Thursday, December 10, 2015

Rohwer Remembered In the Fallow Field.

The Rohwer War Relocation Center in the southern part of the Arkansas Delta marks a place in time where a horrible injustice took place.  Recent efforts have brought the cemetery, a National Historic Landmark, up to notice, and a restoration has taken place.

But this place still haunts.

Even when fall fades to winter, the wind blows here.  It sighs.

In the middle of a fallow field over a former rail levee, sits a wooded patch.  A lone gravel road crosses this field, and past the shadows of old trees, surrounded by crepe myrtles, lies most of what remains of the Rohwer Relocation Center.

A cemetery.

This is not our first visit.  Grav Weldon and I came here five and a half years ago to document the remnants of Rohwer, the last of the World War II Japanese-American internment camps closed.  This place... matters.

The patch is tiny, and without interpretation it's not easy to picture the true extent of what Rohwer once was.  Ten thousand acres of abandoned farmland purchased a decade earlier by the Farm Security Administration was allocated in 1942 to the War Relocation Authority, which then turned to the Army Corps of Engineers to drain the swampy fields and construct what would eventually become a village of 36 residential blocks bordered by barbed wire and railroad tracks on 500 acres at its heart.

Rohwer, like nearby Jerome and eight other such centers in six other states, would by September of 1942 take in thousands of Japanese-Americans who had been forcibly relocated there from California.  For three years, it would be home to these families and individuals, in one of the saddest chapters of our American history.

The site, like most of the other former camps, would barely be remembered these days except for community efforts to keep this one place up, and for its connection to a man who's become a hero to many of us.  That man is George Takei.  I've spoken of him before.  I've had the privilege of meeting him a few times here and there... the last time a few years ago, right on this very ground.

Takei was just five years old when he and his family were brought here by train.  The Takeis spent about a year here before being shipped to the Tule Lake Relocation Center in far northern California, but the time here made its impression.

Recently, Takei's experiences have made it to the stage, with his project Allegiance, a musical based on that period concerning the relocation of 100,000 Japanese-Americans during World War II to these camps (I hope to see it someday).  And in 2013, he returned to the area, first for the dedication of the World War II Japanese-American Internment Museum in nearby McGehee...

and then for the dedication of the informational kiosks that now interpret the Rohwer site for all visitors.

I was stooped next to Grav when he took this image.  It is most likely the most famous image he's ever taken... and it somehow captures that moment, the gravitas and beauty and sadness of a simple butterfly release.

The attention to Rohwer has increased over the years, with an exhibit and with Takei's speeches and the new museum at McGehee.  But this place... this place still haunts.

However, instead of the pools of stagnant water and monuments in disrepair we encountered those many years ago, Rohwer's cemetery is now clean and restored.  Through grants from the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program, the cemetery and its stones have been stabilized, and the original monuments crafted by internees at the camp appear as they once did, with efforts made to recreate every detail.  One more phase, to restore the original layout and plantings for the site, is planned.

August 2010
December 2015

The University of Arkansas at Little Rock has created a virtual documentation online for the project. Rohwer Restored was made possible by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, for the preservation and interpretation of U.S. confinement sites where Japanese-Americans were detained during World War II.

The kiosks, for which Takei provided narration, are located at the entrance to the field in a small scale replica of one of the guard towers, and along the road that outlines the cemetery and garden space beyond.

The wind, it still blows this time of year and leaves the trees sighing against the silence.  But Mr. Takei's voice shares the memories of what happened here, and what should never happen again.

Please, take a look through the photographs to see the improvements.  And consider a trip to the southern end of the Arkansas Delta.  Start at the World War II Japanese-American Internment Museum at McGehee and then venture northeast along Arkansas Highway 1 until you come to the Rohwer community.

August 2010

December 2015

For more information, visit the Rohwer Heritage Site website operated by Arkansas State University.

1 comment:

  1. Nice writeup. My daughter and I stopped there a few years ago while we were on a road trip to somewhere else. Looks like they did a good job on the restoration work. Nice to see that.


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