A Bellevue College vice president has been placed on administrative leave for altering a mural of two Japanese American children in a World War II incarceration camp by removing a reference to anti-Japanese agitation by Eastside businessmen.

Gayle Colston Barge is on paid administrative leave “as a result of her actions, and while we process the impact of this incident on our community,” Bellevue College President Jerry Weber wrote in a message Thursday afternoon to students and staff. Barge is vice president of institutional advancement, one of nine Bellevue College vice presidents.

Gayle Barge, Bellevue College vice president  (Bellevue College)
Gayle Barge, Bellevue College vice president (Bellevue College)

Barge acknowledged last week that she removed a reference in the description accompanying the art installation “Never Again Is Now,” created by Seattle artist Erin Shigaki. The project was brought to Bellevue College as the school recognized the Day of Remembrance, which commemorates the day President Franklin Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, authorizing the imprisonment of Japanese Americans.

The sentence, “After decades of anti-Japanese agitation, led by Eastside businessman Miller Freeman and others, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans included the 60 families (300 individuals) who farmed Bellevue,” was whited out from the artist description. A laminated description without the sentence was at some point taped over the original, though it’s unclear how long the whited-out version was up.

“I think it was appropriate that she be placed on leave,” Shigaki said Thursday evening. “She did something thoughtless and hurtful.”

The college has not said what Barge’s motivation was for altering the mural. She was not made available for interviews and did not respond to requests for comment.

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Miller Freeman, the man referenced in the artist description, is the father of Kemper Freeman, who built the original Bellevue Square, and grandfather of Kemper Freeman Jr, the founder of Kemper Development Co., which owns and manages the Bellevue Collection. No one at Kemper Development was made available for comment Wednesday or Thursday.

The reference to Miller Freeman’s anti-Japanese comments and actions have been documented in newspaper archives and history books. Miller Freeman, who was active in publishing, politics and development, formed the state’s Anti-Japanese League and told The Seattle Daily Times in 1942 that Japanese Americans came to the U.S. to colonize the Pacific Coast for Japan. He died in 1955.

Weber sent an apology letter Monday to the Bellevue College community that said Barge had apologized to Shigaki and had attended a forum with several college groups, where she also apologized. The letter did not mention Barge by name, nor did it include any reference to possible discipline.

When asked at a Wednesday meeting with the Black Student Union whether Barge would face any consequences, Weber replied he didn’t know if she would be disciplined.

The meeting was livestreamed by BSU social media and outreach coordinator Amanda Chamba, who provided the video to The Seattle Times.

Barge’s action was not an attempt to rewrite history, Weber told BSU members. Weber described Barge as an African American woman known throughout the country for her work on issues related to student opportunity and success. According to Weber, Barge called the incident a “stupid, impulsive act.”

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“I will say this: It’s hard to punish a person more than they punish themselves,” he said at the meeting.

Professors and student groups at the college of more than 29,000 students have criticized the school’s leaders for not communicating early enough about what had occurred. English Professor Nan Ma said the Asian and Pacific Islander community wasn’t told of the defacement nor consulted beforehand about any issues administrators may have had with the artist description.

“It was very disappointing and demoralizing that the college did not have an official response when this first happened,” Ma wrote in an email. “I genuinely believe that the administration didn’t think this was a significant issue.”

In his Thursday letter, Weber wrote that he takes responsibility for the communication delay, and has learned how he needs to “respond in a timely manner and that equity work is multifaceted beyond my previous undertaking.”

“As a white male, I recognize I didn’t fully understand the impact of this incident on members of our community, particularly on our Japanese American students and colleagues because of my privileged perspective,” he wrote.

Weber will be sending more emails next week outlining additional steps the college plans to take related to the incident, he added.

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Ma noted that in response to the incident, several college groups including the BSU, Asian Pacific Islander Student Association and El Centro Latino have convened to build solidarity on campus.

“Our students are amazing and resilient,” Ma wrote, “and they are an inspiration to all of us amidst all the hurt and confusion.”

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