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Amache concentration camp commencement: Honoring internee Marion Konishi

Marion Konishi on the day of her commencement speech June 25, 1943. Online image 210-G-B658. National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) 537226. Courtesy of NARA.

In protest of racism in 1955, Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery, Alabama, city bus. Twelve years earlier, Marion Konishi gave a speech. Who was Marion Konishi and why is she important in American history? Thanks to our Colorado politicians, the world will soon know more about her.

We know that Parks’ act of civil disobedience sparked a bus boycott against racism and fueled the civil rights movement. Now, students have a new female hero to admire for Women’s History Month. Konishi, like 8,000 other Japanese Americans, was confined behind barbed wire at a World War II Relocation Center on Colorado’s high plains near the town of Granada and the Kansas state line.

Valedictorian of her high school class, she gave the high school commencement speech at the Amache Concentration Camp on June 25, 1943. Her citizen number as an internee or prisoner was 6E-12-D. Parks was booked by Alabama police and released. Konishi had to stay behind barbed wire. Searchlights scanned the camp at night.

Barracks at Camp Amache. (Photo by Tom Parker of Camp Amache, Denver Public Library, Western History Collection X-6570)

Thanks to Colorado’s U.S. Sens. Michael Bennett and John Hickenlooper, both Democrats, and Colorado U.S. Reps. Joe Neguse, a Democrat, and Ken Buck, a Republican, the Senate recently passed legislation to establish the Amache National Historic Site as a unit of the National Park Service. Now, Americans will learn even more about the World War II incarceration of 120,000 Japanese Americans and the unique circumstances of the Granada War Relocation Center where Konishi was forced to live.

Her high school commencement speech will become famous and will hopefully find its way into American history textbooks to be read by other high school students trying to understand America’s racist past. Her words and her patriotism, her belief in America, are profound.

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I went to high school not far from the concentration camp. We lived on a ranch north of Lamar, and my stepfather had joined the law firm of Donald T. Horn. I became a history major at Colorado College in Colorado Springs and one afternoon while home from campus, my brother called the house and asked me to come down to the law office.

“Why?” I said. He replied, “The legal secretary is cleaning up the office and wants to throw out some boxes of old files. You should see them first.”

“What’s in them?” I asked. My brother harrumphed on the phone. “Just get down here,” he said.

So I drove into town and stretched out on a long oak table were boxes of dusty files, letters, reports, memoranda and news clippings. I looked at the documents, and then it hit me. These were legal files from the Japanese American concentration camp at the eastern edge of Prowers County. Here was a treasure trove of original historical materials, but I did not yet realize how valuable they were.

I did not know then that of the 10 concentration camps where 120,000 Japanese Americans had been interned, this was one of the few camps where a private attorney’s files still existed in a complete collection. It was all here. One of the documents was a high school commencement speech, a faded mimeographed copy with a rusty staple in the upper left-hand corner. I began to read.

Foundations from wooden barracks at the camp. There are no buildings left at Amache so once it becomes a National Historic Site under the purview of the National Park Service what will be interpreted is the site itself and a reconstructed water tower, which all the internees referenced and remembered. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)

First, I was struck by the title. “AMERICA, OUR HOPE IS IN YOU.” Was that written by a young girl living behind barbed wire? A girl whose family’s possessions had been lost in the haste to leave the West Coast under armed guard?

She started her speech: “One and a half years ago I knew only one America – an America that gave me an equal chance in the struggle for life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. If I were asked then – ‘what does America mean to you?’ – I would answer without any hesitation and with all sincerity – ‘America means freedom, equality, security, and justice.’”

In the next paragraph, she reiterated her question about the meaning of America. Konishi wrote without malice: “I wondered if America still means and will mean freedom, equality, security, and justice when some of its citizens were segregated, discriminated against, and treated so unfairly. I knew I was not the only American seeking an answer.”

