The Japanese American National Museum will present “Uprooted: Japanese American Farm Labor Camps During World War II,” a traveling exhibition featuring the work of Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Lee in Oregon and Idaho, from Sept. 27 to Jan. 8, 2017.
During the war, the U.S. government forcibly removed over 120,000 Japanese Americans from the Pacific Coast. These individuals, two-thirds of them U.S. citizens, were sent to ten concentration camps. In some cases, they were first placed in one of 16 assembly centers while the camps were still being built.
Between 1942 and 1944, thousands of these Japanese Americans were then moved from assembly centers and concentration camps to farm labor camps as a way to mitigate the wartime labor shortage. Some 33,000 individual contracts were issued for seasonal farm labor, with many Japanese Americans assigned to work in the sugar beet industry, which played a vital role in producing munitions and synthetic rubber for the military. Under this seasonal leave program, Japanese Americans could earn better wages while contributing to the war effort.
In the summer of 1942, Lee visited four Japanese American farm labor camps located near the towns of Nyssa, Ore.; and Rupert, Shelley, and Twin Falls, Idaho. He captured the laborers’ day-to-day lives in evocative detail, producing rare images of a little-documented episode of American history.
Lee also recorded the forced removal of individuals and families in California, taking a total of nearly 600 photographs of the Japanese American wartime experience. According to his biographer, F. Jack Hurley, Lee abhorred the government’s treatment of Japanese Americans and wanted to document what he described as a very dark period in American history.
“Uprooted” showcases a selection of Lee’s farm labor camp photographs accompanied by his original captions. Many of these images have never before been exhibited. The exhibition also includes a short documentary film with first-hand accounts of life in the camps.
An extensive website at uprootedexhibit.com provides materials for further study, including photographs not in the exhibition, historical documents, video clips, transcripts from oral history interviews, and lesson plans. “Uprooted” seeks to contextualize Lee’s images within the history of the FSA as well as Japanese American camp life in the two states.
From 1935 to 1944, the FSA’s renowned documentary photography program produced approximately 175,000 black-and-white film negatives and 1,600 color images. Trained as a chemical engineer, Lee joined Roy Stryker’s staff of FSA photographers in 1936. He continued to work for the New Deal agency until 1943. Lee was by far the most prolific of the agency’s photographers, producing more than 5,000 images in less than seven years. Perhaps best known for his series on Pie Town, N.M., Lee photographed across the country.
“Uprooted” was organized by the Oregon Cultural Heritage Commission (OCHC) and funded, in part, by grants from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program; the Idaho Humanities Council, a state-based program of the National Endowment for the Humanities; Fred W. Fields Fund of the Oregon Community Foundation; the Rose E. Tucker Charitable Trust; and the Malheur County Cultural Trust.
Museum hours are Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday, Saturday, and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Thursday from noon to 8 p.m. General admission is $9 adults, $5 students and seniors, free for members and children under age five. Admission is free to everyone on Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. and every third Thursday of the month from noon to 8 p.m. General admission prices and free admission times may not apply to specially ticketed exhibitions. Closed Monday, Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day. For more information visit www.janm.org or call (213) 625-0414.