The following is a guest post by Karen Chittenden, Cataloger, Prints and Photographs Division.
On February 19, 1942, President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which led to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. The Executive Order applied to all people of Japanese ancestry, two-thirds of whom were American citizens, forcing nearly 120,000 people to leave their homes on the Pacific coast.
Perhaps no picture can adequately capture the stark reality of this troubling episode, but various organizations and individuals photographed aspects of the evacuation and internment that help to tell the story.
Russell Lee and another photographer, most likely Dorothea Lange, separately documented one of the ways in which Japanese American residents on the West Coast received the evacuation orders.
Lee was working for the Farm Security Administration. The FSA had two somewhat ironic connections to the internment activities, given its primary mission to help improve the self-sufficiency of small farmers: It was tasked with recruiting farmers to operate the six thousand farms Japanese American farmers had to leave in the middle of a growing season, and it arranged for a few hundred Japanese Americans to work as paid migrant laborers on farms in eastern Oregon, eastern Washington, and Idaho.
Lange was working at the time for the War Relocation Authority, the agency responsible for the management of the internment camps, officially known as “relocation centers,” where the evacuees were ultimately confined.
While the relocation centers were being readied, Japanese Americans initially reported to assembly centers hastily prepared at fairgrounds and racetracks, where some of the internees resided in converted horse stables.
Relocation center facilities were not much better. The centers were located in remote areas. Tar paper-covered barracks served as living quarters, doing little to protect the residents from the harsh environmental conditions. Barbed wire surrounded the camps, which were watched by armed guards.
Ansel Adams captured the buildings and many other facets of the life internees made at Manzanar War Relocation Center in California.
Some internees participated in acts of civil disobedience and were arrested and tried in court. Others left the camps to join the military even as their families remained confined in the camps. Army photographers documented the contributions of the much decorated 442nd Combat Unit.
As a consequence of the internment, many Japanese Americans lost their homes, businesses, and other property. In the 1980s, members of the Japanese American community began to seek an apology and reparations from the U.S. government. After an investigation initiated by President Jimmy Carter, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which attributed the incarceration of Japanese Americans to the race prejudice and war hysteria of the time.
February 19th, the anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066, is observed in many states as a “Day of Remembrance.” U.S. Representative Mike Honda, an internee in the Amache camp in Colorado, spoke at a 2014 Day of Remembrance ceremony of the importance of “remembering the injustices, reflecting on our journeys, and educating our communities so that these mistakes are never repeated.”
- Explore Ansel Adams’ photographs of Manzanar War Relocation Center and an overview of Prints & Photographs Division holdings relating to the Japanese American internment, including suggestions regarding strong collections in other repositories.
- Read more about Russell Lee’s photographs of Japanese Americans, “Japanese Relocation-Russell Lee,” in Documenting America, 1935-1943, ed. Carl Fleischhauer and Beverly W. Brannan. (Berkeley: University of California Press in association with the Library of Congress, 1988), 240-251.
- View teaching resources relating to Japanese American internment, including a lesson plan and primary source set of documents.
- Read a Library of Congress blog post delving into the Ansel Adams photographs and the work of fellow photographer Toyo Miyatake who was interned at Manzanar War Relocation Center.
- Look at interviews with Japanese American veterans featured on the Veterans History Project site.
- Read House of Representatives Resolution 482, which Rep. Mike Honda sponsored in 2014 recognizing the 67th anniversary of the signing of Executive Order 9066.