George Takei, one of America's most beloved actors for his role as Lt. Sulu in the Star Trek series, was once a resident of a little, nearly forgotten-in Americas-consciousness-community, called Rohwer, Arkansas.
He and his family moved here in 1942 when George was six years old, but they didn't have a choice in the matter. They were Americans of Japanese descent and Pearl Harbor smoldered in ruins.
Rohwer, Arkansas was the farthest east and last of the 10 Japanese internment camps established by the United States government in the panic that ensued as America went to war.
Just a few miles away, another camp was hastily built near the town of Jerome. When combined with Rohwer, more than 16,000 Japanese Americans came to live in the Arkansas Delta, known for its humidity and swampy farmland. Internees in other camps like Wyoming and Colorado struggled with the snow and freezing temperatures. In Arkansas, they struggled with mosquitoes and the diseases they carry.
Little remains of either camp, except for the cemetery at Rohwer where 24 Japanese-Americans are buried. However, the story of what happened in southeast Arkansas and why it happened is now interpreted in a relatively new museum for those who had all but forgotten or worse, never knew at all.
Life in the Arkansas Japanese Internment Camps
The Jerome-Rohwer Interpretive Museum is in a former railroad depot in the nearby community of McGeehee. Here, with barbed wire draped above all of the exhibits, we learn more about Executive Order 9066, signed by Franklin Roosevelt, that caused the relocation of nearly 100,000 Japanese-Americans, most of them from the California coastal communities.
The museum teaches us about life in the Arkansas camps and that most of the internees came from the Santa Anita and Stockton, California areas. Often multiple families lived in one building, separated only by a partition or curtain. Any semblance of personal privacy was forfeited. Not even a curtain provided privacy in the communal toilet and bathing facilities.
We read the words of those who lived here, describing the life they were forced to build. Children attended school in the barracks, Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops were formed, sports teams competed with each other. Of course, no one could leave the camp without a pass and there wasn't much to do outside the fences anyway. While most of the internees had money in the bank, those assets were frozen for the duration of the war.
However, the internees were able to earn a bit of money by raising crops in the rich Delta soil. The museum tells us how a few agronomists in the camps were able to make tremendous advances in producing crops in bottomland that local farmers had otherwise given up on.
We learn about a cartoon character named Li'l Dan'l created by a young man named Nobie Tanimob. Li'l Dan'l appeared in the camp newspaper and his image appeared in murals around the camp.
Remnants of Arkansas Japanese Internment Camps
Look closely as you drive around the community of McGeehee. All along Second Street, you'll see a number of long narrow buildings, an unusual design for private residences. Former homes of Japanese-American families, they were moved here after the camps were dismantled at the end of the war. One of the former barracks buildings still functions as a gathering place at the Presbyterian Church in Arkansas City.
About 15 Japanese-American families stayed in Arkansas after the war was over and they were free citizens once again.
George Takei came back in the spring of 2013 to help dedicate the museum and lend his voice to the interpretive trail on the land around the cemetery at Rohwer where he lived for more than three years. Push a button and hear Sulu tell his story while standing in the shadow of a recreated guard tower.
It's a peaceful spot, surrounded by corn and soybean fields. Crepe myrtle grows near the graves of those who died here. Each year, volunteers work to maintain the cemetery and place white roses on gravesites. It's a good place for us to come to think, to learn, and to remember.
What surprising historical spots have you discovered?
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