In Fall 2022, the Bainbridge Island School District began the process of renaming the Captain Charles Wilkes Elementary School. This week, the school district Renaming Committee announced that Akio Suyematsu Elementary was one of three final names, from 89 that were submitted to the School Board, who will select the new name of the school on March 30, 2023.
Akio Suyematsu (1921-2012) was born, raised, and educated on Bainbridge Island. He was an Island resident his entire life, except for the years of Japanese American exclusion, and his service in the United States Army (1942-47). Akio Suyematsu was born on the north end of Bainbridge Island, and spent his formative years living on the current site of Wilkes Elementary, which his family leased and farmed from approximately 1922-1930. (The Washington Alien Land Bill of 1921 prohibited non-white immigrants from buying or owning land.) From 1928-2012, Akio lived and farmed on the forty-acre property his family purchased neighboring the current site of Wilkes Elementary.
From the late 1920’s-1942, Akio attended Olympic Grade School, Lincoln School, and Bainbridge High School. At BHS, Akio was a star baseball player for all four years, and a letterman for three years. He excelled in building trades courses under the tutelage of Mr. Morley, which had a direct influence on his professional life as a farmer and becoming a jack of all trades. Akio was in the Class of 1942, and one of thirteen Japanese American BHS Students to graduate while exiled and incarcerated at Manzanar concentration camp in California.
During WWII, the Suyematsu Family were incarcerated in the Manzanar and Minidoka concentration camps. In 1943, Akio was drafted by the U.S. Army, and served in Europe at the end of the war. In 1947, he returned to Bainbridge Island and helped his family reclaim their farm and livelihoods. The Suyematsus were one of the few Japanese American families to carry on with farming on Bainbridge Island after returning from exile.
Today, the forty acres of Suyematsu Family Farm is one of the oldest, continuously farmed working landscapes in the region, and the largest production farm in Kitsap County. It is the hub of our Island’s farming community and a treasured and iconic cultural asset. Since the period of Japanese American Exclusion, Suyematsu Family Farm has become one of the most inclusive places on Bainbridge Island. The farm has become an established historic and cultural site for teaching and learning about the Japanese American experience, and a living bookend to the Bainbridge Island Japanese American Memorial.
From 2006-2019, Suyematsu Farm served as an outdoor classroom for Wilkes Elementary, had vibrant farm-school partnership with Suyematsu Farm integrated into the K-4 curriculum, with every class coming to the farm up to four times a year. A dedicated path was built for Wilkes students to walk to and from the farm. Wilkes teachers spoke at Akio’s Celebration of Life.
In 2011, Akio Suyematsu became the first local farmer, and alumnus, to have a contract with BISD food program, purchasing 300 pounds of Suyematsu Farm raspberries each year for a yogurt & granola parfait, served to Wilkes students and others throughout the school year- making Suyematsu Farm and Wilkes Elementary one of the closest farm to school relationships in the region.