A Study in Contrasts
By Mike McGrath
North of downtown Denver, a block from the Greyhound Station and not far from the federal courthouse, is a small commercial/residential district known as Sakura Square. There’s a Buddhist temple, a pan-Asian grocery, a high-rise apartment complex, an office building, a sushi restaurant and a small Japanese garden.
Every now and then I go out there in search of some Asian food product I can’t find at the local supermarket. I don’t have to go downtown. In fact, there are more Asian groceries per square mile on Federal Boulevard in West Denver. Nor does it have the “best Japanese garden” in Denver. If it’s Japanese Gardens you want, Denver Botanic Gardens is the place to be.
Mostly, I go there because of the history.
Colorado is a study in historical contrasts, especially when it comes to race relations. The Ku Klux Klan was a major power in state and local politics during the 1920s, briefly assuming control of the state assembly. But Colorado is also the home of Governor Ralph Lawrence Carr, the only prominent politician in the country to speak out against the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II.
A little background for non-history buffs: In the hysteria following the attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an executive order creating exclusion zones and special curfews for Japanese-Americans on the West Coast. Thousands of Nisei (second generation Japanese immigrants) were rounded up and interned at desolate, windblown camps in the interior West. One of those camps was near the town of Granada in eastern Colorado, not far from the Kansas state line.
Meanwhile, back in Oregon, an attorney named Minoru Yasui refused to comply with the curfews and internment order, arguing that the discriminatory policies violated his constitutional rights. He was arrested, imprisoned and fined $5000. Later he went to one of the camps.
Yasui’s argument was that the Japanese-Americans were being singled not because of disloyalty but strictly because of race. Governor Carr made the same point when he spoke out the internment policy in 1942. “I was brought up in a small town where I knew the shame and dishonor of race hatred,” he said. “I grew to despise it…”
After the war, many of the internees stayed in Colorado, partly because their property had been confiscated back home and there wasn’t much to go home for, but also because of Carr’s support, which explains the small Japanese-American community at Sakura Square.
Min Yasui moved to Denver after being released from a camp in another state. He practiced law and served as executive director of the city’s Community Relations Commission. His criminal conviction was officially overturned in 1986, shortly before his death.
For his part, Carr served out his term as governor and ran for Senate in 1942, narrowly losing to Senator Edwin C. Johnson. It is widely believed that the unpopularity of his stance on the internees cost him the election.
The governor’s reputation has grown over time, vindicated by changing attitudes about race and civil liberties. Not long ago, a section of Highway 285 near Kenosha Pass was named after him. But the most moving tribute, it seems to me, is the bust of Carr erected by the Japanese-American community in the garden at Sakura Square. If you are ever in Denver, check it out, it’s the one that stands a few yards away from the bust commemorating the courage of Min Yasui.
Mike McGrath is senior editor and chief information officer for the National Civic League. A former newspaper reporter and magazine writer, he is editor of the quarterly National Civic Review, which will be beginning its centennial year of publishing this spring.
Mike’s posts will appear every Thursday on the State of the Re:Union website.