ROHWER, Ark. — This is such an unassuming little farming community.
Where Arkansas 1 angles north out of McGehee, paralleling railroad tracks and cuts through the lush farmland fed by rich soils deposited by the Arkansas and Mississippi rivers, if not for the sign pointing things out, it would be difficult to find the remains of an overlooked part of American history. It’s part of our past I only remember being glossed over in grade school.
These fertile fields near Rohwer and others in nearby Jerome were large and remote enough that two relocation camps were placed within miles of each other for Japanese citizens during World War II.
It all began in the aftermath of the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor. A pair of executive orders by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in early 1942 gave the federal government powers to set up exclusion zones for people of Japanese ancestry and establish relocation camps, largely one big swath of the West Coast from Washington down to California and southern Arizona.
That meant more than 100,000 people underwent forced relocation. Jerome and Rohwer were the easternmost camps. Families were shoved into barracks with community bathrooms, schools and meager-waged jobs in the camps or in the fields under the eye of guards in towers.
At Rohwer today, there’s an interpretive center in the middle of an active farm. The cemetery the imprisoned residents built rises in the middle of a grove of trees with an American flag flapping in the middle of it.
There’s a dirt road drive with audio markers narrated by George Takei, who was here as a little boy, describing arrival, daily life, schooling and his departure at the end of the war.
The thing about history is it is what it was. Whether that’s good, bad or ugly, it has shaped who we are. And where we’ve preserved pieces of it, it’s our duty to go see it up close and face it. I find it hard to believe that if more people do that, our discussions today wouldn’t be more informed and enriched.
And 2016 — with all of its rancor — is a perfect time for a nice long field trip to all the Rohwers out there.