50th Anniversary of the Freedom Rides

Panelists (L to R): Robert Singleton, Helen Singleton, Sybil Jordan Hampton (moderator), Tamio Wakayama
Student with his artwork inspired by the Freedom Rides

I often take for granted how easy it is to follow breaking news. To find out what happened during a raid on a compound in Pakistan, I can turn on a 24-hours news channel or click on a few links to get caught up.

But 50 years ago the medium of television was new. And 50 years ago today, the first buses of Freedom Riders (and three reporters) left Washington, D.C. and headed South to test Boynton v. Virginia, the U.S. Supreme Court decision that had desegregated interstate travel. What followed changed the course of the United States history.

The Freedom Rides have been on our minds a lot this year. On February 9, 2011 the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History organized a Web cast and National Youth Summit that brought together Freedom Riders in D.C. and engaged five Smithsonian Affiliates from across the nation to discuss the meaning of the Freedom Rides and the role of young people in shaping America’s past and future.

Student with Dr. Robert Singleton

JANM was honored to have been selected as the West Coast venue for this program and streamed the Webcast to a live audience of students from LAUSD’s Civitas School of Leadership and Ribet Academy. Following the Webcast, Dr. Robert and Mrs. Helen Singleton, two Los Angeles-based Freedom Riders, and Mr. Tamio Wakayama, a Japanese Canadian member of SNCC, were on a panel moderated by Dr. Sybil Jordan Hampton, a member of JANM’s Board of Trustees and herself an important figure in the Civil Rights Movement. We were star struck!!!

This has gotten us thinking about how the Freedom Rides impacted Japanese Americans, and especially how it may have emboldened those in the Redress Movement. What were the Issei, Nisei, and Sansei who watched these images broadcast on national television (just as that medium was becoming commonplace) thinking and feeling as they watched the buses burning, the cruel racism, and brave individuals standing up for what was right?

What would you have been thinking if you had been watching those Freedom Riders make their way South under the “protection” of Boynton v. Virginia?

P.S. To learn more about the Freedom Rides, tune into your PBS station on May 16 and also we highly recommend The Children by David Halberstam. Learn more about new generation of young people who are about to retrace the path of the Freedom Riders. And, maybe you can catch a glimpse of the Singletons when Oprah Winfrey reunites the Freedom Riders on May 4.

Photographer: Tracy Kumono

Very special visitors from Bainbridge Island

It’s not everyday that you meet an icon but, recently at the Museum we did. The photograph of Fumiko Hayashida and her daughter Natalie is one that has become an iconic image so often associated with the telling of the history of the Japanese American incarceration. At 100 years old, Mrs. Hayashida is the oldest surviving person from Bainbridge Island, Washington who was incarcerated at Manzanar Concentration Camp. 

Photo by Richard Murakami

Last Wednesday, Mrs. Hayashida and Natalie were part of a group that visited the Museum through the Only What We Can Carry Project, which I was very excited to learn more about. Through this project, Bainbridge Island educators are partnered with current and former residents of Bainbridge Island who experienced the World War II removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans. Together, they retrace the 1942 journey of Japanese Americans from Bainbridge Island to Manzanar. JANM was lucky enough to host this wonderful group for a couple of hours when they stopped by on their way to Manzanar.  

Photo by Richard Murakami

As the group was lead through our Common Ground exhibition by the dynamic docent duo of Babe and Mary Karasawa, one of my most memorable moments was when they approached the large photograph of the Bainbridge Island community on the ferry dock as they were leaving the island in 1942. The Hayashidas, Frank Kitamoto, and Lily Kodama who were all in the group started to point themselves out in the photograph.  “That’s me, right there.”  This is a photograph I’ve seen hundereds of times since it is so prominently displayed in our gallery, but to see it with this group took it beyond being a historical image among many on our wall. It became a very personal photograph of an exact memory of very real people.

As someone who has the great privilege of working with educators and has witnessed what an essential part they can play in the teaching of the Japanese American experience, I was especially interested in meeting this group. We often think about how we won’t always have the first-person experience of camp but, watching our new friends leave the Museum to began their long car ride to Manzanar, I was reminded that in a way, first-person experiences of camp continue to be created today. The school teachers in this group will take what they’ve experienced on this journey back to their school and back to their students and they will share their own personal experiences of camp. What a wonderful way to keep the legacy alive through new personal histories.

In 1942, the first Civilian Exclusion Order issued was for Bainbridge Island and as a result, it was the first community of Japanese Americans to be forcibly removed from homes with just a few days to prepare.  For more on Bainbridge Island, be sure to come by the Museum on Saturday, April 30 at 2:00 pm to learn more about this unique community. There’ll be a Bainbridge Film Festival featuring films by Lucy Ostrander, including Fumiko Hayashida: The Woman Behind the Symbol, a film about one of JANM’s most memorable visitors.