“I think they took us by bus to Union Station in Portland. We were then put on a train. We called it ‘the sore arm trip.’ Sore arm because of the inoculation shots, and I called it the midnight ride to Nyssa.”
Mathias Uchiyama was just a boy when he and his family were forcefully moved to a farm labor camp in the midst of World War II. He was one of over 110,000 Japanese Americans facing relocation and imprisonment between 1942 and 1945.
The first stop on his journey was the Portland Assembly Center where the War Relocation Authority had been incarcerating Japanese Americans. After a lengthy process, he would be taken to the labor camp in a small rural town on the Oregon-Idaho border.
Many were sent to farm labor camps like the one in Nyssa. It was the first farm camp of its type and at its peak held 350 prisoners, most of whom stayed in eastern Oregon until the war’s end.
Uchiyama has spent his whole life in the United States. He grew up in Oregon’s Willamette Valley where his family ran and operated a farm.
Starting Feb. 11, the Lane County Historical Museum will be featuring, “Uprooted: Japanese American Farm Labor Camps During World War II,” an exhibit highlighting the experiences of those affected by U.S. farm labor camps that imprisoned Japanese Americans during World War II.
The internment of Japanese Americans during WWII was an action in response to the attack on Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941 — the main reasoning for this was national security. In retrospect, critics argue that widespread racism was the motivation for such a decision.
The exhibit is comprised of 45 photos taken by Farm Security Administration photographer Russell Lee as well as short video clips featuring testimonials from those such as Uchiyama who actually experienced the camps first-hand.
“It was heart attack work,” Uchiyama said. “Work that required a lot of bending. I didn’t work too much because I was so young. I was more of the water boy.”
Between April and August of 1942 Lee shot nearly 600 images of Japanese Americans in California, Oregon and Idaho. Lee took 15 photos of the Uchiyama family, his largest single photographic series of the farm labor camps.
“Mr. Lee was kind enough to take our picture. I think if it wasn’t for him it wouldn’t be a complete story. But I can’t remember him. It upsets me,” Uchiyama said.
Lee began his career as a photojournalist in 1935 after he purchased his first camera and began documenting the poverty he encountered on the streets of New York City. From there he obtained a job at the FSA taking pictures documenting the administration’s fight against rural poverty.
“Uprooted” is a traveling exhibit that has been featured at museums and universities around the nation, most recently at the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles. It will also be presented in Philadelphia later this month.
Faith Kreskey is the curator of exhibits at the museum. She believes that in today’s political climate, it’s more important than ever to keep the history of this country in mind.
“A lot of people are only dimly aware of what happened. These photos help personalize and humanize the internment. It’s a good reminder that these were real events that happened to real people,” Kreskey said. “These are people that did nothing wrong. Business people and their children who have spent their whole life in Oregon, persecuted because of their race.”
“Uprooted” will be featured at the Lane County Art Museum starting Feb. 11 and ending May 6. Open daily from 10:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. Tickets are $5.