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A brightly colored water tower stands above the desolate landscape and concrete pads of the Amache War Relocation Center near Granada, Colorado, in this Feb. 3. 2021 photo. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Nearly 80 years after a presidential order created incarceration camps on American soil to hold people of Japanese descent, the U.S. Senate unanimously passed legislation Monday night designating the site of Colorado’s Granada War Relocation Center – also known as Camp Amache – a national historic site.

The vote marks the last key step toward bringing the almost 1-mile-square parcel in southeast Colorado under the management of the National Park Service, ensuring that the vestiges of what almost overnight became one of Colorado’s largest towns – and the dark period of history it represents – will endure.

The bipartisan legislation will return to the House, where it passed easily last summer, for a final vote on an amended version before heading to President Joe Biden’s desk.  An 11th-hour objection by Utah Sen. Mike Lee, who opposed adding more federal land over funding concerns, caused a hitch in the process, but he and Bennet negotiated a deal by which the Amache land would be transferred as a donation and the bill passed by unanimous consent.

The passage arrives just ahead of Saturday’s Day of Remembrance marking the original presidential order. 

Colorado Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse and Republican Rep. Ken Buck championed the bill in the House, while Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper advocated for it in the Senate. But the effort to preserve the memory of the tragic incarceration of more than 120,000 Japanese Americans – most of them U.S. citizens – began decades ago.

Derek Okubo, whose father was part of the initial effort by the Denver Central Optimists to preserve the site starting in 1968, says his dad felt strongly that preservation of Amache would serve as not only a cautionary tale, but a healing force for both the families of those incarcerated there and the nation as a whole.

“When they first started this, it was their dream to have a long-term support mechanism in place so that the preservation and the sharing of the history would continue – for the purpose that it would never happen again to any people,” Okubo says. “And so that it’s actually happening is a dream fulfilled.”

Over more than half a century, the effort overcame initial local pushback and gained momentum from the work of those who were incarcerated there, their relatives and friends, as well as a local educator who, by making Amache part of the Granada high school curriculum, created an enduring bond between the camp’s descendants and the community.

Amache, which opened in 1942 and closed in 1945, was the smallest of 10 such incarceration camps that rose out of fear that Japanese immigrants, as well as their American-born relatives, posed a threat to the United States after the Dec. 7, 1941 bombing of Pearl Harbor. A handful of other inland states also imprisoned mostly coastal populations of Japanese immigrants – including American citizens – or flatly refused to accept them. 

A photograph of the Amache War Relocation Center taken from the prison camp’s water tower during World War II. The camp was the state’s 10th largest city during that time. (Amache Museum, Special to The Colorado Sun)

But Colorado Gov. Ralph Carr spoke out against the racial prejudice and welcomed the camp’s more than 7,500 arrivals. Though ultimately on the right side of history, his stand cost him his political career.

By coming under the Park Service umbrella, Amache becomes eligible for federal assistance that will augment the patchwork of volunteer efforts and grant funding that has sustained it. That work, led by the local high school’s Amache Preservation Society, has gradually improved a site that once held mostly remnants of building foundations on the windswept prairie just south of U.S. 50 outside of the town of Granada. 

Now, the camp’s water tower and guard tower rise above the landscape, its cemetery and a barracks building have been restored, and a recreation center that had been moved into town decades ago has been returned to its original foundation. Efforts to collect artifacts from the camp grew to establish a museum and research center, and an archeological project advanced by the University of Denver adds to the ongoing interpretation.

Descendants still make annual pilgrimages to Amache, though the number of original survivors from the camp has declined, making this official designation all the more meaningful. The bureaucratic process took years, even after Colorado’s congressional delegation began an official push extended by a pandemic interruption.

A rocky start

Okubo has worked for several years with Friends of Amache, a group dedicated to restoring and maintaining the Amache site. His father, Henry, died in 2002, but Okubo recalls hearing about the contentious first meeting with the Granada town council about preserving the historic location – a discussion that ended in a shouting match.

“When my dad came back from that meeting,” Okubo says, “I remember him saying, ‘Well, I guess we’ll have to work at building relationships.’ And so he would go back and he would meet with town council members. And he was able to find a few allies, and the relationship progressed over the years.”

Okubo’s mother, Aoki, is 90 and dealing with dementia. She was incarcerated at the Minidoka camp in Idaho and, while perhaps not fully aware of today’s development, Okubo says she  would be thrilled that her husband’s work had come to fruition.

Calvin Taro Hada, whose grandmother was incarcerated at Amache, has continued the family’s advocacy for preserving the site as president of the Nikkeijin Kai of Colorado, which can trace its roots to the original Optimist group that started the push. He remembers his father, James Hada, a produce manager at King Soopers, procuring items at cost so the organization could assemble fruit baskets as a fundraiser.

More than 50 years after that first rocky meeting with the Granada town council, the long-term assurance that the lessons of Amache will live on finally stands on the verge of becoming reality.

“It’s just been slow and steady,” says Hada, a Denver Realtor. “I think for some things to happen we had to have kind of a change in the attitude of the American people. I wouldn’t say that it was always smooth sailing. But it’s been kind of a gentle persistence, is what I would say, that kept the ball moving.

