Interpreting an Absent History

A group of people releasing butterflies.
Spectators look on as George Takei participates in a butterfly release, part of the dedication ceremony for the new interpretive exhibits at the Rohwer War Relocation Center.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Franklin-Weekley, National Park Service.

George Takei, actor and social activist, often remarks that when he was five years old, his father told him they were going on a long vacation to a place called “Arkansas.” The year was 1942, the circumstance was the forced relocation of Japanese Americans from the West Coast of the United States to confinement sites established by the federal government. Takei and his family were taken from Los Angeles to the Rohwer Relocation Center, located in the Delta Region of southeast Arkansas.

Takei returned to Arkansas on April 16, 2013 to dedicate new interpretive exhibits at the site of the Rohwer camp. The exhibits illustrate conditions there during the period of forced internment, interpreting a history no longer represented by the physical resource. In operation from 1942 to 1945, the confinement site was divided into 51 blocks with more than 620 buildings enclosed by barbed wire fencing. Eight guard towers stood on the perimeter. Today, the land is open, except for vast cotton fields that now dominate the landscape.
Green field of trees and headstones with a information plaque.
View of a new interpretive exhibit overlooking the Rohwer Relocation Center Memorial Cemetery NHL.

Photo courtesy of Rachel Franklin-Weekely, National Park Service.

The Rohwer Relocation Center Cemetery, a National Historic Landmark (NHL) designated in 1992, is one of two resources remaining from the 10,161-acre camp. Set back from the highway and railroad line that transported Japanese American families to this military prison, the cemetery is an outlier in the rural countryside. The small parcel sits amidst a small grove of trees. Its monuments and grave markers provide poignant evidence of the camp’s existence and now serve as a backdrop for the new exhibits. The second of the two resources, a smokestack from the camp hospital, stands at the far northern extent of the Rohwer site, beyond acres of now-vacant land in between. Spearheaded by Dr. Ruth Hawkins, of Arkansas State University, and Elizabeth Wiedower, former director of the Arkansas Delta Rural Heritage Development Initiative, now with the National Trust for Historic Preservation, the project was funded by two competitive grants awarded through the National Park Service’s Japanese American Confinement Sites Program. The Section 106 Group, based in Minneapolis, was selected via competitive bid to develop an interpretive plan and exhibits for the Rohwer site. George Takei provided narration for the exhibits, discussing his own experiences and those of others held in the camp.

The results are stunning. Instead of coming upon a seemingly abandoned rural cemetery, visitors now can learn who it honors and how it happened to be here. At the dedication ceremony in April 2013, Takei pointed to the area where his family’s barrack once stood and recalled his life in the camp. He described the hot, stifling conditions, hunting for polliwogs in the ponds, standing in line for the showers with his father, the lack of privacy, and lack of autonomy for his family.

Takei later wrote about the dedication ceremony in a blog published by The Huffington Post, saying, “We ended the ceremony with a release of butterflies. They symbolized beauty confined, first in cocoons, then in a box, but now released, free to go and be wherever they chose.”[1]

Just as the butterflies symbolized freedom after imprisonment, the Rohwer Cemetery and site signify what once happened to Japanese Americans in our nation’s history. The importance of preserving and interpreting places like Rohwer, indeed all NHLs, lies in the lifeways and lessons they teach, the voices they convey, the absent history they represent.
Originally published in "Exceptional Places" Vol. 8, 2013, a newsletter of the Division of Cultural Resources, Midwest Region. Written by Rachel Franklin-Weekely.

[1]. George Takei, "The Blog," The Huffington Post, 22, April 2013. Accessed 9, July 2013.

Last updated: July 20, 2018