by Danielle Butler
Since early July of this year I have been working on a virtual exhibit to document restoration efforts on the monuments and headstones at the Rohwer Relocation Center Cemetery by the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture (CAHC). The goal for the virtual exhibit was to educate visitors about the cemetery itself as well as provide insight into cemetery preservation as a whole.
Each cemetery preservation effort is of unique circumstance. Rohwer’s monuments and headstones were constructed entirely from local material and do not entirely mimic any traditional or popular style from the period. To most accurately represent work that had been completed at the cemetery in the exhibit, a site visit was scheduled to photograph and geo-locate the monuments and headstones.
In early October, I travelled to Desha County, Arkansas, with CAHC staff members Shannon Lausch, Chad Garrett, and Kimberly Kaczenski to visit the Rohwer Relocation Center Cemetery and World War II Japanese American Internment Museum.
The museum alone was an eye-opening experience. The panels and artifacts showed what life was like for the internees and how limited their resources were while being interned. This greatly informed the theme of our exhibit content and it quickly became apparent that limited resources defined many of the unique characteristics of the cemetery at Rohwer.
McGhee, Arkansas, is a small town, but the closest developed city to the cemetery. The city of Rohwer primarily consists of farmland. We drove through field after field before finally arriving at the turn to the cemetery, where it eventually revealed itself, centered in the middle of two expansive cotton fields.
We were all surprised by how isolated the site really was. I think Garrett most accurately described it as “a small patch of sacred land in the middle of farmland.”
“It is hard to imagine that close to 8,500 people were uprooted from their lives and forced to live in what were essentially army barracks for three years. A whole community of people lived, worked, and – as the cemetery illustrates – died here. But if there was not a concerted effort to preserve this history, someone driving past the area would never have known. They might be curious about the old smokestack in the distance, but that may be all” said Lausch.
Because of this isolation, the cemetery was more subject to vandalism and neglect. It became immediately apparent to us how important this preservation effort is for restoring and retaining the memory of the site.
“It is surprising that the cemetery was built by hand by the internees and that it was initially unplanned” said Garrett in admiration at the ingenuity of the original construction.
The Rohwer Relocation Center Cemetery is the only remaining part of the site. None of the buildings survived after the war. They were sold and moved or torn down. Jerome, Arkansas, also served as a site for a relocation center during the second World War, but none of that center remains. The cemetery at Rohwer “serves as a strong visual reminder of this dark chapter in American history” stated Lausch.
Danielle Butler is enrolled in the Public History Master’s Program at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. She currently a graduate assistant with the UALR Center for Arkansas History and Culture.
The Rohwer Relocation Center Cemetery Preservation Project is based upon work assisted by a grant from the U.S. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the U.S. Department of the Interior. This material received Federal financial assistance for the preservation and interpretation of U.S. confinement sites where Japanese Americans were detained during World War II.