NEWELL -- There’s not much to see, really. All that physically remains from one of the most shameful periods of American history is a single, squat concrete building with a pitched metal roof. A barbed-wired fence keeps out the curious. Only on Saturdays, in the summer, can visitors actually tour this husk of a structure and learn of its historical significance.
It’s an altogether depressing sight out along Highway 139 in California’s northeast corner. You weren’t sure what to expect at the site of the Tule Lake Segregation Center, where nearly 20,000 Japanese Americans were incarcerated by the U.S. government during World War II, but you figured it would be more than this: an obligatory historical marker, a forbidding fenced-in field, and, seven miles away in the town of Tulelake, a mere corner of the Tulelake Butte Valley Museum dedicated to this dark period of our history.
Though it took decades for the government to acknowledge and apologize for its widespread rounding up of citizens based solely on race, the National Park Service is trying to speed along the grindingly slow bureaucratic process of building and restoring the erstwhile “Tule Lake Unit,” lest its lesson in racial intolerance and the harm of suspending of civil rights be forgotten.
The National Park Service, which has run the site since it was declared a National Monument in 2008, is holding meetings, working on grants and forging a development and management plan so that someday, people can see more than tumbleweeds, barbed wire and the remains of the internment camps’ jail, constructed by incarcerees to house themselves. Mike Reynolds, the park superintendent, says progress continues despite being “minimally funded and basically minimally staffed” in this era of federal budget belt tightening.
“We don’t know yet which buildings will serve which purpose,” he said, referring to the barracks, guard towers and other relics now stored away. “Will we restore all 14 buildings or just one for a visitors center? We need to determine how the story will be told. The plan will take another two years to complete. It’s not in the next two years that (the site) will blow open and look like Yosemite National Park, but we are moving forward.”
But, for now, the Tule Lake Unit remains little more than a ghost town. Not one of those raucous, propped-up old-West venues that dot the state; rather, a somber, sorrowful site that lives on in the memories of people confined there and descendants who grew up hearing stories from internees.
Reynolds has held 17 public meetings around the West to gain input on the design and scope of the site – more than 100 turned out in Sacramento, he said – and he was struck by the emotional investment people harbor in a dusty patch of ground in Modoc County.
“Incredibly so,” he said. “A lot of the former incarcerees are still alive, and they and their families are very emotionally tied to Tule Lake.”
One of the largest and most vocal contingents is the Tule Lake Committee, which has more than $800,000 in grants and donations to assist the National Park Service. The group wants an interpretive center, the preservation of existing sites and re-creation of life and facilities during wartime. It will hold its biannual pilgrimage to the site July 4-7.
“We think it’s important for visitors to comprehend the size and magnitude of this maximum-security concentration camp that imprisoned 18,700 innocent men, women and children,” said Barbara Takei, a committee board member who co-authored “Tule Lake Revisited” with Judy Tachibana. “We want descendants to be able to identify and walk to the block where their family members lived, to experience that powerful sense of validation and mourning and loss that comes with standing at the place that was so life-altering for our forebears.
“We want visitors to be able to traverse the site, to viscerally understand the miserable conditions that people endured over four years of incarceration, living and working and walking long distances in extreme heat and cold, in the dirt and dust and mud, and housed in overcrowded, shabbily constructed barracks.
“Much harder to show is the humiliating lack of privacy caused by overcrowding, the destruction of family unity, the psychological damage of being imprisoned because of your race and culture, and the soul-destroying loss of freedom and dignity. A future visitor center on the site must communicate this story, to ensure that it will never be repeated. It should serve as a visceral reminder to all Americans of our shared responsibility to protect the democratic values we cherish.”
The Saturday tours, which run from Memorial Day through Labor Day, strive to convey the importance of the story, given that there is just one building – the jail – currently standing at the Newell site and a few barracks residing at Camp Tule Lake several miles away near the Klamath Basin Refuge visitors center.
Though small in number, the photographs and ephemera on display at the Tule Lake Butte Valley Fair Museum present what life was like for those forced to live behind the segregation center’s walls. There are photographs of sullen-faced men waiting in a lunch line with tin plate thrust out, expressionless women (some young mothers holding toddlers; others grandmothers bent from osteoporosis) dressed up as if for an outing, and children raising hands in a sixth-grade classroom.
And then there’s a photo of Kumiko Noda, 23, from Sacramento, holding her newborn boy on June 12, 1942 – the first baby born at Tule Lake.
“My mother told me that they wanted her to name me either Newell or Tule,” said Newell Noda, now 71, in a phone interview from his Bay Area home. “I think the first girl born there was named Tule. I hated the name Newell. Just hated it. Because no one could ever pronounce it, not because of the historical significance. Of course, I used my Japanese name (Kazuo) at home.”
Noda has made a pilgrimage to Newell, but only once, he said, because “there wasn’t a whole lot to see there. Besides, I was just a baby, and I couldn’t remember the place. But for the older people, it means a lot. They want to mark history, according to what happened to them.”
As a child, Noda didn’t hear much about camp life from his parents. Later, though, his mother, who died recently at age 95, told him the truth about life in segregation – the good and bad.
“She said how demeaning it was, with things like public showers and eating in a cafeteria,” he said. “For the young married and older people it was quite traumatic. For young guys, pre-teens and teenagers, they had a ball. My uncles and them, who were teenagers in the camp, they did the things normal American teenagers did – had dances, published high school newspapers, had social lives.”
No sense of that youthful exuberance amid the repression of confinement is present now at either the modest museum in Tulelake or the stark jail site in Newell. But Reynolds says the park service is recording oral histories from those incarcerated and “gather all that in one place.”
And, one day, that place will prove to be more than just a quick pump of the brake pedal on the way to somewhere else.
TULE LAKE UNIT NATIONAL MONUMENT
The temporary park is housed in the museum at the Tule Lake-Butte Valley Fairgrounds, 800 Main Street in Tulelake, featuring some exhibits and a guard tower and barracks from the original site. The visitor center is staffed from Memorial Day weekend to Labor Day from 8:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
• The actual Tule Lake Segregation Center is located 7 miles south in the town of Newell. A few barracks reside at Camp Tule Lake on Hill Road.
• Tours of the segregation center and Camp Tule Lake are held Saturdays at 1 p.m. Call (530) 260-0537 for reservations and information.
Call The Bee’s Sam McManis, (916) 321-1145. Follow him on Twitter @SamMcManis