Sitting comfortably in a law office, thinking about the untold story of the removal of Japanese Americans from their homes, livelihoods and everything they had built and saved for in California, Oregon and Washington, I could hardly believe the quiet, calm, measured cadence of this young girl’s speech. She wrote, “Sometimes America failed and suffered. Sometimes she made mistakes, great mistakes, but she always admitted them and tried to rectify all the injustice that flowed from them.”

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Stunned, I put down her speech. We saved the files and donated them to Special Collections at Tutt Library at Colorado College. I wrote my history senior thesis based on the papers and now that they are on the internet, other students have used them to try to understand why we would jail Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor when during WWII we were also at war with Germans and Italians. We never forced German Americans or Italian Americans into confinement. We never forced them to abandon their hard-earned property, their farms, their fishing boats, their businesses.

Japanese Americans being evacuated from Bainbridge Island, Wash., by the U.S. Army. (Courtesy of Seattle Post-Intelligencer Collection, Museum of History & Industry)

Yes, the Japanese had bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, in a despicable act, a day that will “live in infamy,” but these were Americans. Japanese Americans. Born in America, under the Constitution they were citizens accorded all the rights of citizenship, yet those basic rights had been ignored because of President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066. Japanese Americans had been rounded up and forced into camps deep in the American West. Here was a young girl, a stellar student, valedictorian of her high school class, trying to make sense of it all.

As she wrote her speech, she tried to be “unmindful of the searchlights reflecting in my windows.” Konishi said, “True, I was just as much embittered as any other evacuee, but I had found in the past the answer to my question. I also found my faith in America – faith in the America that is still alive in the hearts, minds and consciences of true Americans today.”

Young Japanese American men would join the 442nd Infantry Regiment and become, according to historians, “the most decorated unit for its size and length of service in U.S. military history” as they fought for their nation and their honor in Italy and across Europe. After the war, government officials worried that the internees would stay in the camps, would linger, would become wards of the state. Not Japanese Americans. They suffered their losses with quiet dignity. They resettled and relocated, many to Denver and other cities. They fiercely moved into the postwar American middle class vowing to have college degrees and professional careers that could never be taken from them. Marion Konishi understood. Even at her young age, she knew.

This is a posed publicity photo taken Dec. 19, 1942, of the Ninomiya family showing their apparent comfort as they wait out the war at Camp Amache in Prowers County, Colorado. (Photo by Tom Parker, Denver Public Library Western History Collection X6566)

Her final words resound with resilience. It was a dark and desperate time, yet she ended her speech: “Can we, the graduating class of Amache Senior High School, still believe that America means freedom, equality, security, and justice? Do I believe this? Do my classmates believe this: Yes, with all our heart, because in that faith, in that hope, is my future, our future, and the world’s future.”

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Reading her words almost brings me to tears now as it did decades ago when I first read them as a college senior. I am glad my family donated the legal papers, including a copy of Konishi’s speech, to a prominent archive. I am thankful that President Joe Biden will sign into law a bill to preserve the Amache site of such injustice.

Rosa Parks is a familiar name in the civil rights movement. I hope that Marion Konishi’s name, her speech and the circumstances under which she wrote and gave it will also find its way into high school history textbooks. We need her faith in our nation’s future.

Andrew Gulliford is an award-winning author and editor and professor of history at Fort Lewis College. Reach him at gulliford_a@fortlewis.edu

Granada High School teacher John Hopper with donated artifacts from Camp Amache, including original documents and a handblown glass sake bottle. Hopper and his students worked diligently to have the Amache site preserved. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Detail of a wooden sign at the Camp Amache entrance showing the position and wide variety of buildings at the camp. The Granada Relocation Center will become a unit of the National Park Service. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)
Detail of a wooden sign at the Camp Amache entrance showing the position and wide variety of buildings at the camp. The Granada Relocation Center will become a unit of the National Park Service. (Courtesy of Andrew Gulliford)