TV reporter Koto’s story starts with parents interned and baby chicks
By Tiffany Parks
Award-winning CNN anchorwoman Sachi Koto has built a career on groundbreaking news stories.
But to her, the truly groundbreaking, soul-stirring stories are not part of the news cycle. Rather, great stories reside within the hearts of everyday people, waiting to be discovered.
Koto’s many awards include the William Breman Jewish Heritage Museum Speakers Award. “When I spoke at the Breman Museum, I was giving an educational speech about how racist fear and hatred led to the creation of the Nazi concentration camps as well as the internment camps in America. I said a prayer for the Jews, the Asians, and the African-Americans who’d faced discrimination and racism in America.”
Koto discovered the power of her life story by navigating the complexities of the American dream: A woman born in segregated Atlanta becomes the first Japanese-American TV reporter in the Southeast.
“In 1944, when my father and mother came to Atlanta, they were literally labeled number 32 and 33. That’s how many Asian people lived in the entire state of Georgia, only 33 Asians,” Koto said.
Fred and Eiko Koto came to Atlanta with fresh memories of the Wyoming Heart Mountain Internment Camp.
“The government rounded up all the Japanese and put them behind barbed wire. They met in the camp. They lived in horse stables and had to sleep on hay. It was a dark time in American history,” Koto said.
Her father was determined to succeed, even in Jim Crow Atlanta.
“As Japanese, my family didn’t know what color they were in Atlanta. Everything was either black or white. When they rode the trolley, they would sit in the colored section. They didn’t want to cause trouble. Sometimes the bus driver would tell them that it was OK for them to sit in the white section,” Koto said.
Living in a segregated society didn’t give her father many employment options, so he had to think of a creative way to make a living. “My father became a chicken sexer. Georgia was the chicken capital of the world, and the concept of a chicken sexer was a novelty during that time. My father learned the business from a Japanese man. He would determine the sex of the chicken minutes after they were born. Female chickens were more valuable than male chickens because they laid eggs and had breast meat. The male chickens were often killed because they were not as valuable.”
Koto gleaned an empowering message from watching her father handle chickens.
He built a company on Memorial Drive called Fred Koto Chick Sexing Association. He was known as a pioneer of the poultry business in Georgia.
His company was five miles from the headquarters of a grand wizard of the Ku Klux Klan, Samuel Hoyt Venable.
Koto remembers when she faced racism. Her peers called her Jap and other derogatory names.
“I really became an unhappy, shy person when I understood that I was viewed as different. I developed an identity crisis.”
Koto’s father taught her that she should embrace her identity and had nothing to be ashamed of.
The Kotos experienced discrimination, but their African-American maid, Lilly Graves, faced harsher discrimination.
“I was young, but I knew that Lilly’s condition in life was not good,” Koto said. “She lived in a shack.”
Despite Graves’ social status, she was like a second mother to Koto and her siblings, and Koto grew to become the homecoming queen at Clarkston High School. “My father and mother were so happy,” Koto said. “I’m always humbled when I realize that when my mother was my age, she was in an internment camp instead of enjoying her life. Now my parents were fulfilling the American dream. I was their all-American, confident girl.”
After graduating summa cum laude from Reinhardt College with a bachelor’s degree in communications, Koto was hired by CNN. She became the first Japanese-American anchorwoman for CNN Headline News and the first Japanese-American on-air reporter in the South. Koto also worked for CNN affiliate WAGA-TV in Atlanta.
“When I was a reporter for CNN, I did not realize that I was making history,” Koto said. “I made sure that I did a good job, but it’s only when I look back at those times and people tell me how inspired they were watching me on television that I realize the impact I had.”
In 2005, after 16 years at CNN, Koto left to launch Sachi Koto Communications. She had noticed that whenever she spoke about her life and heritage, the event would sell out. The audience was not only inspired by her message, but
Koto found that she was as inspired by the stories audience members shared with her as they were with her story. Thus, one of her company’s services is to help people present their stories to the public.
“Everybody has a story to tell, and I provide the tools to help individuals tell memorable stories,” she said. “A good story can heal nations, bring cultures together, unlock mysteries. A good story can change the world.”