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Mary Urashima, Leader Of Effort To Preserve Historic Japanese American Settlement In Huntington Beach, Dies 

A long-haired white blonde woman in a red and black plaid shirt poses seated next to an Asian American woman who wears her brown hair short and a short-sleeved gray sweater with black piping.
Huntington Beach preservationist Mary Urashima, left, died Sunday after a battle of cancer. She is pictured with her friend, Kyoko Oda.
(Historic Wintersburg in Huntington Beach Facebook page)
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Mary Urashima's fight to preserve a historic Japanese American settlement in Huntington Beach started out with her as a "lonely soldier with a big flag," recalled her friend Kyoko Oda.

But over the last decade, Urashima built a coalition of supporters from southern California and beyond who recognized the importance of saving the Wintersburg farm where three generations of Japanese Americans lived and worked starting in the early 1900s.

A black and white photo of two small wooden structures, a manse and a mission. Asian men in suits stand outside the larger mission.
An undated photo of the Wintersburg mission and manse, built in 1910.
(Courtesy Wintersburg Church)

Urashima, a skilled public speaker with a warm, friendly demeanor, brought national attention to the site, having successfully lobbied to have Wintersburg recognized as eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.

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Despite some vocal naysayers, she convinced city officials to envision the site, now owned by a waste management company, into a public space for education and recreation.

After a fire destroyed several structures on the site earlier this year, Urashima redoubled her efforts.

A fire tore through part of Wintersburg in February.
(Mary Urashima)

"The support was starting to grow after the fire, which was very unfortunate, but it kind of woke people up," said Oda, a fellow preservationist.

Just as the campaign picked up momentum, it has lost its guiding force. Urashima died Sunday night surrounded by family, after a battle with cancer, friends said.

Friends and colleagues described Urashima as a humanist who fought for civil rights and justice.

Urashima was not of Japanese descent but after marrying into a Japanese American family, she became an expert in a history that saw the Furuta family forced to leave their homestead at Wintersburg during WWII because the government was incarcerating Japanese Americans at camps.

Urashima told LAist in 2014 that people would ask why she, a white woman, was spearheading the Wintersburg project. She had a ready answer.

"History needs to be inclusive, accurate and this is an important part of the story," Urashima said.

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Urashima — who blogged and authored a book on Wintersburgin between her work as an environmental consultant — thought the site not only opened a crucial window into the past but offered immediate benefits to the surrounding, low-income Oak View neighborhood.

“She literally went door-to-door to introduce herself and share her vision for what historic Wintersburg could be: a safe space for a community that happens to have very little green space to enjoy and get fresh, clean air,” said Jamie Hiber, executive director of the Heritage Museum of Orange County.

Hiber said the museum plans to take over Urashima's efforts to preserve Wintersburg. After Urashima was diagnosed with cancer in 2020, she started to impart her knowledge about the site to Hiber so she could keep up the campaign.

A black and white vintage photo of a Japanese American family with a mother and father and four children.
Yukiko and Charles Furuta with their four daughters and son.
( Courtesy of Mary Urashima)

Hiber said the museum would ideally acquire the site but could also manage it with partners.

“We have to see it through,” Hiber said. “Obviously not just for Mary, but for all the reasons Mary wanted.”

Because of her passion for the project, Urashima became the target of online vitriol from residents critical of using any city resources to preserve Wintersburg.

“There is definitely some white supremacist/racist culture here in Huntington Beach,” said her friend Mark Bixby, who administers a Facebook page on Huntington Beach news. “Some of those folks appeared to be unhappy with efforts to save a site important to Japanese Americans.”

But Urashima persisted with her work, despite the attacks and her illness, which left her immunocompromised and unable to attend rallies and meetings in person.

Bixby said it was tragic that Urashima, who also helped others in Huntington Beach with their preservation projects, did not live to see her dream of saving Wintersburg realized. But Hiber said that Urashima, who e-mailed her about Wintersburg the day before she died, had already left her mark on the city.

"People don't understand that someone could be so passionate about something without any self-interest," Hiber said. "It really had nothing to do with her. It was 100% for the betterment of the community. She loved Huntington Beach."

Have a question about Southern California's Asian American communities?
Josie Huang reports on the intersection of being Asian and American and the impact of those growing communities in Southern California.