character. He told me of his love of music and captivated me with how as a boy growing up in the segregated South, he lived next door to the Lakeland Palace Casino where great musicians would come to play, including Duke Ellington. And because the musicians could not stay in hotels, they would sleep in a bus in front of his house and come inside to play on the family’s upright piano to practice and compose new songs.

Sadly, both men died this week. Uncle Bob died on Saturday and Charlie died on Sunday.  These two men left a legacy of mentoring and connecting people of color, and an army of admirers and social activists to carry on their work. Below are a couple of video clips of the two men talking with Densho about their lives. Uncle Bob talks about how his friends from other communities of color came forward to help the Asian American community during a time of need. And Charlie talks about how as a young man, the portrayal of Japanese Americans by the media during World War II made him think they were vicious people.

RIP Uncle Bob and Charlie.