World War II Japanese American Internment Museum
During World War II, Arkansas was the site of two Japanese American internment camps. Jerome Relocation Center, located in Drew and Chicot counties, and Rohwer Relocation Center in Desha County incarcerated a combined total of some 17,000 people. Today, little physical evidence remains of either camp. In 2013, the World War II Japanese Internment Museum opened in McGehee (Desha County) to document the history of these nearby Arkansas centers.
When the United States entered World War II after the bombing of Pearl Harbor by the empire of Japan on December 7, 1941, paranoia developed in the United States that the American mainland would be next. Many feared that Japanese American residents of the West Coast might in some way assist in that invasion. On February 19, 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, by signing Executive Order 9066, began the process that led to the removal of Japanese Americans to inland incarceration camps. With the creation of the War Relocation Authority under Executive Order 9102, the search for sites for these camps was initiated. By the summer of 1942, ten sites had been selected, with the easternmost being the two Arkansas locations. Both Arkansas sites opened by September 1942. Jerome closed by June 1944, and Rohwer, which closed in November 1945, was the last of the ten to close.
In 2013, the World War II Japanese American Internment Museum opened at 100 S. Railroad Street in the southern building of the city’s Missouri Pacific Depot, a National Register of Historic Places property. Former McGehee mayor Jack May and businessman and mayor Jeff Owyoung were instrumental in convincing Union Pacific to donate the building in 2010. Owyoung also served as chairman of the museum development committee. Much of the funding was provided by more than $400,000 in grants from the Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program and more than $200,000 from the McGehee Industrial Foundation.
The 3,000-square-foot building went through extensive restoration and renovation. The centerpiece of the museum is an exhibit researched and developed in 2004 at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock titled, “Against Their Will: The Japanese American Experience in World War II.” The exhibit opened that year at the Arkansas Statehouse Convention Center. The exhibit was then housed at the Delta Cultural Center in Helena-West Helena (Phillips County) before being moved to the museum in McGehee.
The museum consists of two exhibit galleries and a small theater where a one-hour video, Time of Fear (produced by UA Little Rock and funded by the Winthrop Rockefeller Foundation), is screened. A self-guided audio tour narrated by actor and activist George Takei, who was incarcerated at Rohwer as a child, is also available. The museum has two informational computer kiosks, a lending library, an archive, and a store.
A large crowd attended the official opening on April 16, 2013. Takei, who had taken a special interest in the project, spoke at the opening. He returned to participate in the fifth anniversary of the opening and again for the ten-year observance in 2023.
The museum has received a number of honors, including the Cultural Heritage Award from the Arkansas Delta Byways and Southern Travel Treasure by the AAA Southern Traveler Magazine in 2013 and the 2015 Henry Bootstrap Award presented by Arkansas Parks and Tourism. The museum is open Thursday through Saturday from 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m.
For additional information:
Clancy, Sean. “Keeping Memories Alive for Internees, Families.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, April 8, 2018, pp. 1E, 6E.
McFadin, Daniel. “Japanese Americans Recall Internment in State.” Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, May 5, 2023, pp. 1A, 7A. https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/may/05/memories-flood-back-for-former-residents-of/ (accessed October 20, 2023).
Murrell, I. C. “Star Trek’s Takei Honors Museum.” Pine Bluff Commercial, May 5, 2023, pp. 1, 4. Online at https://www.arkansasonline.com/news/2023/may/05/star-treks-takei-honors-museum/ (accessed October 20, 2023).
Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center. https://rohwer.astate.edu/plan-your-visit/museum/ (accessed October 20, 2023).
Spero, Correne. “Rohwer Remembered.” Arkansas Times, May 2023, pp., 72, 74. https://arktimes.com/arkansas-blog/2023/04/27/rohwer-remembered-ten-years-of-excavating-difficult-arkansas-history (accessed October 20, 2023).
World War II Japanese Internment Museum. https://www.themcgeheechamber.com/wwii-japanese-american-internment-museum/ (accessed October 20, 2023).
CALS Encyclopedia of Arkansas
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