Recreating the desert

Image courtesy of Yale University Library

In stark contrast to the soft colors of the washout desert sunset in the painting next to it, a brusque message begins:


This poster, and others like it, heralds President Roosevelt’s 1942 Executive Order 9066, the wartime internment policy that would relocate 100,000 individuals of Japanese ancestry from across the West Coast to inland camps. Two-thirds of the relocated individuals were U.S. citizens. This particular government notice, which stands in a display case in Sterling Memorial Library’s newly opened exhibit “Out of the Desert: Resilience and Memory in Japanese American Internment,” announces that all Japanese American families in the San Francisco area are expected to report for evacuation. They must leave within a week, the sign reads, can bring only what they can carry, and head towards an undetermined destination.

The exhibit highlights the university’s extensive collection that comes from Japanese internment camps during World War II. The exhibit showcases a rich collection of personal letters, artwork, photographs, and other documents from the Library’s Manuscripts and Archives and the Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, and captures insiders’ and outsiders’ responses to life in the camps through creative expression.

Courtney Sato, GRD ’19, one of the curators of the exhibit, said that while she wanted to showcase the items that survived the internment, she also wanted to explore the internees’ “ability to create and produce even within the confines of such harsh, restrictive environments.”

The environments that Sato refers to were brutal. Many of the desert camps reached temperatures as high as 120 degrees Fahrenheit in the summer and as low as 30 degrees below zero in the winter.

Outside the camps, Japanese Americans were subject to rampant discrimination and distrust. David Gary, Kaplanoff Librarian for American History and the library liaison for the exhibit, said, “Instead of seeing Japanese immigrants and Japanese American citizens on the West Coast as assets to the war effort, they were vilified for their appearance and perceived connections to Japan. They were torn from their homes, saw their property vanish, and lost years of vital time and opportunities because of racist fears.”

But in the face of these difficulties and prejudices, there were powerful stories of resistance. According to Gary, the internees endured, and resumed everyday living and expression. “By continuing to thrive culturally through events like school attendance, baseball games, and music performances, they asserted their human dignity and their claim to being part of America,” he said.

The exhibit also brings together the narratives of individuals, both inside and outside the internment camps. Yonekazu Satoda, a Japanese American student at Berkeley, was unable to attend his college commencement, and Satoda’s diploma arrived by mail to his barracks at the Fresno Assembly Center. In his diary, on display in the exhibit, the recent graduate captures his daily attempts to ward off restlessness by keeping busy with fellow internees.

Another example is activist Elizabeth Page Harris. Many internees sent her personal letters thanking her for her acts of support towards families in the camp. She sent Christmas presents to the interned families, and incited a “minor riot” by donating a new piano to one of the camps.

The exhibit also showcases the photographs of celebrated landscape photographer Ansel Adams, who, moved by “the human story unfolding in the encirclement of desert and mountains,” turned his camera towards internee life at the Manzanar Relocation Center.

The exhibit draws Yale into the wartime narrative too. It features a letter co-signed by members of Dwight Hall that solicited community support for interned people hoping to relocate to New Haven, as well as an article published by a Yale Law professor who spoke out against relocation.

As a training hub and operations center for the Army and Navy, Yale and other East Coast universities drew applications from internees in an attempt to relocate the students. While many individuals at Yale vocally opposed the barring of applications from Japanese American students from institutions, the University itself froze admissions of Japanese Americans for a time for fear of jeopardizing the operations of surrounding military installations.

At the exhibit’s opening ceremony on Wed., Nov. 4, Sato welcomed a large audience including Satoda, the author of the exhibit’s spotlighted camp diary. In her opening remarks, Sato pointed to the exhibit’s ongoing relevance in light of summer controversies at the Rago Auction House over the prospective sale of a collection of internment artwork, items with historical value many felt should be protected for posterity.

Amid ongoing dialogue, too, on building racial unity on campus, the exhibit’s focus on stories of perseverance and goodwill extending across divisions strike a chord. Having encountered the countless stories of resilience colored by what Gary called a kind of “universal humanity,” one leaves the exhibit reminded that community, then and now, can outlast the desert heat.

One Response

  1. A.D. Jacobs says:

    E.O. 9066 also applied to German Americans and Italian Americans.

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