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As we celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander history this month, let’s celebrate the first female Asian American who became a lawyer in the United States in June of 1937: Elizabeth Kuma Ohi. A Japanese American and Chicago native, Ohi was born on February 9, 1911. She graduated valedictorian from Pullman Free School of Manual Training and attended local universities in Chicago. She earned her law degree from John Marshall Law School, where she graduated first out of a class of 41 students.
Despite her mixed racial ancestry (her mother was Caucasian and her father Japanese), Ohi was detained following the bombing of Pearl Harbor. She was released with the assistance of Arthur Goldberg, an attorney at the time, for whom she was legal secretary. She joined the Navy for one year and then worked as an attorney in Washington, D.C. Her law career culminated with a position at the United States Department of Labor.
Unfortunately, due to the racial discrimination of the times, Ohi did not finish her career with her birth name. She changed her last name to “Owen” to conceal her Asian background.
We remember Ohi’s journey as we consider today’s landscape. 2021 brings a greater and more intentional focus on eliminating racial and gender discrimination. Lawyers Club is committed to ensuring we do our part, so no woman has to change her last name to achieve her goals.
Today we are happy to celebrate these efforts at the 2021 Annual Dinner!