Bringing history to life and making it accessible to future generations.
A farm field 12 miles from the city of McGehee in southeast Arkansas seems like an unlikely place to find a reminder of a painful chapter in 20th century American history. But there, at the end of a gravel road, is a small cemetery ringed by crepe myrtles and concrete posts, just 24 headstones and four monuments. An inscription on the tallest monument reads, “May the people of Arkansas keep in beauty and reverence forever this ground where our bodies sleep.”
This is the site of the Rohwer Relocation Center, one of 10 World War II internment camps, and two in Arkansas, built to house Japanese Americans forced from their homes on the West Coast after Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in December, 1942. Time has almost erased the memory of this place. The cemetery and a smokestack from the camp laundry are all that remain, small islands of concrete in the middle of cotton and soybean fields.
The stories of the people and the physical pieces left of Rohwer have been preserved through collaborative work by researchers from the University of Arkansas, Arkansas State University, the Central Arkansas Library System and the University of Arkansas at Little Rock.
The result of that work is a museum in McGehee and the Rising Above project, a digital reconstruction of the camp, as well as an extensive digital archives of letters, drawings and stories of Rohwer’s internees from the time of its operation.
“It is about relating what happened, the wrongs that befell a specific population of the United States,” said Kimball Erdman, a U of A associate professor of landscape architecture who partnered with the university’s Center for Advanced Spatial Technologies, better known as (CAST), to build the Rising Above website, which includes a digital version of the camp called Rohwer Reconstructed. “And of course, the hope that it will never happen again. It needs to be remembered.”
Forced to Move East
“Places like the museum and Rohwer camp exist to remind us of the dangers and fallibility of our democracy, which is only as strong as the adherence to our constitutional principles renders it. … Places like Rohwer matter, more than 70 years later. And so, we remember.”- George Takei, Huffington Post, 2013
The nearly 12,000 internees who lived and worked at the camp, and those who died there during its three years of operation, were never accused of any wrongdoing; they just happened to live on the West Coast and look like the people who attacked Pearl Harbor. They were stripped of their rights and forced to move to hastily arranged holding camps in the western United States –referred to as “assembly centers” –then packed onto trains with blacked-out windows for the days-long journey east to Arkansas, where they arrived to find tarpaper shacks in a swampy, mosquito-infested field surrounded by barbed wire and armed guards.
Among them was George Takei, who lived at the camp as a boy after his family was relocated from their home in Los Angeles. Takei later became an actor best known for playing Sulu in the original Star Trek series.
The people held in Rohwer made the best of a bad situation. They cut trees for firewood and tended vegetable gardens for food, published a newspaper, played softball, and went to school and church. Many young internees volunteered to serve in the U.S. Army’s all Japanese-American 442nd Combat Team, and 31 from Rohwer were killed in combat.
Relocation centers were ultimately deemed unnecessary and unconstitutional and the camp shut down in November, 1945. Internees were free to return to California or relocate wherever they wanted to go. Buildings were hauled off to be reused in nearby cities or scrapped, the land reverted to crops. By the late 1950s, the Rohwer cemetery was overgrown and deteriorating, the plea to maintain it “in beauty and reverence forever” forgotten. New generations grew up not even knowing the camp had been there.
Local efforts to restore the cemetery, or at least slow its decline, took place during the following decades. But it wasn’t until Congress established the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program, administered through the National Park Service, that the efforts had money behind them. In 2010, the three state universities, along with the Central Arkansas Library System, began a sustained campaign to preserve what little was left of Rohwer and honor the people held there by telling their stories.
In 2011, Erdman, partnered with researchers from CAST to document the cemetery. While CAST scanned the cemetery with crane-mounted lasers, creating a data-rich “point cloud” that would eventually become a 3D model, Erdman’s students used traditional survey and research methods to learn what they could about the monuments and headstones.
In Rohwer, Erdman saw both an educational opportunity and a chance to help preserve a vital piece of Arkansas history. It was work that should have started much sooner, he said.
“The condition was dire enough that it was listed as one of the most endangered historic landscapes in the state,” he said. “There was standing water around the monuments, cracks, water infiltration and some vandalism.”
Honoring the Past
Erdman and CAST researcher Angie Payne partnered again to build Rohwer Reconstructed, a web site featuring an online archive, timeline and interactive walkthrough of camp barracks and other facilities using video gaming software. Erdman’s students dug through hundreds of thousands of photos, blueprints, letters, art by internees, newspaper stories and even movies to create the site. CAST used the material to build interactive features that immerse viewers in camp life. The walkthrough, for example, is a virtual self-guided tour of the camp on a sunny summer day. It’s packed with historically accurate details –art on the walls created by internees themselves, crude wooden furniture, weeds in the gardens, sheets rustling in the breeze –that impart as complete a picture of camp life as is possible seven decades removed.
The wish carried through those decades on the tallest monument in the tiny cemetery 12 miles from McGehee is honored now more than ever. More importantly, perhaps, the message of Rohwer is accessible worldwide, to a new generation and generations to come.