Sometimes, even as a cynical columnist, you find yourself moved to write about something truly good, something extraordinary, something — OK, I don’t want to get carried away here, because this story also has the expected opposition, setbacks and struggle — that shines a light on the fact that, contrary to what you might hear on certain cable news TV outlets, history and truth still matter, particularly history that isn’t cherry-picked or doubles as nationalist propaganda.
So, yes, the often lonely quest for truth can still yield results, even in a remote area of southeast Colorado where a shameful, nearly forgotten World War II Japanese internment site is now, after years of struggle, recognized as a national historic site and as part of the National Park Service.
It’s a momentous week, with Saturday having been the 80th anniversary of what’s called the Day of Remembrance, when Executive Order 2066 was signed — by the progressive President Franklin Roosevelt — that led to 120,000 Japanese Americans living near the West Coast being interned, losing nearly everything, being ripped from their communities, living behind barbed wire and with armed guards at the ready should anyone try to escape.
I don’t have to tell you what that means today, when historical truth often finds itself at odds with the benighted anti-CRT crowd, many of whom believe that whites are the primary victims of racism. And with the battle led by the new DougCo 4 so-called reform school board members who want Colorado’s and America’s history taught as an inexorable fight for good and justice and will move to fire a dedicated and nearly universally respected superintendent and teachers still have to worry about possible repercussions.
And, mostly, the truth must overcome the oft-cynical and opportunistic attempt by many to label those who insist on teaching American history with warts all all, with America’s pride taught alongside its shame, as un-American, traitorous and worse. If you don’t believe me, just go pick up a U.S. history book taught in Texas.
At least Colorado — or parts of it nowhere near the Douglas County school board — is doing its part. Camp Amache will join with nearby Sand Creek as historic sites that show an America unafraid to face up to its failings. These things matter. It matters that, after a few hiccups, the bill passed both houses of Congress unanimously and now awaits the president’s signature. It matters that this achievement was led not only by survivors and descendants but by a 30-year project at a small school in Granada.
In a time when the momentum leans toward ignoring unpleasant historical truths — of a Civil War fought over slavery, of the genocide and betrayal of Native Americans, of, yes, the internment without benefit of trial of Japanese Americans, most of whom were U.S. citizens — there’s a man who fights for truth and for memory. And who says, “When a book gets banned by a school, I go out and buy a copy.”
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So, I present to you John Hopper, the dean of students at tiny Granada High on the Eastern Plains, whose work with his students for around 30 years has helped keep alive — working with organizations of camp survivors and their descendants — the memory of Camp Amache. In case you were never taught about it in school, the camp stood a quarter mile outside the town of Granada, where Japanese Americans were incarcerated for the crime of how they looked. It was an official, national racist policy.
In 1992, as a young, aspiring history teacher, fresh out of Colorado State University, Hopper knew there was more to the teaching job, he says now, than “assigning students to read pages 220 to 250 and then answer five questions on what you’ve read.” He was looking for a “living history” project, and he knew of one, Camp Amache. Hopper grew up 60 miles away in Las Animas and had heard of the camp, officially called Granada War Relocation Center, which interned 7,500 Japanese Americans.
So, Hopper went to the school-system superintendent of the time and asked whether anyone at Granada High had ever tried to tackle Camp Amache. He was told no. And then he asked if it would be all right if he tried, and the answer was yes, and the yes came with a strong offer of support from the superintendent, who understood there would be objections from some locals who just wanted to forget that the camp, torn down in 1945, had ever existed.
“We don’t want anyone to forget,” Hopper said. “It’s important that we learn from our mistakes. That’s one of the reasons we teach history. And now it’s really important again because of the anti-Asian hate we’re seeing now. COVID is part of it, and for the last couple of years, COVID has made everything we try to do that much harder.”
It’s hard to imagine all the hard work that has gone into this. Granada houses students from kindergarten to 12th grade, and its high school has 61 students this year, which is a good year. Recruiting students to help with Amache meant getting them excited about the project.
