Otero County receives award for study into Japanese American history in Southeast Colorado
Otero County was awarded the State Historic Preservation Award by History Colorado during its virtual 2021 Stephen H. Hart Award Ceremony.
The county was awarded for historic preservation officer Rebecca Goodwin and her team's contributions to the Japanese-American Historic Resource Survey, a project she led. Goodwin was recognized at the 2021 Stephen H. Hart Award Ceremony that was held virtually this year due to the pandemic.
In a video presentation about the Japanese-American Historic Resource Survey, Goodwin said, "People around the country have heard of Rocky Ford cantaloupe, Rocky Ford melons, they're very famous, and yet I think very few people understand what important role the Japanese Americans in Otero County played in the development of that agriculture."
Alpine Archeological Consultants Director of Regional Operations Michelle Slaughter — who has worked with Goodwin on the Japanese American Historic Resource Survey and presented findings with her at various seminars — said that contrary to what some believe, Japanese American history in Otero extends much further back than the years of World War II when Japanese Americans were interned in several camps across the country following Japan's attack on Pearl Harbor.
Japanese Americans were living and working as farmers in Southeast Colorado as early as 1902, Slaughter said.
Goodwin said she thinks it's important that those people's stories, perspectives and experiences are captured, not only to honor the families, but to help future generations understand what makes today's community what it is.
Goodwin said she wanted to share Japanese Americans' stories and histories, and she and colleagues like Slaughter and Kathleen Corbett, have done just that.
In 2019, the Otero County Preservation Board hosted a presentation on Japanese-American history at the Rocky Ford Depot. Goodwin and Slaughter spoke at the event and presented on the Japanese American Historic Resource Survey and the role Japanese-Americans played in the history of the Arkansas Valley.
During that presentation the preservation board shared tidbits of information they'd gleaned from interviews with local descendants of early Japanese American farmers and residents such as brothers Gene and Jerre Hirakata and Bill Takeda.
"This is an embodiment of the needed recognition that must be given to the Japanese Americans in Otero County," Steve Tate, History Colorado executive director and state historic preservation officer, said as he announced the preservation award to Otero County.
"Many people are unaware that the Japanese Americans created thriving communities beginning in the early 20th Century in Southeast Colorado.
"It has been assumed that the Amache Internment Camp was the first arrival of Japanese descendants. But this survey has researched and identified that there is a long history prior to Amache associated with Japanese Americans and their major contributions to this area: Especially agriculture."
Turner said that History Colorado and other museums, historical societies, schools and historic research fields have themselves historically prioritized rural American perspectives and experiences, all too often misrepresenting and excluding those of African Americans, Indigenous peoples and other People of Color's own experiences and perspectives.
That is one reason the Otero County Historic Preservation Board was lauded during the virtual ceremony for its expensive work into researching Japanese American history in Southeast Colorado.
"As an organization we have identified grounding virtues that will help ground us in our work and recognize and collaborate more with these communities," Turner said. "For this year, the state historic preservation award goes to the Japanese-American Historic Resource Survey."
Full recognitions for the award was given to Goodwin; Metcalf Archeological Consultants; Corbett AHS, Inc.; Sandy Konichi Dell, Chuck Hannagan, Gene Hirakata and Jerry Hirakata; and the the descendants of another Japanese American family.
Tribune-Democrat reporter Christian Burney can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.