In 1942 the United States adopted Executive Order No. 9066, calling for the forcible exclusion of Japanese Americans from the West Coast through detention in internment camps. This order affected more than 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent who were interned for nearly three years during World War II.
Fresno County is the only part of California where there were two assembly centers for local Japanese Americans ordered to relocate to internment camps. Thousands of residents were brought to these camps for processing before being sent on to permanent camps in other states. For those rounded up for internment, the experience was life changing. No longer accorded the rights that they expected and deserved as Americans, those imprisoned now symbolize the potential for democracy itself to be eroded in time of uncertainty and crisis.
Farewell to Manzanar Programs in Fresno
In 2011, when the Fresno Public Library learned of the opportunity to apply to Cal Humanities (formerly the California Council for the Humanities) for a California Reads grant, librarians were intrigued. The purpose of California Reads is to inspire discussion and reflection on the meaning of democracy. Advisors to Cal Humanities selected five books as readings that would help advance democracy dialogues at libraries and other community centers across the state. Farewell to Manzanar, one of the five texts, was written by Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. It is a memoir about the internment experience from the point of view of a young Japanese American girl. As a major assembly point for detainees, and as the home to many Japanese Americans, past and present, Farewell to Manzanar was and is especially relevant to residents of Fresno.
In responding to Cal Humanities request for proposals, the Fresno Public Library reached out to other local institutions to develop a plan for community-wide programming. With the assistance of the Friends of the Fresno Public Library, the Fresno Art Museum and a variety of civic and cultural organizations, the library applied for and received a grant of $14,700 to carry out community-wide programming exploring democracy and civil rights.
Fresno’s California Reads program started with a Shinzen Garden Toro Nahashi lantern ceremony in Woodward Park. At the library, residents were invited to a reading and a dialogue with author Jeanne Wakatsuki Houston. Many took part in a subsequent reading and discussion series about Farewell to Manzanar. A variety of local organizations developed programs to complement the book discussions. The Grateful Crane Ensemble presented a performance of music from the internment years; curator Delphine Hirasuna discussed “Art of Gaman” (arts and crafts produced in the internment camps); and there were community poetry readings, reader’s theatre events and film screenings.
The Fresno Art Museum presented Ansel Adams’ Born Free and Equal: Photographs of the Manzanar Relocation Camp, 1943-44, an exhibition on view from August 2012 to January 2013. The opening of the exhibition featured a panel discussion on civil rights. The images on display were drawn from a special collection of photographs commissioned by the US government to record the Japanese internment at Manzanar. While Adams’ photographs of the American West are icons, known throughout the world, his portraits of Japanese-Americans are less well known. The images in Born Free and Equal reveal his equal capacity to render individuals and social circumstances. A companion exhibition of internment photography by Dorothea Lange toured Fresno’s branch libraries. Both exhibits contributed an important visual dimension to the extensive community programming.
Nisei Stories added a social historical dimension to the local exploration of democracy and civil rights. Nisei (nee-say) is a Japanese word that means second generation. Collected and produced by The Center for Multicultural Production, these personal accounts of local native-born citizens of Japanese descent were made available through the Fresno Public Library during the Farewell to Manzanar program. The library encouraged Fresno residents to “share in these personal stories of local Nisei who spent their youth in Japanese internment camps during World War II.”
In addition to the library and museum programs there were forums on democracy and civil liberties organized with the local office of the American Civil Liberties Union and the Peace and Social Justice League and tours to internment sites. Community partners included the Central California Asian Pacific American Bar Association, Fresno Betsuin Buddhist Women, Fresno City College, and the Central California Asian Pacific Women.
Searching for Democracy
Fresno’s Farewell to Manzanar programming was just one example of hundred of California Reads programs that took place across the state in 2011-2012. They were part of Cal Humanities’ Searching for Democracy initiative, designed to stimulate cultural programming and public conversations about democracy leading into the 2012 elections and beyond.
The Los Angeles County Library took part in Searching for Democracy/California Reads by sponsoring reading and discussion programs around Farewell to Manzanar as well as The Penguin Guide to the U.S. Constitution by Richard Beema – another Cal Humanities Search for Democracy text. The West Covina Branch of the LA County Library organized a screening of the film Carved in Silence, a documentary about the experience of Chinese immigrants detained on Angel Island that tells the story of the Exclusion era with oral history interviews, historical footage and dramatic re-enactments. Following the film screening there was a discussion on Chinese American immigrants and immigration.
The San Diego County Library selected the same two Searching for Democracy/California Reads texts, using them as the basis for a wide array of programs across their branches.
Co-sponsored by the California Center for the Book and the California State Library, these programs in libraries stimulated participants to consider their individual and collective experiences as immigrants and citizens, and the implications of those experiences for the future of our national experiment in democracy. According to San Diego County Library Director Jose Aponte:
“Public libraries are essential and serve as sanctuaries for democracy.” Our doors are open to everyone, and we encourage civic engagement and candid dialogue among all ages.”
Through the Search for Democracy initiative and its California Reads program, Cal Humanities has helped people and groups across California to explore their diverse histories and identities, and to consider the values that must be maintained to preserve the nation itself as a “sanctuary” for democracy.
- Ansel Adams Photographs of Japanese Internment Camps. American Memory Collection. Library of Congress.
- Fresno Bee article on Adams Photography Exhibit
- Memorial to Japanese-Americans detained at Fresno assembly center
- Pinedale Memorial Site