BY SAMANTHA MASUNAGA
Rafu STAFF intern
Today, fairgoers know the Fresno Fairgrounds as the location of the Big Fresno Fair, an annual event that features live entertainment, rides and horse racing.
But in 1942, the property was known as the Fresno Assembly Center and held a total of 5,344 Japanese American internees who were later shipped to inland internment camps.
The assembly center was occupied from May 6 to Oct. 30, 1942 and was the last center to close.
“We would sweep the dirt with brooms- make it spick and span,” said Saburo Masada, a retired Presbyterian pastor who was sent to the assembly center with his family at the age of 12. “We tried to make it as beautiful as we could.”
In spite of the tarpaper barracks, outhouses and crude showers made by drilling holes in overhead water pipes, Masada said he remembered some Nisei rallying together to set up programs for the internees, like classes, schools and a talent show.
“Everyone pitched in to make life something we could enjoy,” he said.
While the land currently has a plaque that commemorates the history of the fairgrounds, plans are in the works to build a larger memorial to tell the story of local internees’ experiences.
Groundbreaking for the project began July 7 and the first two phases of the memorial should be completed by October, just in time for the Big Fresno Fair, said Deborah Ikeda, a member of the project advisory committee.
“Over the years, (the former memorial) really deteriorated,” she said. “The idea was to make a site that highlighted the internment and say what happened there.”
The first two phases of the project will include a storyboard wall with photos and stories from internees, many of whom were from the central San Joaquin Valley and nearby Amador County.
Beautification additions like new planters, a pool for a water fountain and inset boulders will also be added, in addition to photo banners, which will be hung at the main entrance to the fairgrounds, said Roberta Barton, publicity chair for the memorial project.
“Thousands of people go to the Fairgrounds, and not just for the Fair,” she said. “It’s a good opportunity to educate all of them.”
This first step of the renovation will cost a total of $75,000, Barton said.
The final phase of the project, which includes the installation of granite and tile and the completion of the fountain, will likely be done by 2011 and cost $50,000, she said.
Funding from the project has come from a variety of sources, such as a $25,000 grant from the Civil Liberties Public Education Program, community donations and corporate sponsors.
The memorial has also raised $4,000 from the sale of donor bricks, which will be displayed on site, and are sponsored by former internees, their families, or even individuals who watched over property for their Japanese American friends, Barton said.
Although public education is one of the project’s major goals, Masada said he hopes the memorial will also help Japanese Americans to learn from the wartime experience and begin to heal.
“I really feel that Niseis buried (the internment) and didn’t talk about it because it was so traumatic,” he said, adding that some former internees try to better the experience by focusing on the positive aspects, such as new friends or the presumed vacation from work. “We need to separate the crime from the sacrifice and triumph. It’s important to get the story straight about what happened to us.”
The public is invited to sponsor personalized donor bricks which will line the memorial and help tell the local story of internment. For information, contact Roberta Barton at [email protected]