Actor George Takei was in McGehee last week to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the World War II Japanese American Internment Museum, which is in the city's former depot.
Following the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt established the War Relocation Authority. The WRA, in turn, selected 10 locations to house almost 110,000 Japanese Americans. Two of those camps were in southeast Arkansas. One was at Rohwer in Desha County. The other was at Jerome on the line between Chicot and Drew counties.
"Operating from October 1942 to November 1945, the camps eventually incarcerated nearly 16,000 Japanese Americans," Russell Bearden writes for the Encyclopedia of Arkansas History & Culture. "This was the largest influx and incarceration of any racial or ethnic group in the state's history. ... Many Americans, especially those living on the West Coast, feared an eventual invasion by the empire of Japan. More than 80 percent of the Japanese American population living in the United States at the time lived along the coast in Washington, Oregon and California. Many West Coast citizens viewed the concentrated Japanese American communities as potential enclaves for espionage."
On Feb. 19, 1942, Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066. It gave his secretary of war the power to designate areas from which "any and all persons may be excluded." Executive Order 9102 on March 18, 1942, created the WRA. The two easternmost internment camps in the country were in swampy, tax-delinquent lands in the Arkansas Delta. Takei, who portrayed Hikaru Sulu on the original Star Trek television series and in movies, lived at Rohwer with his family.
"I was too innocent to understand what that experience meant," Takei said when he came to McGehee in 2013 for the museum's dedication. "To my parents, it was intimidating and infuriating. I could see the barbed-wire fence outside my tarpaper schoolhouse window as I would say 'with liberty and justice for all.' My father said, 'Our democracy is a people's democracy and can be as good as people are, or as fallible as people are.' "
It's a tribute to residents of the Delta that Arkansas has done more than any state to ensure that people know about this period in American history. Takei said last week that the museum at McGehee is "teaching a lesson that all Americans should know about."
"This museum tells our story," Takei said at the fifth-anniversary event. "And by 'our,' I don't mean Japanese Americans. It's our American story that we tell in this wonderful adaptive reuse of a historic building, the railway station that used to connect McGehee with the rest of the world. And this city is sharing the story. ... We're all here to learn but also to rededicate ourselves to the premise that this should never happen again."
It's fitting that the museum is in the former depot because McGehee is a railroad town. The Little Rock, Mississippi River & Texas Railway came to what's now McGehee in 1878 and branched from here in four directions as it headed to Little Rock, Memphis and the Louisiana towns of Tallulah and Alexandria. Abner McGehee wasted no time opening a commissary. He was named the first postmaster on March 8, 1879, with the post office inside his commissary. McGehee was incorporated as a city in March 1906. In 1910, railroad shops were moved from Mer Rouge in northern Louisiana to McGehee. The population tripled from 1,157 in the 1910 census to 3,488 in 1930 as the railroad roundhouses operated 24 hours a day.
Like most other Delta towns, McGehee has struggled economically in recent decades. Its population declined from 5,671 in the 1980 census to 4,219 in the 2010 census. The museum provides Arkansans with a reason for a road trip to McGehee. I suggest arriving in time for an early lunch at Hoot's BBQ, which David and Susie Powell opened on U.S. 65 in April 2012 and named after the town's beloved high school mascot, the Owls. David Powell died in June 2015, but the restaurant is still going strong.
After lunch, spend at least an hour at the museum and then head to Jerome and Rohwer. Jerome is 18 miles south of McGehee. It was the last of the centers to open on Oct. 6, 1942, and the first to close on June 30, 1944. Its population reached 7,932 in January 1943. After the center closed, it was a prisoner of war camp for Germans. There's a monument at the site, and the remains of a hospital smokestack can be seen.
Rohwer, a National Historic Landmark that's 12 miles northeast of McGehee, was the last camp to close. There are monuments created during the internment, including one honoring Japanese Americans who died fighting for the United States during World War II. There's also a small cemetery at the site.
"Population and age statistics were constantly changing," Bearden writes. "Well over 90 percent of the adult Rohwer population of 8,475 at its peak had been involved in agriculture, commercial fishing or businesses that centered on the distribution of agricultural products."
At one point, there were 2,447 school-age children. Takei, 81, was among them. He said the museum at McGehee "transports us to another time for America. ... To be an American citizen is something very important that too many people take lightly. We must know what it means to be an American citizen and how precious our rights are. I value my citizenship profoundly. That's represented by the stories told by this museum."
Senior Editor Rex Nelson's column appears regularly in the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.
Editorial on 04/25/2018