The National Park Service preserves one of the government’s bleakest chapters

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While maintaining some of America’s most beautiful sites, the National Park Service is also responsible for the watching over one of its black eyes. Recently, NPS announced a grant of just over $3 million for the preservation of World War II Japanese American Confinement Sites. To learn more about how the sites operate and what goes into running them, Federal Drive with Tom Temin spoke to the Superintendent of the Manzanar National Historic Site in California, Bernadette Johnson.

Interview transcript:

Bernadette Johnson: There were 10 incarceration centers in the United States that began in 1942, when Japanese Americans were forcibly removed from their homes along the west coast. Three of those are currently in the National Parks Service system as individual units of the National Park Service. The one I work at, Manzanar National Historic Site, was established in 1992. We’re in eastern California. And the first group of folks that were forcibly forcibly removed from their homes came from Bainbridge Island and in Washington, and they arrived at Manzanar on April 1, 1942. And so Manzanar operated through November of 1945. So the 10 incarceration sites, and we purport to use the term incarceration versus internment, and forcible removal instead of evacuation, especially evacuation is a euphemistic term that doesn’t really show the true experience that folks endure during World War Two. The other two national park service sites are Minidoka in Idaho, and Tule Lake in Northern California. And so the National Park Service really preserves those sites, primarily to tell the story of the forced removal of Japanese Americans. Two thirds of those folks removed were U.S. citizens, and a total of 120,000 people were forcibly detained in the 10 camps. And there were two in California, two in Arkansas, one in Idaho, one in Colorado, one in Wyoming, and two in Arizona. So what we preserve mostly is the historic resources that were left on the land when all of the counts closed in 1945. So much of what you see isn’t the built environment of a camp that housed thousands of people. So for example, at Manzanar the peak population with 11,047. But in some of the larger camps, like to Tule Lake, it was much larger than that, in the 18,000s.

Eric White: So what kind of historical or preservation work is going on at the sites?

Bernadette Johnson: Many of the other locations have ongoing effort with archaeology, restoring the jail at Tule Lake, for example. Minidoka has received some historic buildings and restored them, they have a potato shed, some other things, but a lot of it is the landscape that existed. For many of the units like Manzanar, it is still a very desolate remote location. So we’re about four hours north of LA, and currently our county population is 19,000 people. So if you imagine that in 1942, when the camp was fully operational, and we’ve had 11,000 people, that would have been the majority of our current county population.

Eric White: That is pretty remote. What do you all get in the way of visitors coming out to see the site?

Bernadette Johnson: So we are reaching hundreds of thousands of people on an annual basis, both with in person visits, and then through our digital efforts. And so for the last two years because of the pandemic, there have been lots of digital online components of interpretation. Tadaima is one that really impacted hundreds of thousand of people. Manzanar sees about 105,000 people on average every year. So our interpretation through park rangers that you would see at any other national park unit conducting tours is the primary way we do that. We also all have very active archaeological programs in various stages to to uncover things like historic gardens that were built here to provide some beauty, a place for solace and a place for reflection. Even though many of the camps had buildings raised, some of those historic features like gardens, and other monuments still tell the story of the people who are incarcerated.

Eric White: Yeah. Well, I’m curious, have you over your years had anyone who was actually forcibly removed to the site come back, as kind of a reminiscing – what is that like?

