BRTC’s “Fred Korematsu Day” observance January 30 included a special film preview showing by Houston filmmaker Vivienne Schiffer, along with presentations by Dr. Charlotte Power and Dr. Jan Ziegler. Schiffer is currently working on a full-length documentary on the “Relocation” of Japanese Americans at Rohwer, Arkansas. Rohwer, where Schiffer’s family lived, was the site of one of the ten “relocation camps” hastily constructed for the purpose of incarcerating those of Japanese descent in the wake of Pearl Harbor. Approximately 70% of those held in the camps were American citizens.
Korematsu was one of the few Japanese Americans to refuse to go into an incarceration camp voluntarily. In 1942, after his arrest and conviction of defying the government’s order, he appealed his case all the way to the Supreme Court. In 1944, the Court ruled against him, arguing that the incarceration was justified due to “military necessity,” Dr. Power told the audience.
In 1983, key documents that government intelligence had concealed from the Supreme Court were uncovered. These documents consistently showed that the Japanese Americans had committed no acts of treason to justify the mass incarceration. With this new evidence, a San Francisco federal court overturned Korematsu’s conviction. Korematsu remained an activist throughout his life, and in 1998 was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom by then-President Bill Clinton.
The audience included members of Dr. Power’s Arkansas History class, as well as members of Serendipity, and a number of community guests. Schiffer’s mother, Rosalie Gould, former mayor of McGehee, Arkansas, has played a central role in preserving art and artifacts from Rohwer. She recently donated these to the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock.
Ziegler, who provided an overview of the expulsion and incarceration, explained that while researching on the subject for her doctoral dissertation several years earlier, she had come to know Gould, who opened to researchers and other visitors her home and her extensive collection of art and artifacts. She said the opportunity to link up with Schiffer for the Korematsu Day observance had happened by chance a few weeks ago.
Schiffer’s documentary film will explore the role of Rosalie Gould and examine the culture clashes of the state of Arkansas in conjunction with the Japanese American experience, where Rohwer Relocation Center and nearby Jerome Relocation Center became two of the state’s largest cities almost overnight when they opened in the fall of 1942. Her 13-minute preview includes footage of Rohwer as it appeared when it opened, as well as footage of what remains today. Also included are clips of some of the formerly imprisoned Japanese Americans recalling the experience.
In a related activity, Schiffer was a special guest the evening before the observance at a dinner attended also by Bill Johnston, son of former Rohwer Relocation Center Director Ray Johnston. Bill Johnston recalled his own personal experiences as a second and third grade boy going to school at Rohwer Relocation Center where his parents lived.