“I’m more than ecstatic (the bill) passed,” he adds, “but I recognize that there are a lot of things to be done before we reach our final product.”

Once President Biden signs the bill, it will still be years before the full impact of the changeover will be apparent, says Dan Sakura, a Japanese American with a family connection to the Minidoka National Historic Site, the incarceration camp in Idaho that Amache now joins under the NPS umbrella.

“It’s kind of like planting a tree, and they plant a sapling and for years it doesn’t seem like anything’s happening,” says Sakura, who has advised the nonprofit National Parks Conservation Association on the Amache project. “But then, over time, with water and fertilizer, the tree will develop, restructure and grow and thrive.”

The National Park Service also manages former incarceration sites Manzanar, Minidoka and Honouliuli National Historic Sites, and Tule Lake National Monument.

An interpretive center and short walking tour greet visitors to the Amache Relocation Center where more than 7,500 people of Japanese descent were held from 1942-45 near Granada, Colorado. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Preserving the site’s narrative

Once the property has been secured, the Park Service begins the management planning process. One aspect of that planning looks at interpretation – how to tell the stories of the camp and the people who passed through it.

Through experience with designating previous incarceration sites, the Park Service has a firm foundation of the narratives, and when Congress passed legislation in 2019 for a special resource study on Amache, the resulting public comment also helped inform the future management plan.

Part of the urgency to get the legislation through Congress stemmed from the declining presence of Amache survivors, some now in their 90s. Typically, the Park Service wants to preserve whatever historic resources are on site and provide for a robust visitor experience, which includes interpretation of the site and its artifacts, and appropriate memorialization.

One unique aspect of the Amache legislation is that it enables the Park Service to tell the broader story of the camp’s impact, including stories about after the war, the Japanese-American diaspora and difficulties encountered as they tried to rebuild their lives. Language in the bill also allows for the Park Service to enter agreements or partnerships with local groups or the town itself.

That’s an important dimension for Amache.

A sign along U.S. Highway 50 just west of Granada, Colorado, points the way the Amache War Relocation Center. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

A pivotal partnership with students

For years, the site has operated in conjunction with the Amache Preservation Society, an organization created by John Hopper, a local teacher and school administrator who arrived in Granada in 1990 and, three years later, created a “living history” program geared toward gifted high school students. 

As that effort grew to include both caretaking and interpretation of the site, it attracted the attention and financial support of those incarcerated at Amache and their relatives who assemble at the site each spring. Students eventually joined forces with organizations like the Amache Historical Society and Friends of Amache to procure grant funding for restoring parts of the camp. 

Hopper says it will be a relief to hand off the constant work of maintaining Amache, even though he knows the transition won’t be immediate. Earlier this week he fired up his tractor to make road improvements after snowfall softened the earth. 

“I don’t see a whole lot happening right away,” Hopper says of the imminent designation. “I still see us taking care of it. It’s just knowing that in the future – very near future, hopefully – when somebody needs to paint the water tower, re-roof the roofs of the buildings or something like that, there’s somebody there in place that can do it.”

Descendants credit Hopper and his many students over the years not only for their work maintaining Amache, but also for creating a major shift in perception of its ongoing historical significance and the value in preserving it.

“That’s when everything changed,” Derek Okubo says of Hopper’s arrival in Granada. “It lit a fire within students, and they started doing presentations in the town and then the region. And they changed the hearts and minds of everybody. I always say that that’s an example of where young people changed the world. And I mean it literally. They changed the world.”

A monument honoring the 31 Japanese Americans who were held at the Amache War Relocation Center near Granada, Colorado, then later fought and died in World War II as members of the U.S. military is shown in this Feb. 3, 2021 photo. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Over the years, Hopper and the students also collected so many artifacts from the era that they opened a small museum in the town’s former city hall. As the teens’ relationship with those imprisoned and their relatives developed, they began collecting audio recordings about life in the camp. 

The preservation society will continue to control the museum even after the Park Service takes over the camp site, Hopper says. In 2019, the ever-expanding collection moved into a new, much bigger space right across the highway – a former bank building that, beneath its stucco exterior, still has bricks from Amache that were repurposed after the camp closed. It features a large exhibit area, a presentation room, gift shop, restrooms and storage – in addition to plenty of parking and, as part of the deal with the former occupant, a working ATM.

Hopper says he’s weighing retirement, though the Amache Preservation Society and the related school curriculum will continue. Tanner Grasmick, a former student who now teaches history at Granada, has stepped forward to be his successor.

“The exciting thing is that all the work that has gone on for so long, it’s coming together where it’s going to be sustained for the indefinite future,” Okubo says. “Because it’s taken a lot of work to keep things going and that federal support is going to be everything as far as continuing.”

The Amache Museum in Granada, Colo. is home to a number of items of significant historical value from the Amache Relocation Center, including photographs and paintings. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

Kevin Simpson is a co-founder of The Colorado Sun and a general assignment writer and editor. He also oversees the Sun’s literary feature, SunLit, and the site’s cartoonists. A St. Louis native and graduate of the University of Missouri’s...