Cal State Campuses Preserving Painful Piece of U.S. History - Higher Education
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Cal State Campuses Preserving Painful Piece of U.S. History

by Lydia Lum

Japanese Americans outside of one of the structures at an internment camp during World War II. (Photo courtesy of California State University Japanese American Digitization Project)

Japanese Americans outside of one of the structures at an internment camp during World War II. (Photo courtesy of California State University Japanese American Digitization Project)

Thanks to a National Park Service grant, the archives of 15 California State University campuses are collaborating to digitize about 10,000 documents and 100-plus oral histories connected to the incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II.

A two-year, Park Service grant of $321,000 was awarded recently to Cal State Dominguez Hills, the lead institution for the CSU Japanese American Digitization Project. The Park Service grant is the federal agency’s latest effort to support historically significant Asian American and Pacific Islander events and people.

The Cal State project will make materials widely available on a university-sponsored website. It will also produce a teaching guide and a traveling exhibit tracing the shameful story of how the U.S. government forcibly imprisoned about 120,000 people based solely on their ancestry.

“This significant part of our history can be studied for generations to come,” says Greg Williams, director of archives and special collections at Dominguez Hills.

Many Cal State campuses are near Japanese American communities and the former internment camps. In recent decades, college libraries and history departments have collected first-person accounts, personal belongings, media and manuscripts related to the mass incarceration.

One of the most disgraceful chapters of U.S. history began in the aftermath of Japan’s bombing of Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Amid the ensuing hysteria and xenophobia, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which singled out Americans of Japanese descent. The order called for curfews and mass removal of Japanese Americans from their homes, workplaces and schools, mostly along the West Coast.

By 1942, Japanese Americans were herded into government-run, makeshift camps in remote areas, surrounded by fences and armed guards. This included an estimated 250 Japanese American students who were forced to drop out of Cal State. Unable to resume their studies after the war, they took whatever jobs they could find in order to help their families and replace homes and possessions that were lost while they were stuck in the camps.

In 2009, Cal State’s governing board decided to recognize the academic aspirations of these students by awarding them special honorary degrees.

The types of internment-related items at each campus archive vary.

At Dominguez Hills, for example, the collection includes letters from Japanese Americans who inquired about job prospects in 1945, the year the war ended.

Meanwhile, Fresno State possesses oral histories of San Joaquin Valley residents who were incarcerated at the camps as well as architectural drawings for an assembly center that housed Japanese Americans prior to their transfer to one of the camps. The university also houses the papers of a Japanese American poet along with documents related to her activism in the eventual redress movement that resulted in President Reagan issuing a formal, public apology in 1988 to all Japanese Americans who had been incarcerated and government payments of about $20,000 to each of the surviving individuals.

At San José State University, the collection includes newspaper clippings, posters, administrative manuals and other documents connected to the War Relocation Authority, an agency that oversaw the network of camps and the long-term imprisonment of Japanese Americans. Sonoma State University’s collection features photos of daily life at Camp Amache in Colorado. Dr. Robert Fuchigami, a retired education professor, was among those incarcerated there.

The Park Service grant financing the Cal State digitization endeavor is one of 20 totaling more than $2.8 million to support preservation and interpretation of the physical sites where Japanese Americans were imprisoned.

Park Service director Jonathan B. Jarvis called the incarceration sites “poignant reminders that we must always be vigilant in upholding civil liberties for all. These grants help us share valuable lessons on the fragility of our constitutional rights.”

Aside from Cal State, librarians at the University of California, Berkeley, are working on a virtual archive of its holdings of War Relocation Authority records — the largest repository of those records outside of the National Archives. Currently, the records are dispersed throughout the university library system. Supported by a $296,000 Park Service grant, the project will ease users’ discovery and access processes.

Elsewhere, another Park Service grant finances the preservation of a Wyoming root cellar where imprisoned Japanese Americans had stored fruit and vegetables during their ordeal. And another grant supports the University of Central Arkansas production of theatrical performances based on stories from the incarceration experience. The performances are the centerpiece of educational events such as public lectures, readings and high school outreach.

Although the Park Service has chosen to fight social injustice against Asian Americans by supporting research and historical preservation, it has also taken steps to recover, preserve and promote the stories of largely unrecognized Asian Americans from long ago.

Earlier this year, the Park Service produced a book titled Asians and Pacific Islanders and the Civil War. It is based on work by researchers, historians and writers who identified several hundred soldiers and sailors of Asian and Pacific Island descent who served in the war. The book profiles the once-forgotten individuals who fought and sometimes died for a nation in which they faced constant discrimination in daily life.

Anglicized and ambiguous names and haphazard documentation made it difficult to locate these men and confirm their ethnicity.

 

Among the servicemen featured in the book are:

 

  • Cpl. Joseph Pierce, who, under intense fire, volunteered to help his unit take the Bliss Farm, which stood on ground that ended up being between Union and Confederate lines. The outcome of the battle contributed to the Union victory at Gettysburg.
  • Conjee Rustumjee Cohoujee Bey, an India-born sailor who served on the USS Louisville, capturing and sinking Confederate ships.
  • Hawaiian sailor James Wood Bush, who served aboard the USS Beauregard, a captured Confederate schooner commandeered to serve the Union as part of the naval blockade of ports in the South.
  • Pacific Islanders on the USS Santiago de Cuba, who were among the first to volunteer in the dangerous mission to storm Fort Fisher in North Carolina.

 

Carol Shively, the book’s editor and a Park Service professional, has alerted groups such as the Association for Asian American Studies in recent months about the published work in order to boost its inclusion in college courses.

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