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Town of McGehee, Arkansas Determined to Build Jerome/Rohwer Internment Museum

Photo: Deborah Horn
Jeff Owyang, co-chair of the WWII JA Internment Museum project, and McGehee Mayor Jack May at the Railroad Depot Museum.

Locals, including the small town’s mayor, have raised money for a museum to be built in honor of the former Japanese Americans incarcerated there during WWII.

By Christine McFadden, Correspondent
February 3, 2012

Mayor Jack May of McGehee, Arkansas has been working for years to construct a museum commemorating the Japanese American internees at the former Rohwer and Jerome World War II internment camps.

May is not JA, nor does he have relatives that were incarcerated. His connection goes back to his father who was a deputy sheriff and his uncle, a deputy security camp commander at Rohwer during WWII. Born in 1939, May recalls visiting his family working at Rohwer as a child.

“On Sunday afternoon, [I’d] go visit my aunt and uncle and cousin at this camp,” he said. May recalls the tarpaper buildings, the common cafeteria, and the muddy roads from a lack of gravel in the hastily constructed camps.

“We didn’t eat in the cafeteria with them [the JAs],” May recalled. “I think the families employed there had their own kitchens.”

When May was contacted two years ago by the Delta Cultural Center about a JA exhibit in storage looking for a permanent home, he agreed. The project to obtain funding and renovate an old train depot in McGehee began.

Located right between the two camps, the town of McGehee is the perfect place for a museum, geographically and historically.

“There’s a lot of people in our part of Southeast Arkansas that are very familiar with the two camps and have some connections with the people out there,” said May. “Even today in McGehee, Arkansas, I can show you buildings that were moved and are still being used.”

With enough grant money obtained, the WWII Japanese American Internment Museum project is currently aiming to open the physical museum by the end of 2012 with a dedication ceremony sometime in October. May is hoping that the museum will attract former internees and their families to visit.

“I was out there during the war as a small child,” he said. “These are the only two permanent camps east of Colorado.”

Building a Dream in McGehee

The previous exhibit, “Life Interrupted: The Japanese American Experience in World War II Arkansas,” was constructed by the Japanese American National Museum in Los Angeles and the University of Arkansas, Little Rock.

To bring it out of storage, the museum project and Mayor May have obtained $767,000 in grants from the National Park Foundation, the Arkansas Highway Department, the Arkansas Economic Development Commission, as well as local donations. 

The team is currently waiting approval from the Arkansas Highway Department to get started, said

Jeff Owyoung, co-chair of the WWII JA Internment Museum project.

“After that we will start taking bids on the project,” he said. Owyoung, of Chinese descent, was named co-chair of the museum project along with Melissa Gober after they were named McGehee Chamber of Commerce Man & Woman of the Year.  

He is hoping that the museum can one day display on loan a collection donated to the Butler Center for Arkansas Studies in Little Rock by former McGehee Mayor Rosalie Gould.

The collection features former artwork, letters, and other valuables from the camp. When art teacher Jamie Vogel, who taught in Rohwer, passed away in 1982, she willed her collection to Gould.

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