Racial relations are more complex than the dualities to which we reduce them, and the history of racial relations even more so. Jan Jarboe Russell’s The Train to Crystal City is a history book, but she also highlights dangerous rhetoric and sentiment that prevails in our own time. Russell, a native of San Antonio, traces the establishment of a World War II internment camp in Crystal City, Texas. Japanese, German, and Italian families were imprisoned there, and it was the only family internment camp in the country.
Its location is remote and desolate. If you watch old Westerns about Texas, which depicts our state as barren desert, then you have a good concept of the landscape of Crystal City. It is located only 30 miles from the Mexican border, and continues to have its own racial struggles between Anglos (this inaccurate term is used in Texas to describe people with white skin, whether they have English ancestry or not) and Hispanics/Latinos (also a complicated term that includes people of various ancestries).
After Pearl Harbor, President Franklin Roosevelt ordered the detention of Japanese immigrants and Japanese Americans. This is well known. What is less well known is that German and Italian immigrants, in lesser numbers, were included in the internment camps. They were all classified as enemy aliens and therefore lost all constitutional protections. The camp in Crystal City also housed detained wives and children, some of whom were born in the United States and therefore American citizens. Crystal City also held immigrants and families from other Latin American countries (particularly Peru) who were originally from the Axis countries. Those immigrants were removed from their countries, declared illegal immigrants to the United States, and held in the same internment camps. Detainees throughout the country, again including American citizens, were used in prisoner exchanges with Japan and Germany, sometimes voluntarily and sometimes not.
The book traces the development of the camp’s construction, leadership, conflicts (mostly between the different nationalities of people), and everyday life for the prisoners. Russell relied on interviews with surviving children as well as contemporary FBI files and records from the camp itself.
What is convicting is that Americans all over, including in the White House and Administration, allowed fear and suspicion to overrule constitutional protections intended to guard against their actions. Some people, even some people in positions of influence and authority, spoke out, calling attention to the constitution, and to the practical matter than imprisoning children and families would hardly ensure their loyalty to the United States; in fact, it engendered the opposite.
Though internment camps are not immediately what comes to mind when I think of racist acts in the United States, it is clear that they were deeply and fundamentally racist. It is clear that the same impulses to expel or ban people who look or act or worship different are still alive. It is clear that we can manufacture just about any excuse to turn on our neighbors. It is clear that our fear can still overrun our constitutional safeguards. And it is clear that, even when we know our history (which in this case I did, but only vaguely), we tend to repeat it.
Not far from Crystal City, the U.S. government now runs another family detention facility, this one for immigrants from Mexico and Central America. In the name of safety and security, children are again imprisoned. May we confess, and repent, and learn from our mistakes.
Disclaimer: I feel thoroughly inadequate, naïve, and awkward as I write a post about anti-racism. But I figure that’s exactly why I need to do it, and keep listening, and keep talking some more. I write as a white woman, a lifelong Texas resident, and a Presbyterian minister.
Questions to consider
- What are the particular complexities of race in your area? What groups are the smallest portions of the population, that may need understanding and particular welcome?
- In what ways do you see the history of internment camps—and the fears that led to them—being repeated?
- Even within the camp at Crystal City, faced with the same mistreatment, the prisoners found ways to divide themselves from each other: Japanese against Germans; families who sent their students to the Japanese high school against families who sent their children to the American high school; fathers who wanted to return to their mother country against those who wanted to remain in the United States. What is this human impulse to create division, and how might we overcome it?
Monica Thompson Smith is a Presbyterian Church (USA) minister, serving as stated supply pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Luling, TX. She is a contributor to There’s a Woman in the Pulpit.
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