Forward Into the Past

At Camp Amache, a school project reopens an ugly chapter of Colorado history.

John Hopper got a job teaching history at Granada High on the day before school started eleven years ago. His predecessor had quit unexpectedly, leaving behind her students, her classroom and a single piece of yellow paper taped to the desk outlining her courses: world history, government, geography, U.S. history and civics. Hopper, who was 27 at the time, had a double degree in history and psychology from Colorado State University in Fort Collins, a master's degree in secondary education from Adams State College in Alamosa -- and almost no teaching experience.

"As a young man coming out of college, it was an eye-opener," he says. "I spent that first year just keeping my head above water and a lot of late nights trying to stay ahead of the kids."

But Hopper already knew a lot about Granada. A native of Las Animas, about 45 minutes west on U.S. Highway 50, he'd grown up hearing about the town and its particular secret.

John Hopper (center) and his students spent countless hours over the spring and summer building a new roof.
John Hopper (center) and his students spent countless hours over the spring and summer building a new roof.

In 1942, on an expanse of gritty farmland southwest of town, the federal government had built an internment camp to house thousands of Japanese-Americans forcibly removed from their homes in California. Officially known as the Granada Relocation Center, the facility was also called Camp Amache, after the daughter of a nineteenth-century Cheyenne Indian chief. Camp Amache was one of ten relocation centers established during World War II in the rugged interior West, designed to detain more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans -- about two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens.

Hopper's mother had worked with a former Camp Amache resident who stayed in Colorado after the center closed. "She knew about it, and about him being in the camp -- a lot of people didn't -- and she would relay the stories," he says. "So I was always interested in it. But it was a freak of nature for me to actually teach in Granada."

One afternoon, during his third week at the school, Hopper drove up the road leading to what was left of the camp and looked around. He didn't see much. Abandoned in October 1945, Camp Amache had been razed, its 550 buildings carted off to other military locations, sold to business enterprises and school districts, or simply demolished; nearly five decades later, the land looked almost as it had before the camp was built, a giant sandy rise covered with yucca, sagebrush and weeds. The only signs that this site had once held a bustling community were the cement foundations of the barracks, a few plumbing fixtures and the wind-blown trees, Chinese elms and cottonwoods, that the camp's residents had planted to provide some refuge from Granada's blistering summers and blustery winters.

Here was a piece of American history, as real as Gettysburg or the Alamo, but located in the back yard of a tiny town on the plains, only a mile from his school, utterly unexplored and almost entirely forgotten. "I looked at some of the really bright kids in my class and decided I needed to do something new and something different, and that I should use this opportunity," Hopper remembers. "Other history teachers would be frothing at the mouth to have something like this."

The next school year, Hopper secured permission from Granada High's principal to research the history of Camp Amache as a class project. The first assignment for Hopper's students was to track down former detainees now living in California and Colorado (about 2,000 had remained in this state) to get their views on the camp.

"I interviewed some local people who gave us quite a bit of information about where to find them," Hopper says, "and we went from there, trying to find the people who lived there. That was going to be the hardest thing. It was tooth and nail, scratching up this stuff."

But their timing couldn't have been better. As Hopper and his students were dusting off Camp Amache's story, the rest of the country was just beginning to face this part of its past -- a terrible and embarrassing chapter that had been hidden, kept out of the history books and ignored for almost five decades.

Although Japanese-American civic groups had been pressuring the federal government since the 1970s to make amends, it wasn't until 1988 that President Ronald Reagan offered the first apology to detainees in the form of the Civil Liberties Act, which acknowledged "the fundamental injustice of the evacuation, relocation, and internment of United States citizens and permanent resident aliens of Japanese ancestry." This act created the Office of Redress Administration to reimburse detainees and their families for lost jobs and belongings, and to attempt to repay them for stolen freedom; over the ten years it was open, the office paid out $1.6 billion in $20,000 chunks to 82,219 people.

The payments attracted a lot of attention, and in 1989, California enacted a controversial resolution calling on its schools to share the findings of President Jimmy Carter's Commission on Wartime Relocation, released in 1983, which condemned the creation of the camps. In 1992, Congress established the Manzanar National Historic Site in California; Manzanar had been one of the country's ten relocation centers.

Over the next decade, a number of civic groups were organized to preserve the vestiges of the camps -- in addition to Manzanar and Camp Amache, eight more were scattered across Arizona, Arkansas, California, Idaho, Utah and Wyoming -- and to find ways to teach the public about their existence. Hopper and his students became part of this movement. Together with the Denver Central Optimist Club, which consists entirely of Japanese-Americans, and the Amache Historical Society, a California organization made up of former Camp Amache internees, they've worked to gather information about the camp and raise money to salvage its remains, which are threatened by time, weather and vandalism. Through their efforts, Camp Amache was placed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1994.

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