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Outreach

Helping New Mexicans remember Japanese American camps

July 9, 2014

While working in New Mexico, Sarah Payne came to realize that most residents were not aware of a dark chapter in the state's history.

Sarah PayneNew Mexico, like many other states in the American West, was home to several Japanese American confinement sites. And Payne made it her goal to help educate New Mexicans about the camps and their impact on the state and those interned.

“It’s a disturbing part of our history,” said Payne, an assistant professor of history at Colorado State University. “There were several confinement sites in New Mexico, and there’s not anything left at any of them. That’s why we believe this project is important.”

Public Lands History Center project

Payne at CSU’s Public Lands History Center will oversee a two-year project called “Confinement in the Land of Enchantment” to raise awareness about the camps. Funded by a $189,864 grant from the National Park Service, Payne and her team will work to raise awareness about New Mexico’s role in the confinement.

The confinement camps were created in early 1942 following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor the previous December. President Franklin D. Roosevelt ordered the confinement, and soon more than 110,000 Japanese-Americans – more than 60  percent of them American citizens, and nearly all of them living on the West Coast – were shipped to camps in California, Arizona, Oregon, Washington, Colorado, Wyoming, Arkansas, Idaho, Utah and other mostly western states in the largest mass relocation in American history.

This drawing of a softball game at the Santa Fe camp by George Hoshida is housed at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles.The camps had varying levels of security. Many held entire families – 30,000 of them children – who had been uprooted from their homes, while others held detainees who were considered threats to the United States. The confinement ended in January 1945.

Four primary sites in New Mexico

The four main New Mexico sites – Fort Stanton, Camp Lordsburg, Santa Fe and Old Raton Ranch – included residents at varying security levels. Lordsburg, for example, was the state’s largest camp with 1,500 residents, including some Germans and Italians. In Clovis, the residents were all local Japanese-Americans who were held to protect them from mob violence.

“You could be a very successful Japanese businessman on the West Coast and in a matter of days lose everything and be moved, along with your entire family, to a place like Lordsburg,” Payne said. “The people in these camps, other than in Clovis, were not New Mexicans. Some of the nearby communities welcomed the camps because it took a huge effort to build the camps and lots of jobs were created. Other communities fought against having the camps in the area, either on moral grounds or because they were fearful they would somehow be attacked.”

Payne said no visible signs of the camps remain. In Santa Fe, for example, a housing subdivision was built at the camp site.

A housing development covers what's left of the confinement camp near Santa Fe.“There are a lot of people who don’t even know these sites exist,” Payne said. “It’s really timely to talk about these things, and it’s a good reminder for all of us to think about what it really means to be an American citizen.”

Collaborative effort

Payne and her team, which includes the New Mexico Chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League (JACL), the State Historian of New Mexico, University of New Mexico Asian Studies, City of Lordsburg, Fort Stanton Inc., the Museum of New Mexico’s Department of Cultural Affairs, DENSHO and a number of individual volunteers, will raise interpretive historical markers, establish a permanent website and create an outreach publication to be distributed to public schools and libraries across the state.

The PLHC project is one of 21 Japanese American Confinement Sites Grants totaling $2.9 million awarded by the National Park Service this year. For more information about the Public Lands History Center, visit publiclands.colostate.edu