Some years there would be 10 or 12 students. Some years there would be four. The square-mile site requires keeping up the grounds, staining guard towers, maintaining roads, and that’s just the beginning. Now that Amache is an official site, there will be more recognition, but also more money,and more help in maintaining the site.
There were years of research, research that still continues, acquiring artifacts from the camps, getting original water towers and remnants of other buildings moved to the site. And, of course, there are the tours of the camp and the presentations, of which they give many, all over Colorado to as far away as, yes, Japan. And with the cooperation of the Japanese organizations and survivors who made sure they were getting the history right — history that changed lives of the internees, who were betrayed by the country they had adopted — they kept going year after year after year.
“This was all student led,” Hopper said Thursday night when I caught him after he had administered a Granada basketball game. He doesn’t just administer. He also teaches six classes.
“When we started, the kids, even though they grew up a quarter mile away, didn’t know the first thing about the camp,” Hopper recalled. “We had to start from the beginning. Now, we recruit from all four high school classes, with the seniors as the ones doing the critiquing and the scheduling. These kids have been great, smart and resourceful. Some of them come back after they’ve graduated. I just drive them around.”
And then there came a day, very early in the project, when Hopper got a call from a woman of Japanese descent. The students had been sending questionnaires to all the camp survivors and descendants they could find.
“You must have gotten a questionnaire,” Hopper said to her, recalling the conversation. “No,” she said, “but we have one, and we’ve been passing it around, and I’ve been elected to talk to you about it.”
“They were suspicious of the project, as I guess they should have been,” Hopper told me. “I was thinking, ‘Uh, oh, what have I got myself into?’”
He was worried that the questionnaire, or maybe the whole project, had come off as somehow insensitive. They talked for a while, and then the woman, who represented a Japanese historical organization, said she wanted to talk to a student to see what the kids were learning.
“I sent for a student named Rene, and they talked for a long time,” Hopper recalled. And then , they sent representatives from L.A., from Chicago, from Denver to check up on us. I learned a valuable lesson that day. It’s hard to say no to a high school student, but much easier to say no to a teacher. So, when we needed something, it was the students who did the requests.”
And in a virtual roundtable Friday, featuring Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper and Reps. Ken Buck and Joe Neguse, who led the biparatisan fight for the bills, the most compelling stories, of course, came from survivors and their descendants who told of life in the camps.
One, 91-year-old Ken Kitajima, from Evergreen, Colorado, spoke of life after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and the racism he and his sister faced at school and on the school buses, where they were called — and you can still hear the hurt in his voice — racist slurs day after day.
They stopped using the buses and walked home, but they were still harassed, and one day begged their father to take them out of school. Their father answered, in Japanese, “No.”
And then they were moved, with only two weeks’ notice, and allowed only to take what they could carry to an internment camp and eventually to Camp Amache.
Kitajima noted that when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, Roosevelt called it a day of infamy. But for Kitajima, he said, “I personally call Feb. 19, 1942 (when Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066) as the true day of infamy.”
And we know, of course, how few Americans know anything about the order sending Japanese Americans to camps. And, worse, we know of those who want us to forget that history and to teach that America always stood for justice and right.
It’s in this moment that Hopper now teaches not only history but also current events, which is, of course, a land mine. In some places, parents are told to report teachers who might be teaching, in their view, something their children shouldn’t hear about America.
“I don’t get it,” Hopper told me. “Actually, I do get it. And I know that when I teach it that even my bright students have so little idea what’s going on. I tell them not to believe everything they read and hear, not even from me. I teach them to do their own research. I teach them to trust reason and science.”
And 30 years after he began his teaching career, Hopper can now tell his students that reason and science, truth and justice, sometimes against deep odds, can still matter.
Mike Littwin has been a columnist for too many years to count. He has covered Dr. J, four presidential inaugurations, six national conventions and countless brain-numbing speeches in the New Hampshire and Iowa snow.
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