What happens when fear overwhelms the better angels of America? When obsession with national security conquers our constitutional commitment to personal liberty? When hysterical stereotype defeats peaceful reality?
The answers are found on a windy prairie 180 miles southeast of Colorado Springs. Standing amid the ruins of Amache Internment Center delivers a sobering reminder that, yes, we can lose our way.
From 1942 to 1945, as many as 7,597 Japanese-Americans were crammed in a square mile of barracks at a level of congestion 50 percent greater than New York City. Barbed-wire fences and watchtowers with armed guards surrounded the camp.
“We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal,” Thomas Jefferson wrote, with editing help from Benjamin Franklin. It’s a passage that rises to American Scripture.
At Amache, those Truths were trashed. The prisoners were forced to depart homes and businesses along the West Coast after President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed infamous Executive Order 9066 on Feb. 19, 1942, in response to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. Many Japanese-Americans lost everything, including faith in a just America. Approximately 120,000 Japanese-Americans were forced into camps scattered across the West and Southwest.
The groundless and reckless idea was to put fences around a perceived problem that wasn’t a genuine problem. After the humiliation of Pearl Harbor, Japanese-Americans on the West Coast were seen as security threats instead of what they were, devoted citizens and assets.
Amache’s barbed-wire fences were removed when the last prisoners departed in October 1945, but the long, ugly shadows of those fences remain to infuriate and inspire us into being better today than we were yesterday.
Destiny Vega is a senior at Granada High School, enrollment 51. She and fellow students led me last week on a tour of the Amache Museum on U.S. 50. The museum brings to life the suffering and resilience of the prisoners.
“We should spread awareness that the U.S. has a trend of being intolerant to different ethnic groups,” Vega says.
“That’s the whole reason we study history in our schools is to learn from our mistakes, and that’s what we’re learning at Amache, where Americans were so unjustly incarcerated basically for no other reason than paranoia.
“It’s still very relevant today.”
John Hopper serves as dean of students at Granada High. He grew up in Las Animas, 55 miles west, with a vague sense of the history of Amache. When he arrived at Granada to teach history in 1990, he grew fascinated with the site and its story and, with the aid of dozens of students over the years, helped transport this troubling story from yesterday to today.
“Like any government, we’ve made some pretty big mistakes and this is one of the bigger ones,” Hopper says. “You should not be able, with an executive order, to take citizens’ rights away from them and take their property and round them up and make them move. You can’t . . .”
“You shouldn’t be able to do that.”
Fueled by the enthusiasm of Hopper and Granada students, the Amache site has grown into more than ruins. The square-mile is dominated by bare concrete foundations, but a restored barracks, water tower, guard tower and cemetery on the southern edge of the camp give visitors a taste of the life endured by their fellow Americans.
Prisoners slept on Army cots, and entire families lived in 20-by-20-foot rooms. The barracks had no toilets, which forced prisoners to walk through wind and snow to communal latrines. Privacy did not exist.
“It looked like a prison camp for innocent people,” Amache teacher June Beggs McGrath said after her first glimpse of Amache.
This is not only a sad story. The Amache Museum reveals how prisoners found joy far from home on the Colorado prairie. In 1943, the camp’s football team defeated a previously unbeaten Holly High team that included future governor Roy Romer. The same year, farmers at the prison raised 3 million pounds of produce. Artists created haunting images, on display at the museum, of a resilient, thriving-despite-adversity community in this vacant land.
Still, a haunting message shouts across the decades, even as you stand in the quiet of these flatland ruins.
“The lesson is to not let history repeat itself,” says Josh Vaca, a Granada senior. “Racism is not dead, it’s there, and if we keep acting the way we are now, then history will repeat itself.”
In her 1943 graduation speech, Amache valedictorian Marion Konishi offered a rapid tour of American racial sins. The nation, she said, “hounded and harassed” Native Americans and “enslaved” blacks.
But, Konishi said, the nation consistently “repented.” After each mistake, “she has learned.”
As you read her next few words of stubborn faith, remember Konishi was unjustly imprisoned and speaking to the unjustly imprisoned. She spoke while in forced exile, far from her West Coast home.
“Can we the graduating class of Amache Senior High School believe that America still means freedom, equality, security and justice? Do I believe this? Do my classmates believe this?
“Yes, with all our hearts.”
After departing Amache, this question lingers:
Do we deserve her faith?