On Dec. 7, 1941, Japan attacked the United States naval base at Pearl Harbor. Within hours of the bombing, FBI agents, most without evidence or warrants, rounded up over 1,000 Japanese in the U.S. mainland and Hawaiian islands. Though there was no proof that Japanese-Americans were spying for Japan, the federal government decided nobody of Japanese ancestry could live on the West coast.
On Feb. 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which forced more than 120,000 Japanese-American people to leave their homes in California, Washington, Oregon and Arizona, with few belongings. They were taken to 10 internment camps, where many lived behind barbed wire fences with armed guards for the next three years.
Arkansas was chosen as a home for two internment camps, probably because it was landlocked and far from the cities of the Pacific and Atlantic coasts. One of the internment camps was located in Rohwer, a small farming community in southeastern Arkansas. The other was several miles away, in Jerome.
When University of Arkansas art professor John Newman was in college at the University of Kansas, he got a peek into what life was like in the Japanese internment camps of the 1940s. He didn’t realize at the time just how close to home that part of history was.
Newman’s advisor, University of Kansas professor Roger Shimomura, had firsthand experience with internment camp living. Shimomura, his parents and his grandparents had been moved to Camp Minidoka in Idaho from Washington when he was two years old.
Years later, Shimomura inherited his grandmother’s diary, where she had recorded holidays and other events that took place while his family was at the camp. Shimomura translated these memories into a series of comic book-like prints incorporating people in traditional Japanese dress with familiar Western images.
“He used images of the geisha, or a Japanese samurai, and he’d make a linear drawing, then fill it in with flat color,” Newman said. “Then he’d intertwine these cultural images with everyday people in the camp.”
Shimomura also inserted figures from Western pop culture into his prints Superman, Mickey Mouse and other recognizable characters.
The pictures were memorable for Newman, who described one depicting an internment camp birthday celebration.
“There was a birthday cake, and a little boy sitting on a chair looking at it, and it’s like you’re looking at it through barbed wire,” Newman said, sketching out a rough representation of the image on a scrap of paper. “In the window behind the little boy, you could see the silhouette of a guard.”
In another of Shimomura’s pieces, a woman in traditional Japanese dress faces a boy wearing the typical casual clothing of contemporary Western children.
The prints elicited in Newman a feeling of pity for the Japanese families uprooted and moved to this prison-like camp in rural Idaho. He and Shimomura discussed what it had been like there, but for the most part it was a distant fact that didn’t really affect Newman personally.
What really interested Newman, as an artist, was the type of work Shimomura was doing the compositions’ linear qualities and Japanese styles. He was excited about it and told his mother about Shimomura’s prints. Her reaction surprised him.
“She said we had an internment camp in Rohwer, where I’d lived as a very young child,” Newman said.
He was now faced with a somewhat difficult situation. He felt the need to deal artistically with this unexpected connection to the past, but at the same time he didn’t want to take away from Shimomura’s project.
“That was his thing, but then it became my thing too,” Newman said.
For years, the desire to put that past on paper tugged at Newman. He had always been interested in the Delta area of Arkansas and its unique blues music. He’d eavesdrop on his mother and grandmother when they sat on the front porch and talked about growing up in the Delta.
Shimomura had created prints based on the life of Japanese internees at the camp. Newman said he couldn’t speak to that situation, because he wasn’t Japanese and hadn’t been an internee. But what about the people like him, who had lived in Rohwer when the Japanese were sent there? How were Rohwer and its inhabitants changed by the influx of internees?
“I want to deal with that time, when blacks were in the area with the Japanese,” Newman said.
About five years ago, he started his research into the Rohwer internment camp. He took a sabbatical and visited Rohwer about once a week in the fall of 2002, shooting videos and taking photos of people to whom he talked. He interviewed Rosalie Santine Gould, who was mayor of the nearby town of McGehee from 1983 to 1995 and who has been collecting artifacts from the camp since the 1950s. Newman also talked to a former internment camp schoolteacher and other people from the Rohwer area.
