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  • Inside the Effort to Preserve the Tragic Legacy of Colorado’s Japanese Internment Camp

    For more than two decades, a high school history teacher and his students have led the fight.

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    When John Hopper was growing up in Las Animas, his mother worked at the local hospital with a man named Emory Namura. Hopper heard people mention that Namura, an administrator, was a former resident of a nearby Japanese internment camp during World War II, yet as far as Hopper could see, no such place existed. He also never learned a thing about the long-gone outpost in high school, and it was only briefly mentioned during a history class he took at Colorado State University.

    Hopper returned to eastern Colorado to teach social studies at Granada High School, about 50 miles east of Las Animas, in 1989, and he couldn’t shake the mystery of the facility. So he asked a few students to help interview Namura about what is officially called the Granada Relocation Center. Namura, in turn, put a face on one of America’s most inhumane acts.

    John Hopper
    John Hopper. Photo courtesy of Rachel Woolf

    In the early 1940s, following the attack on Pearl Harbor, the federal government shipped some 120,000 people of Japanese descent to 10 internment camps across the United States in an effort to prevent Japanese spies from receiving intelligence. Namura and his family were forced to leave California and spend years on land outside of Granada in the detention area, commonly known as Camp Amache. Namura and his wife enjoyed fleeting moments of normalcy, such as shopping in town and even welcoming a child. But each night, they had to return to cloistered barracks along with more than 7,000 others.

    Camp Amache
    Photo courtesy of Rachel Woolf

    After the war, the camp was razed, most internees moved elsewhere, and Granada residents mostly ignored the site. Following the interview with Namura, who died in 2004, Hopper decided that Amache’s history needed to be preserved. Touching off a now two-decades-plus-long mission, Hopper and his students set out to find and interview more survivors, many living near Denver, and cleared overgrowth at the Amache cemetery, where around 10 camp residents are buried. Over time, the project was incorporated into Hopper’s curriculum, and by 2000, local teenagers had collected more than 32 hours of video interviews, prompting Hopper to open the Amache Museum in downtown Granada to house the artifacts. “We’ve got to remember this history,” he says, “so it doesn’t happen again.”

    Detention area internees
    Internees at the detention area. Photo courtesy of Denver Public Library

    As word spread about the archive, former internees and their descendants reached out from places like Chicago and Los Angeles to offer perspectives, photographs, and documents. “We created a community where people felt comfortable telling these stories,” says Tarin Kemp, a University of Denver student who started working at the museum in high school.

    Camp Amache
    Photo courtesy of Rachel Woolf

    In recent years, Hopper and his team have shifted their focus to restoring the camp’s ruins, most of which are currently cement foundations covered by sagebrush. The National Park Service (NPS) has awarded the group more than $64,000 in grants to map the former barracks, and the team hopes to eventually reconstruct many of them. In February, the NPS also announced it was considering including the location in the national park system, which would provide more funding to help increase awareness. The COVID-19 pandemic made that process more complicated, but no matter the outcome, Hopper and his students say they’ll keep working to ensure Amache is never forgotten.

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