Camp Amache is now officially commemorated, finally
Sometimes, even as a cynical columnist, you find yourself driven to write about something really good, something amazing, something – OK, I don’t want to get carried away here, because this story also has the opposition , expected setbacks and struggle – it highlights the fact that, contrary to what you might hear on some cable TV channels, history and truth still matter, especially history that is not hand-picked or that doubles as nationalist propaganda.
So yes, the often solitary quest for the truth can still yield results, even in a remote area of southeastern Colorado where a shameful and almost forgotten WWII Japanese internment site now stands, after years wrestling, recognized as a National Historic Landmark and under the National Park Service.
It’s a momentous week, with Saturday having been the 80th anniversary of what’s known as Memorial Day, when Executive Order 2066 was signed – by progressive President Franklin Roosevelt – which led to the internment of 120,000 Japanese Americans living near the West Coast, losing almost everything, being torn from their communities, living behind barbed wire and with armed guards ready in case anyone tries to escape.
I don’t need to tell you what that means today, when historical truth is often found at odds with the blinded anti-CRT crowd, many of whom believe white people are the prime victims of racism. And with the battle waged by new DougCo 4 so-called reformed school board members who want Colorado and American history taught as an inexorable fight for good and justice and will fire a dedicated superintendent and almost universally respected and teachers still have to worry about the possible repercussions.
And, above all, the truth must overcome the often cynical and opportunistic attempt by many to label those who insist on teaching American history with warts, with America’s pride taught alongside its shame, as un-Americans, traitors and worse. If you don’t believe me, get a US history book taught in Texas.
At least Colorado — or parts of it away from the Douglas County School Board — is doing its part. Camp Amache will join nearby Sand Creek as historic sites that show an America not afraid to face its failures. These things matter. It matters that after a few hiccups, the bill was passed unanimously by both houses of Congress and is now awaiting the President’s signature. It matters that this achievement was driven not just by survivors and descendants, but by a 30-year project in a small school in Granada.
At a time when momentum tends to ignore unpleasant historical truths – from a Civil War fought over slavery, to the genocide and betrayal of Native Americans, to, yes, the internment without the benefit of trial of Americans Japanese descent, most of whom were American citizens — here is a man who fights for truth and for memory. And who says, “When a book is banned by a school, I go out and buy a copy.”
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So, this is John Hopper, the dean of students at tiny Granada High on the Eastern Plains, whose work with his students for some 30 years has helped keep alive – working with camp survivor organizations and their descendants – the memory of Camp Amache. In case you never heard about it in school, the camp was a quarter mile from the city of Grenada, where Japanese Americans were incarcerated for the crime of their appearance. It was an official and national racist policy.
In 1992, as a budding young history professor fresh out of Colorado State University, Hopper knew there was more to teaching, he says now, than “delegating to students to read pages 220 to 250, then answer five questions about what you read. He was looking for a “living history” project, and he knew of one, Camp Amache. Hopper grew up 60 miles from there in Las Animas and had heard of the camp, officially called Granada War Relocation Center, which had interned 7,500 Japanese Americans.
So, Hopper went to the superintendent of the school system at the time and asked if anyone at Granada High had ever tried to tackle Camp Amache. He was told no. And then he asked if it would be okay if he tried, and the answer was yes, and the yes came with a strong offer of support from the superintendent, who understood there would be objections from the part of some residents who just wanted to forget that the camp, demolished in 1945, had ever existed.
“We don’t want anyone to forget,” Hopper said. “It is important that we learn from our mistakes. This is one of the reasons we teach history. And now it’s really important again because of the anti-Asian hatred that we see now. COVID is one of them, and over the past two years COVID has made everything we try to do even more difficult.
It’s hard to imagine all the hard work that has gone into this. Grenada welcomes students from kindergarten to 12th grade, and its high school has 61 students this year, which is a good year. Recruiting students to help Amache meant getting them excited about the project.
Some years there were 10 or 12 students. Some years there would be four. The square kilometer site requires grounds maintenance, guard tower coloring, road maintenance, and that’s just the beginning. Now that Amache is an official site, there will be more recognition, but also more money and more help to maintain the site.
There have been years of research, research that is still ongoing, the acquisition of artefacts from the camps, the relocation of the original water towers and remnants of other buildings to the site. And, of course, there are the camp tours and presentations, which they give a lot of, all the way from Colorado to Japan, yes. And with the cooperation of Japanese organizations and survivors who made sure they understood the story – a story that changed the lives of the internees, who were betrayed by the country they had adopted – they continued year after year.
“It was all student-run,” Hopper said Thursday night when I caught him after administering a basketball game in Granada. He does not just administer. He also teaches six classes.
“When we started, the kids, even though they grew up a quarter mile away, didn’t know anything about camp,” Hopper recalls. “We had to start over from the beginning. Now we are recruiting from all four high school classes, with the seniors being the ones doing the reviewing and programming. These children were wonderful, intelligent and resourceful. Some of them come back after graduating. I just drive them.
And then there was one day, very early in the project, when Hopper got a call from a Japanese woman. The students had sent out questionnaires to all the survivors and descendants of the camp they could find.
“You must have been given a questionnaire,” Hopper told her, recalling the conversation. “No,” she said, “but we have one, and we passed it around, and I was elected to tell you about it.”
“They were suspicious of the project, as I guess they should have been,” Hopper told me. “I thought, ‘Uh, oh, what did I get myself into? “”
He was worried that the questionnaire, or perhaps the whole project, had seemed somewhat insensitive. They talked for a while, then the woman, who represented a Japanese historical organization, said she wanted to talk to a student to see what the children were learning.
“I sent for a student named Rene, and they talked for a long time,” Hopper recalls. And then they sent representatives from LA, Chicago, Denver to watch us. I learned a valuable lesson that day. It’s hard to say no to a high school student, but much easier to say no to a teacher. So, when we needed something, it was the students who made the requests.
And during a virtual panel discussion on Friday, showcasing the senses. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and Reps. Ken Buck and Joe Neguse, who led the bipartisan fight over the bills, the most compelling stories, of course, came from survivors and their descendants who told of life in the encampments.
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One, Ken Kitajima, 91, of Evergreen, Colorado, spoke about life after the Pearl Harbor bombing and the racism he and his sister faced at school and on school buses, where they were called – and you can still hear the pain in his voice – racial slurs day after day.
They stopped using the buses and walked home, but were still harassed and once begged their father to take them out of school. Their father replied, in Japanese, “No”.
And then they were moved, with only two weeks notice, and only allowed to take what they could take to an internment camp and eventually to Camp Amache.
Kitajima noted that when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, Roosevelt called it a day of infamy. But for Kitajima, he said, “I personally call February 19, 1942 (when Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066) the real day of infamy.”
And we know, of course, how few Americans know anything about the order to send Japanese Americans to camps. And, worse, we know those who want us to forget this history and teach that America has always stood for justice and justice.
This is when Hopper now not only teaches history but also current affairs, which of course is a landmine. In some places, parents are told to report teachers who they think might be teaching something their children shouldn’t hear about America.
“I don’t understand,” Hopper told me. “Actually, I understand. And I know that when I teach it, even my brilliant students have so little idea what’s going on. I tell them not to believe everything they read and hear, not even from me. I teach them to do their own research. I teach them to trust reason and science.
And 30 years after beginning his teaching career, Hopper can now tell his students that reason and science, truth and justice, sometimes against all odds, can still matter.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He’s covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions, and countless mind-numbing speeches in the snow of New Hampshire and Iowa.
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