Newman hopes to create artwork that reflects the lifestyle in Rohwer during that time period. How people lived, how they entertained themselves, what kind of music they listened to, and what their day-to-day life was like. He plans to include photos and artifacts in his exhibit, and set the scene by playing the music that was popular in the Delta at the time.
Newman’s task has been challenging. Much of the published information about Rohwer deals with the internment camp, not the community itself. Newman located about 200 photos of the camp and couldn’t find one black person in any of the pictures. He is now searching through old area newspaper collections to find media photographs from the time.
“I’m shooting for photographs from black newspapers, from 1942 to 1945, to see the way people dressed and what they were doing then,” Newman said.
Many people have moved away from the Rohwer area since the internment camp closed. Newman relies on writings, newspapers, interviews and stories he’s heard from family members for much of his information.
Former McGehee mayor Gould has been a wealth of information to Newman. She moved to the Rohwer area from Tiller, about seven miles north of McGehee, in 1949. She has dedicated much of her time to collecting artifacts from the time of the internment camp and has been instrumental in helping it earn historical status.
“I was at the University of Arkansas when the Japanese-Americans came to Rohwer,” she said. “I didn’t know anything about them; nobody did. People didn’t know why they were there, if they were prisoners of war or what.”
Gould describes the Rohwer of the time as simply a widespread community of farmers and sharecroppers, most of whom survived on their own crops, hogs or cattle on 40 to 60 acre tracts. Some made money selling cotton or soybeans.
The people of Rohwer worked hard from dawn to dusk, with no time for recreation or diversion, according to Gould. They didn’t have electricity, running water, telephones or a sewer system. They had to ration their resources, including gas, so they couldn’t drive to McGehee for recreation even if they’d had the time.
In contrast, the federal government hurried to provide the incoming internees with telephone service, running water, sewers and even fresh fruits and vegetables from other cities such as Little Rock.
Despite these incongruities, the internees had a good relationship with the Rohwer community.
“The Japanese-Americans were given quite a bit of land on which to raise vegetables,” she said. “They used them in the camp and also provided Camp Robinson and the Veteran’s Hospital in Little Rock with vegetables they raised.”
The internees also taught the Rohwer farmers to irrigate and introduced them to different vegetables they’d never seen before, such as eggplant.
The Japanese-Americans were allowed out any time they wanted, according to Gould, while white people actually had to have passes to get into the camp. It operated just like a city, complete with hospitals, churches, nurses, doctors and a school.
“The young people would go out and camp on the Arkansas Rivers with the Boy Scouts,” Gould said. “They played football and basketball with the Caucasian children and would go swimming.”
The children in the camp’s school put on plays and excelled at art. They carved and painted little birds and other animals that they would use to decorate their clothes. Gould has collected about 30 of the pieces, as well as nearly 200 paintings done by high school students at the camp.
“I also have over 100 autobiographies written by the eleventh and twelfth graders,” she said. “They’re fascinating to read.”
Since Gould started collecting artifacts from the internment camp, her home has become a sort of museum to the former internees. They arrive by the busload, two or three families at a time, to look into their pasts. Most of them were children when they were put in the internment camp.
“Those kids didn’t really seem to have worried about it too much at the time. They adapted to where they were going,” Gould said. “As long as they could play, they were content.”
She has two or three guestbooks full of the names of former internees who have visited her.
“They are the most gracious people in the world, so thankful that they are remembered,” Gould said. “It kind of breaks your heart, because they’re trying to say thank you, and I want to say, ‘Shoot, I’m the one who’s reaping all the benefit, making such good friends with these people.'”
In contrast to the people of Rohwer, the Japanese internees came from urban areas of California or Washington and were better off financially than most of the black sharecroppers. Their arrival was a boon to the nearby town of McGehee, with a population of about 4,000. They helped boost McGehee’s economy by spending their money at its shops and businesses.
“The Japanese people looked pretty sharp for those days,” Newman said. “You could tell they had more money, because when the little store would open, we had to hurry there before the Japanese could come buy all the candy.”
