Bellevue College has apologized after one of its vice presidents altered a mural of two Japanese American children in a World War II incarceration camp by whiting out a reference to anti-Japanese agitation by Eastside businessmen in the accompanying artist description.
The art installation “Never Again Is Now,” created by Seattle artist Erin Shigaki, includes an 11-foot-tall mural of two children photographed at a California incarceration camp. The project was brought to Bellevue College last week 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.
Last Thursday, professors who helped bring the project to the school were alerted that it had been defaced, according to Professor Leslie Lum. Someone, Lum said, had removed one sentence in a paragraph about Japanese immigrants and their connection to Bellevue: “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.”
Bellevue College identified Gayle Colston Barge, vice president of institutional advancement, as the person who removed the reference. Photos show the reference was first whited out, then a laminated description without that sentence was taped over the original placard.
While college spokeswoman Nicole Beattie on Tuesday identified Barge as the administrator, she was not named in President Jerry Weber’s letter of apology sent Monday to the Bellevue College community.
“It was a mistake to alter the artist’s work,” Weber wrote in the letter sent to students and staff. “Removing the reference gave the impression that the administrator was attempting to remove or rewrite history, a history that directly impacts many today … Editing artistic works changes the message and meaning of the work.”
In text messages to The Seattle Times, Shigaki wrote she was “traumatized by what happened to my art – to my community’s art – on campus.”
“I feel the feelings associated with both sides of my family being forcibly removed from Seattle – erased, unimportant, disregarded, disrespected, shamed,” wrote Shigaki, whose father was born in the Minidoka War Relocation Center prison camp in Idaho.
In his letter, Weber apologized to Shigaki and to the Asian community, in particular the Japanese American community. More than a fifth of the college’s 29,120 students and its 1,508 employees are Asian and Pacific Islander, according to college demographic data.
Neither Weber nor Barge personally responded to requests for comment, and a communications consultant working with the college said they were unavailable for interviews. Barge is one of nine vice presidents at the college.
In the letter, Weber said the administrator apologized to Shigaki and attended a forum with several college groups, where she “apologized, listened, and answered questions.” Shigaki confirmed that the administrator told her she was sorry, but that no explanation was offered.
Meanwhile, the missing sentence in the description had been pasted back on top of the whited-out portion.
Lum, a professor in the college’s business transfer program, said she wants to make sure students know the history of Bellevue and what its Japanese American community experienced. The mural is powerful and striking, Lum said, and students engage right away with the installation by having conversations about immigration, Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention centers and family separations at the U.S.-Mexico border.
The anti-Japanese sentiment expressed by Miller Freeman referenced in the artwork is well-documented. Freeman, who was active in politics, business and development, told The Seattle Daily Times in 1942 that Japanese Americans were in the United States by “fraud, deception and collusion” and came here to colonize the Pacific Coast for Japan.
Miller Freeman is the father of Kemper Freeman, who built the original Bellevue Square, and grandfather of Kemper Freeman Jr., the founder of Kemper Development Company, which owns and manages the Bellevue Collection.
No one at Kemper Development was made available for comment. A response to an interview request recommended Seattle Times inquiries be sent to Bellevue College.
Lum said college leadership hasn’t fully acknowledged the negative impact the incident has had on Asian students.
“They censored a Japanese American artist and whitewashed Japanese American history, and they didn’t even talk to us,” she said.
College leaders plan to “continue this dialogue and engage the full BC community.” The administration also reminded students that counselors are available for anyone who may need emotional support.
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