Bernadette Johnson: We do. There, fortunately, is still a number of people who were incarcerated that come back. And in many instances, the efforts of survivors and their descendants are really what led to the designation of these sites as part of the National Park Service. Many of the sites have stakeholder groups that have advocated for their recognition as National Park units, or in some cases, even private museums, there are a handful of those that exist, those efforts are mostly led by either survivors or their family members. Most of the sites, including those in private ownership have pilgrimages summer annual, some are less frequent. But in those cases, it’s exactly that it’s a pilgrimage for people who were incarcerated, and their families to come back be on site, both for remembrance for healing, and for a way to really acknowledge the trauma that occurred, a place also to advocate for this to never happen again. Many of the pilgrimages, and specifically the one I’m familiar with, at Manzanar most familiar with at Manzanar have a component of relationships that have formed especially after 911 with the Muslim American communities. So really bringing people together who have and who continue to face racism in a context of solidarity, for protecting human rights, protecting civil rights, because at the end of the day, what all of these incarceration sites have to teach us is about the fragility of our Constitution. And so those survivors are standing up for their Muslim brothers and sisters, sharing their stories so that it doesn’t happen again to raise awareness of what racism and prejudice can do when hysteria takes over. So we, we don’t have numbers of people who are survivors that come back, we don’t keep an extra tally about those people. But many of these sites would not exist with their advocacy and involvement. And at places like nanton are, many of their stories and experiences have been recorded. And we are current posts, over 650 oral histories. So we use those experiences in our exhibits. People also donate artifacts to us in the form of letters and cards, documents. And we use those extensively in how we tell the story of incarceration. And the other units also do that. There’s another program that the National Park Service manages, and it’s called the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant. We call it JACS for short. And many of those survivors stakeholder groups advocated for that grant program to be established within the National Park Service so that entities like universities and other nonprofits, and individuals, could build a repository of exhibit of films, of special works that could continue to tell the stories of the experiences of people who were incarcerated.

Eric White: On the archaeological side, are there any other resources besides an actual testimony of what it was like there that you all use to make sure that everything is historically accurate? And I imagine some sort of cultural sensitivity also plays into that process. Are there any other resources that you all tap to fill any gaps that there are?

Bernadette Johnson: So we definitely rely, I would say all of the sites, rely heavily on historic documentation, including letters, government records, family memorabilia, historic photographs, and survivor experiences, in making sure that the stories and experiences that we’re interpreting to the public are ground in historical accuracy. Many of the sites have world class exhibits. And I think that everyone inside and outside the National Park Service, who deals with the story of incarceration is passionate and compassionate, to getting the stories correct, right. There’s no room for error, we want to be respectful to the people who had this experience, but also being accurate in how we tell their stories, give them voice. I think we all take the responsibility of being stewards of this story very, very seriously because it really is a lesson that we all must keep close in our hearts and in our mind so that we don’t repeat these mistakes over and over again. The racism and prejudice that existed, the lack of political leadership that existed, and the war hysteria, that we never let that happen again. So ensuring that we are telling the stories with the respect they deserve. And with all of the resources we have available, including our resources that come from the National Archives, from universities, other public institutions that have been involved in preserving some of this history. We all pride ourselves and doing that really well. With the extensive use of oral history, we learn new things all the time. So 120,000 people were impacted by incarceration. So there are many, many different experiences and not all experiences were traumatic. We know people who married after meeting in camp and went on to raise families. So it’s all of those experiences that we try to really present to our visitors so that they can see the diversity in the people that were incarcerated, just who they were. It wasn’t just a bunch of farmers, it was academics and scientists, physicians, everything you would expect in that room of 120,000 people. And they all had different experiences as well. So we really work hard to ensure that the interpretive media that we present to the public is vetted. In many cases, we take our draft exhibits, and take them to our publics in the Japanese American community and ask them for their feedback, having I think that’s something that all National Park units who tell this story really pride themselves in making sure that it’s an inclusive and really well vetted process so that all viewpoints can be represented.

Eric White: Kind of a bleak silver lining of government sanctioned atrocities is there’s usually a lot of documentation. I’m wondering if in what you all have found, were there attempts by the powers that be back then to kind of move past this ugly chapter and maybe not have this whole thing preserved?

Bernadette Johnson: I think it says a lot that the National Park Service stepped up and took on the responsibility of telling the stories, the historic record that’s available in the National Archives really just represents the documents as they were being created at the time. So I can’t really tell you that I personally am aware of a cover up by the federal government to not disclose these records, right. They’re public documents. If you go to the National Archives, you can look at many of them yourself. But I think there probably are survivor memories and experiences that people feel otherwise. And I think that I look at the National Park Service being the steward of this. What I think is a story of racism, prejudice, civil rights, and especially the fragility of our Constitution.

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