Financial status didn’t mean much in the internment camp, however. The internees lived in desperate conditions on about 600 acres in a wooded, swampy area of Desha County in southeastern Arkansas. The camp consisted of 51 blocks with about 300 people per block. Each block contained 14 residential barracks, a mess hall, recreational building, laundry and bathroom building. The barracks measured 120 feet long and about 20 feet wide. The recreational buildings were used for judo, boxing, weaving and other activities.
The Japanese had the opportunity to find work outside the camp picking peaches or doing other labor. Many of the adults were in their early 20s and welcomed the chance to leave the camp, even if it meant sweating out the day toiling in the Delta. Cars came to transport those who wanted to work.
Newman compares the lack of freedom of the internment camp experience to being in the military.
“When I was in the military, you could walk around on the base and go out on Fridays, but you were still tied to the base,” he said. “That’s how the Japanese were. They were never really free to do what they wanted.”
His uncle told Newman the story of a black man who married a Japanese woman before the war. When she was put into the Rohwer internment camp, her husband traveled to Arkansas to see his wife. He was forced to sit outside the fence surrounding the camp until the guards would allow him to see her.
Segregation took a unique turn with the arrival of the Japanese. The whites and blacks already attended their own separate schools, and now a new school was built just for the internees. The school was so well built that the white students moved into it after the Japanese left in 1945.
Most of the Japanese internees returned to their previous homes in larger cities or on the coast when the internment camp closed.
Nearly 50 years later, many former internees return to Rohwer to remember those who died and were buried in the community while they were at the camp. Several monuments have been erected to remind residents and visitors of the camp’s historical significance.
All that marks the spot now is 24 graves in a cemetery at the south end and an abandoned smoke stack on the north end, where the hospital once stood. Four monuments remind visitors who once lived there. The homes built for the Japanese were sold and hauled off to provide housing for others in the region after the camp was closed.
Newman’s trips to Rohwer and the Delta region have been meaningful to him in more than just a historical way. He has driven over the levy where his mother stood and looked down at the very land where his family members used to live.
“I saw where my cousins lived and my grandma’s house, just on the other side of the levy,” Newman said. “It was one of the few times I’d been there since left as a child.”
Rohwer Japanese-American Internment Camp opened on September 18, 1942 and housed internees until the last ones left on November 13, 1945. At its peak, the camp held 8,475 Japanese-Americans. One of the monuments recognizes 31 men from the Rohwer Camp who were killed fighting for America in World War II in the 442 Regiment, while their families waited behind in the camp. The camp also has been designated a National Landmark, thanks to hard work by Gould. Only one other former internment camp ­ Manzanar Camp in California ­ has been designated a National Landmark.
The University of Arkansas at Little Rock is working in conjunction with the Japanese-American National Museum in Los Angeles to raise awareness of the two internment camps in Arkansas. They have helped put together a textbook to be used in the curriculum at every Arkansas school this year.
The Rohwer Japanese-American Internment Camp also was home to some familiar names, including George Takei, an original member of the Star Trek series. Takei, who was three when his family was taken to Rohwer, wrote about the experience in his autobiography.
Professional ice-skater Kristi Yamaguchi’s grandparents were held at the Rohwer camp as well. Two famous artists, Ruth Asawa and Henry Sumimoto, also spent time at the Rohwer camp.
While Newman has learned a lot about the Japanese-American internees, he still has much information to gather about the people who lived in Rohwer during that time. His work was featured in an exhibit in the Ann Kitrell Art Gallery on September 18, around the same time his former advisor, Shimomura, will exhibit his art.
- Life Interrupted
- A More Perfect Union
- Japanese-American National Museum
- Japanese-American Internment Camps During WWII – University of Utah Library
- The National Archives
- The Truman Presidential Museum and Library
- Virtual Museum of the City of San Francisco
- The United States Army – The Decision to Evacuate the Japanese from the Pacific Coast