Densho Digital Archive
Manzanar National Historic Site Collection
Title: James T. Johnston - William R. Johnston - Dorothy J. Whitlock Interview
Narrators: James T. Johnston, William R. Johnston, Dorothy J. Whitlock
Interviewer: Kristen Luetkemeier
Location: Sedona, Arizona
Date: April 16, 2012
Densho ID: denshovh-jjames_g-01-0004

<Begin Segment 4>

KL: Well, let's go kind of... let's talk about the move to Rohwer and how you found out that you were going to go there. What do you remember about your parents telling you you were gonna...

WJ: We, of course, were told when we left Dyess...

DW: We went to Little Rock.

WJ: Mother and us kids moved to Little Rock, North Little Rock. My dad showed up on the weekends. They explained why he was doing it, he was involved in the camp, Rohwer.

DW: Japanese relocation camp, we understood that.

WJ: It wasn't completed yet, so we couldn't go yet.

DW: They told us that the Japanese were being moved from the coast inland and put in camps, and that we would be living in a camp with the Japanese relocated people. And so we kind of understood that, but didn't make any big deal out of it.

KL: Had you been around Japanese people before?

DW: No, we lived out in Dyess. You don't even, you're in the middle of Arkansas, cotton farming country, and there were no black people even in Dyess. I don't know how that discrimination happened...

WJ: There was one. Don't you remember?

DW: Oh, and Snowball, his son, who was black, but they did yardwork.

WJ: They didn't live in that house.

DW: No, and they didn't go to school with us. I always thought that was an isolated --

WJ: He was probably the handyman for the project, you know, keep up the administration, he'd mow the grass at the administration building. He also would stand at one end of the lane, I'd ride my bicycle, but couldn't start off or stop. And so he'd stand on one end and Mother would stand on the other, they'd turn me around like that.

DW: Anyway, I've always thought Dyess was a little strange to live in, cotton plantation country, and have no blacks within your, incorporated -- wasn't incorporated, but your area.

WJ: There is now, but there wasn't.

DW: Yeah, but it wasn't then.

KL: And you had been around black people before you moved, it was more before you went to Dyess?

WJ: Just occasional.

DW: I had not.

WJ: In Little Rock you'd see 'em. We didn't have any in the schools.

DW: No, my introduction to black people was when we went to Rohwer, because my best friend Barbara lived outside in the little town of Rohwer, her dad was the big plantation man. And Barbara and I used to go visit with black people, and they had black servants. But that was where black people were around as well as Japanese.

JJ: I have no memory of any of this leading up to go to Rohwer, I was just too young. My first memories, really, clear memories are after Rohwer when we moved back to Dyess in the second grade, stayed there through the tenth grade. But even then, it was still, there were no blacks at all. And I remember being very conflicted when we moved to Memphis, and the black issue there was so foreign to me. I didn't have a feeling one way or the other, because I had just never been around black people. And, of course, it was really still tough back then, back of the bus...

KL: When did you move to Memphis?

JJ: When I was in the tenth grade. So born in '39, we went...

DW: It was after the war.

KL: Early '50s.

DW: When did you graduate?

JJ: '57, so moved in '55.

DW: '55, yeah. Because I was already at the university.

JJ: But it was, I remember being very shocked at the way things were. And I still remain very... I don't know the right word, uninformed, I guess. I just read The Help, and what was going on in Greenwood, Mississippi, was, you know, I'm in the tenth, eleventh grade, and they're killing people back there, and I didn't even know it. I never realized how really bad the situation was, and it was because of my Dyess background.

DW: We grew up really in --

JJ: There weren't any black people, period.

DW: In terms of two, if you think of two very unique segregated environments. And what I remember from the Rohwer school experience was I learned to be a minority, and I'd never had that experience. When we moved back to Dyess, then I'm kind of the top of the rung, because Dad's the boss. And here, you are surrounded, well, all our friends were Japanese. There was one little Caucasian girl that was almost my age, I can't remember her name.

WJ: I can remember one, this is me in second grade, one of the little Japanese boys called me a Caucasian. I went home to Mama and cried, you know.

DW: [Laughs] You didn't know what a Caucasian was.

WJ: He was calling me these names, you know

KL: What was the context? Was he teasing you, or was he just saying...

WJ: You know, he just, that was his remark, "You're a Caucasian and I'm Asian or Japanese," or whatever. But I didn't know what a Caucasian meant. I thought he was calling me a dirty name.

KL: What did your mom say?

DW: She explained what "Caucasian" was.

WJ: She explained what the word meant.

DW: But I've wondered often if we held any different mindsets growing up in kind of extremes of being a minority and being a majority with no blacks in the South. I mean, we didn't get normal impressions.

KL: I don't know what "normal" is, either. I mean, things are so different from age to age.

WJ: Like back then, normal for that part of Arkansas, certainly no blacks was not normal, and having Japanese was not normal. So that was totally an abnormal thing. But I don't know as it bothered us at all.

DW: It seemed fine. I remember, though, I do remember being very impressed when you left the camp to go into McGehee or somewhere shopping, we went through gates with armed Marines, guns on their shoulders, passes, we're in the fences with barbed wire on the top, guard towers on the corners. We all live in army barracks, everybody. Two families to a barrack for us --

WJ: Oh, two for us.

DW: Two for the bosses, and all the Japanese lived in three families to a barracks.

WJ: Three and four, some of them.

DW: But you drive through all this guarded stuff to get out, to look down. And you get into McGehee when we first moved, the camp was set up, and every shop window there's signs written, "No dirty Japanese here," "No filthy Chink," I mean, all these slurs and anger and hate and fear. And I'm sitting there thinking, "I live inside that fence, they aren't killing me. I'm going to school with them every day." Our, the gal that helped Mother in the house was Japanese, your best two little buddies were always at the house, and they're all Japanese. But you get another slant on fear and prejudice, because you see it happening and you know it's not a real thing.

KL: And that was your first exposure to that, too, it sounds like.

WJ: Well, I think everyone in the United States after Pearl Harbor, got exposed, anywhere they were, even just the nightly news, you got a lot of hate for the Japanese expressed, and felt by a lot of people.

<End Segment 4> - Copyright © 2012 Manzanar National Historic Site and Densho. All Rights Reserved.