Ten weeks after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, condemning 120,000 Japanese Americans to internment camps.
The government built 10 large, barbed-wire camps and dozens of similar installations west of the Mississippi. From March 1942 to March 1946, young and old lived crowded together in the hastily built camps, enduring poor living conditions and under the constant gaze of military guards. In the meantime, 33,000 Japanese American men risked their lives fighting for the U.S.
Four of the camps were in New Mexico.
The New Mexico History Museum is hosting “Righting a Wrong: Japanese Americans and World War II,” a traveling exhibition from the National Museum of American History, adapted by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service. The show will run through Dec. 31.
“Righting a Wrong” examines immigration, prejudice, civil rights, heroism and what it means to be an American. The exhibition explores this complex history through photographs, personal stories and objects from those imprisoned at the camps.
A duffle bag used by the Imada family when they were relocated to the Gila River camp in Arizona reveals the edict to bring only what they could carry. Takeo Shirasawa’s 1943 high school diploma from the Poston camp in Arizona exemplifies the experience of thousands of teenagers forced to finish high school in the camps.
The New Mexico Japanese internment camps were located in Santa Fe, Fort Stanton, Lordsburg and the Old Raton Ranch in Lincoln County. The largest, the Santa Fe camp, jailed more than 4,500 prisoners between March 1942 and April 1946.
Curator Cathy Notarnicola borrowed a Jerry West painting of the Santa Fe camp from the New Mexico Museum of Art. A 2009 oil on canvas, it shows an areal view of the site from a hill, the buildings set in rows like dice, complete with barbed wire and prison guards.
“His father was a prison guard during World War II,” Notarnicola said. “Jerry West used to visit his father at the internment camp.”
“There was fear that there would be more attacks and that Japanese American citizens were a threat,” Notarnicola continued. “There was already anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. There was one man who died in the camps who had been (in the U.S.) for 39 years. It was pure racism.”
“You had maybe a couple days notice,” Notarnicola said. “You had a short time to get rid of your house and business. People either sold everything or left everything behind. You lost everything.”
They all had to wear ID tags, as shown in Dorothea Lange’s 1942 photograph of the Mochida family, who were forced to abandon their two-acre nursery and greenhouse operation in California.
The exhibit also showcases items made in the camps – a walking stick carved from a cactus branch, an ashtray fashioned from a tin can, a corsage made of shells to resemble flowers.
Some 40 years later, members of the Japanese American community led the nation to confront the wrong it had done. The U.S. Congress formally recognized that the rights of the Japanese American community had been violated and President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, providing an apology and $20,000 in restitution to the living Japanese Americans who were imprisoned during World War II.
“It doesn’t talk about what people experienced when they left the camp,” Notarnicola said. “There was still anti-Asian discrimination. They had trouble finding jobs and housing.”
One rental house sign read “No Japs.”