During World War II more than 100,000 Japanese-Americans who had done nothing wrong, but were deemed a threat to the United States, were housed in internment camps. Two of the 10 camps were located in Arkansas. An exhibit opening Friday night in Little Rock helps to visualize the experience by showing artwork created by those held at the Rohwer Relocation Center in southeast Arkansas.
The American Dream Deferred: Japanese American Incarceration in WWII Arkansas is being hosted by the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies. In addition to works of art, it also features many handwritten autobiographies.
"A lot of these were young people who were in high school in California and then suddenly they’re uprooted and put on a train and shipped halfway across the country," says David Stricklin, manager of the Butler Center. "They were civilian prisoners of war in their own country, so to speak, so those autobiographies are very poignant because they were young people. They were just trying to be American teenagers and now they’re essentially in this stark situation."
The exhibit, which runs through June 24, is the first in a series of four over the next two years focusing on different facets of life in the camp.
The Rohwer camp had its own community structure with a school system, police department and mayor. The school's art teacher was Jamie Vogel, who was given many works after the camp closed at the end of the war.
"This art is fantastic and it illustrates the experience these people had in this place in Arkansas. I can’t image going from California to Arkansas," says Kim Sanders, who is the confinement sites interpreter for the Butler Center.
The artwork was created using whatever mediums were available for those housed in the camp, including random pieces of wood. Some depict the work detainees were subjected to.
"In the paintings and the artwork you can see that it was really swampy. And they actually used a lot of Japanese-American detainee labor to clear those swamps that are now farmland and some of the things that we got out of that were these wonderful cypress knee carvings. We have a few of those in the collection and just really beautiful paintings and drawings that just show what they experienced while they were there," Sanders says.
Stricklin says the collection of artwork – believed to be the largest from any of the 10 internment camps in the country – is largely thanks to Rosalie Gould, who for 12 years was mayor of the nearby town of McGehee.
"During the course of her leadership there in Desha County (she) became aware of the fact that the camp at Rohwer was kind of disappearing," Stricklin says. "Most of the site now is a big soybean field, but there’s a cemetery there, there are a couple of monuments. So Rosalie wanted to preserve that; became a champion of the camp. In the course of that she met Jaime Vogel, the former art teacher, and Jaime had this very large collection, several hundred pieces of art from the camp and all these documents about day-to-day life in the camp. And when Jaime died, Rosalie was kind of astonished to learn that she had inherited this entire collection."
Former Mayor Gould says her interest grew as Japanese-Americans who had been housed at the camp started making regular visits to the area.
"I have had busload after busload of former internees who would come here to the site, and of course I would treat them to lunch and visit with them, and they would bring me their treasures. So it just started accumulating and accumulating and finally I realized I had to do something with it because I’ve had almost 3,000 who have been here to my home and it had just gotten to where it was a little bit more than I really needed to, you know, cope with, so that’s the reason it went to the Butler Center."
She donated her collection, with some of those works being displayed in this exhibit. The collection is noteworthy too because several hundred men from the Rohwer camp became part of the U.S. Army's 442nd Regimental Combat Team, which was a highly decorated combat unit that fought for the U.S.
The exhibit runs Friday through June 24 at the Butler Center Galleries, 401 President Clinton Avenue in Little Rock. Galleries are open 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. You can learn more about the exhibit here.
The project was funded, in part, by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program.