In the spring of 2012 my youngest son Quillan and I headed south for spring break. We first went to Santa Cruz to visit friends. Despite being a bit warmer it rained nearly the entire time. The last day in the Cruz we had a small party as our host had other friends in town that day. Ready to find some warm dry weather Quillan and I left the following day for Barstow as a jumping off point for the Mojave and later Death Valley.
After wandering through the desert for several days it was time to start heading north. We headed out of Death Valley to pick 395 north to Reno. After reaching the highway we drove past a brown sign that said Manzanar 10 miles. I knew that name, though could not place it right at that moment. As we made those 10 miles north and then saw the guard tower west of the road the light bulb went off. It was one of the Japanese internment/concentration camps from the second world war and when I was in college I took a course that had a book on the reading list called “Farewell to Manazanar” by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. We had to stop.
The camp had been acquired by the US Park Service and they had built an interpretive center on the site of the auditorium. After the camp was closed the buildings were deconstructed and removed. The stone guardhouse at the entrance still remains and the guard tower and two barracks have been rebuilt to show the living conditions. Even though the original building were gone the concrete and the gardens remain along with detritus of daily life for the more than the 10,000 that were interned there between 1942 and 1945.
I was immediately taken by the energy of this place. There was a type of quiet that makes one pause and listen. And in the quiet much could be heard. Quillan and I wandered through the buildings and then across the expanses, through what would have been the gardens, foundation slabs of latrines and warehouses. Under foot broken pieces of bottles and ceramic dishes, nails and barbed wire. We found our way to a memorial for those who had died in the camp. We stayed for the rest of the afternoon until the early sunset from the nearby Sierras. I was emotionally spent after my time there that day. I knew I needed to come back.
After we got home I was talking to my friend in Santa Cruz and she asked about the rest of my trip. I told her about finding Manzanar and how taken I was by it. She laughed a moment and then said that the guy named Josh at the little party we had before Quillan and I had left their home, that his mother had written “Farewell to Manzanar”. Yes, a week before stumbling into the camp I had unknowingly been drinking beer with Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston’s son.
I was completely taken by my afternoon at Manzanar. There was a very sad, quiet energy there. A graveyard has a sense of finality and a the feeling of impermanence. But Manzanar lacked that kind of finality and instead murmured stories of confusion and transience, of stoic anger and disdain. I touched the stones in the gardens and felt those who were forced to be there. I returned to Manazar six months later for another day of photographing. In the end there would be a suite of 12 prints that represented those two visits.
The backbone of this extradition and the interment camps was created when Franklin D. Roosevelt sign Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942. By defining certain areas as “military zones” FDR authorized the Secretary of War to relocate anyone deemed as a potential threat. This was interpreted as basically any of the populated areas of the west coast. The ironic thing was while the army was rounding up those of Japanese ancestry up and down the west coast (nearly 122,000 in all) somehow on a few were detain in Hawaii where those of Japanese decent made up 40% of the population.
Here is the most egregious part: Of the 122,000 forcibly interned 70% (over 85,000) were US born and bonafide citizens of the United States. Let’s repeat this. The US War Department under the direction of Franklin D Roosevelt put 85,000 US citizens in concentration camps for three years after dislocating from their homes and businesses. This was ordered and signed by, who some consider, the champion of the modern democratic party, FDR. It wasn’t until Feb 19, 1976 that President Gerald Ford officially rescinded EO 9066.
In 1942 Fred Korematsu challenged EO 9066 by refusing to voluntarily allow himself to be sent to a concentration camp and was later arrested, not for subversion or treason but found guilty of violation of public law 503 which criminalized violations of EO 9066. So Fred and his family were sent to the Topaz, Utah concentration camp, not for treason, but because when he asked for due process the court simply said no and sent him to the camp for violating the order that denied him due process.
After making these 12 prints (not the ones in this blog post, but they are on the front page of this website) I hung them in my studio for several months and then they spent about three months at the UW Medical Center in Seattle. They have since been boxed up. Fred Korematsu spent the rest of his life fighting the unjust incarceration without due process that he and his family suffered under FDR’s EO 9066. Fred Korematsu day is celebrated on Jan 30th, Fred’s birthday, and in honor Fred Korematsu I will rehang the Manzanar prints for the February 3rd Artwalk at my studio in Anacortes.