Filling Historical Gaps

Crowdsourcing names of Japanese Americans interned during WWII.

japanese americans in an internment camp

Armed conflicts, forced migrations, and displacements uproot people and disrupt their histories. The recovery efforts to fill the historical gaps created by traumatic events can be a lifetime task for survivors and descendants of those who died.

This essay was adapted from the Alta newsletter, delivered every Thursday.

One legacy still being collected and archived is the memorial ephemera, oral histories, and preservation efforts of the descendants of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans who were forced into internment camps during World War II. After the attacks on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 led to the seizure of Japanese Americans’ businesses and homes and the relocation of 120,000 men, women, and children to isolated government camps and regional detention centers across California and the greater West from 1942 to 1946.

Now, thanks to social media and an increasing awareness of the need for digital archiving, people from across the country are attempting to fill those gaps. A new effort by Flickr and the Library of Congress seeks to identify previously unknown subjects in photos taken of Japanese Americans in internment camps through crowdsourcing and online outreach.

The 30 Flickr-hosted photos were taken by photographers from the War Relocation Authority’s Information Division starting in 1942. The images evoke a dark time in American history. A Clem Albers photo shows a crowded dining hall located high along the Sierra Nevada at Manzanar. A Dorothea Lange snapshot captures a boy staring straight into her lens while his father looks in the opposite direction, waiting to be one of the first San Franciscan Japanese American families displaced and relocated.

Many of these photos were taken across California, including in detention and relocation centers in Salinas, San Pedro, and Arcadia. It’s a reminder that nearly every county fairgrounds in California was once a relocation center, many now bearing a California state monument detailing the number of people interned at those locations, a reminder that places may change, but the stories they hold remain.

The effort to identify who, exactly, is captured in these photos is now a question being posed to people across the world. As Carol Benovic-Bradley, director of community at Flickr, notes in a blog post announcing the collaboration in November, “Survivors and descendants of the incarceration during World War II are encouraged to provide names of unidentified persons and deeper context for the history behind the photos.”

Mitsuko Brooks, an artist and guest assistant on the project, notes in a Library of Congress blog how some of these photos bear witness to key community locations, businesses, and homes that might otherwise be lost or forgotten. Regarding one exterior photo of a store in Los Angeles, Brooks notes, “This photo of Little Tokyo was taken in one of the few Japantowns that still exist today. There were over forty in existence before World War II.” The hope is to generate the twofold benefit of archiving: cataloging what came before, while providing historians with new tools for future research.

The Flickr–Library of Congress project reminds me of similar efforts to preserve the historical narratives and cultural records of communities uprooted by war and armed conflict. Densho, a Seattle-based organization, has dedicated itself to preserving “the testimonies of Japanese Americans who were unjustly incarcerated during World War II before their memories are extinguished.” The group recently worked with journalists at the Seattle Times to analyze the paper’s harmful 1942 coverage of the forced relocation of over 200 Japanese Americans living on Bainbridge Island. Throughout a detailed interactive website, the Times visually dissects the paper’s previous wrongs according to three color-coded sections—language changes, presentation/structure changes, and reporting changes.

As we awake daily to the news of war, displacement, and forced migration all over the world and Americans continue to reconcile the past internment of Japanese Americans with our current immigration policies at the southern border with Mexico and Central America, the need to preserve the stories of historically marginalized communities is essential. Historical preservation efforts that empower through access and inclusion remind us that even as institutions have the power to erase communities, histories, and people, individuals have the power to bring them back.

While museums can be a place for this sort of preservation, the internet has become an accessible, borderless alternative. “Museums are a place we go to think about the long arc of time, information that’s deeply reflected upon and researched,” says Adriel Luis, the curator of digital and emerging practice at the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center (APAC). But not everyone can make it to museums.

Sometimes, there may not even be a museum. APAC, for one, lacks a physical exhibition space, so much of Luis’s work since 2013 has been dedicated to “breaking down the imaginary divide between physical and digital” through a hybrid approach of online installations and in-person pop-ups. APAC previously worked with Flickr in 2014 on a crowdsourced campaign, A Day in the Life of Asian Pacific America, where in a single day some 500 people submitted over 2,000 photos, creating what Luis describes as a “snapshot beyond coastal, metropolitan experiences.”

Luis describes the challenge of curating digital archives across an infinite internet: “The idea of using the internet to bring up underrepresented stories itself is a moving target as the internet expands with content. You open your feed and immediately have access to hundreds of posts addressing something underrepresented. They end up being a bunch of needles in the haystack, and if you’re looking for that one needle, now there’s a bunch of needles instead of just hay.”

Luis also hopes that any future online literacy training efforts generated by crowdsourcing “include and center user privacy,” since the people in the images, while in some cases no longer alive, still may have ancestors living in our highly connected digital world.

A recent example of this can be found in the digital release of 1950s census data in early April. The new National Archives–created website gives the current generation a digital portal into the lives of former generations. Searching it, I can see that my grandfather and grandmother, newcomers from Puerto Rico in 1949, were listed as white on government documents, despite their state of origin clearly marked “Puerto Rico.” The occupants of the entire East Harlem tenement building on East 112th Street where they lived briefly in 1950 is handwritten in a formal cursive, mere months after their arrival. I emailed my dad, who was six years old at that time, an image of the census and asked him about the building.

“Everyone in this building suffered,” he wrote back. “All were Puerto Ricans in an Italian neighborhood because the building had been condemned and no one else would live in the building with no heat or hot water.”

Just one digitized handwritten sheet brought it back for him. It’s a reminder that emotions, histories, and countless personal stories can be found in similar archives. Each document rediscovered and digitized proves that indeed we were—we are—here.•

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