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President’s signature makes it official: Colorado’s Amache site now part of National Park Service

Decades after survivors of the Japanese American internment camp began their push, designation ensures its preservation

A sign stands at the entrance to Camp Amache, on Jan. 18, 2015, the site of a former World War II-era Japanese-American internment camp, in Granada, Colo. On the eve of the 80th anniversary of the forced internment of 120,000 Japanese-Americans at the onset of World war II. (AP Photo/Russell Contreras, File)
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The decades-long effort to ensure lasting recognition of Colorado’s Granada War Relocation Center — also known as Camp Amache — finally reached the finish line Friday as President Joe Biden signed legislation making it a national historic site.

In a White House ceremony, the president’s signature gave final approval to the bill that will place the nearly 1-square-mile parcel near the town of Granada in southeast Colorado under the management of the National Park Service. That designation makes Amache eligible for federal assistance that builds on the grant funding and volunteer efforts of Granada High School students that have both improved the site and told its story.

Amache marks the smallest of 10 incarceration sites where people of Japanese descent were held during World War II, as the U.S. government responded to the Dec. 7, 1941, bombing of Pearl Harbor by moving mostly coastal populations of Japanese immigrants, including many American citizens, into camps that operated between 1942 and 1945.

The presidential signing brings to fruition more than a half-century of work to make sure that the dark lessons of that era are remembered. Over decades, camp survivors, descendants and their allies persisted despite early local pushback.

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)

Derek Okubo remembers the stories his father, Henry Okubo, told about the initial efforts by the Denver Central Optimists to preserve the site, including a meeting with the Granada town council that ended in a shouting match. Henry died in 2002, and on Friday Derek felt so moved and proud of the work by his father and so many others that he struggled to find words.

“I’m thinking of my dad and his colleagues who started this effort 40 years ago,” Okubo said. “I’m thinking of the 30 years of Granada High School students who really made this happen. Their dream came true today. I’m proud of our country with its ongoing efforts to right past wrongs. This gives me hope for tomorrow.”

TODAY’S UNDERWRITER

Building on the work of the survivors and their descendants, Granada educator John Hopper in 1993 made Amache part of the local high school history curriculum and created the Amache Preservation Society. The APS, in concert with survivors groups, has taken on the considerable task of improving and maintaining the grounds as well as spreading the camp’s story through speaking appearances and running a local museum filled with artifacts collected over decades.

On Friday, Hopper said that after all the years and collaborative efforts to make Park Service designation happen, it probably won’t seem real until he actually sees rangers on the Amache  grounds.

“The key is that no matter what happens now, the site will always be there, be protected, be remembered for what it was, which was a bad part of U.S. history,” Hopper said. “And hopefully, the United States will always look back at this as a mistake and not do it again.”

Hopper noted that since the passage of the bill in February, he’s been “getting more phone calls and emails,” plus a visit from Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland and members of Colorado’s congressional delegation ahead of the Park Service assuming actual management of the site. 

“There’s a lot of movement, a lot of excitement,” he said, “so we’ll get to see what happens fairly soon.”

Aside from the earliest efforts to preserve Amache, the recent bureaucratic process to procure NPS designation took years, much to the chagrin of descendants and the declining number of original survivors. Even after Colorado’s congressional delegation began an official push, the process was slowed by the pandemic interruption.

Bob Fuchigami, whose family was moved to Amache when he was 11, is one of the remaining survivors.

“I have waited many, many years to see the day where we can be certain that Amache, as a place of reflection, remembrance, honor, and healing, is protected for our current and future generations,” he said. “President Biden’s signature on the Amache National Historic Site Act today brings me hope that we are finally closer to this certainty. My parents did not live to see this day. The time is not only right; it is long overdue.” 

Colorado’s Democratic Rep. Joe Neguse and Republican Rep. Ken Buck led the political fight for the bill in the House, while Colorado’s Democratic Sens. Michael Bennet and John Hickenlooper were the key advocates in the Senate.

National Parks Conservation Association President and CEO Theresa Pierno noted that national park sites include some of the country’s most important history.

“Not all stories they tell are easy to hear, like those of Amache, but perhaps those are the stories we as a nation need to hear most,” she said in a statement. “By preserving Amache, we can ensure that as a country we confront our mistakes, honor the stories of those who were unjustly imprisoned and protect the site for future generations.”

A replica of the Block 11F Recreation Building at the Amache Relocation Center near Granada, Colo., is surrounding by prairie brush in this Feb. 3, 2021 photo. (Mike Sweeney, Special to The Colorado Sun)

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