Before her death in 2005, Setsuko Saito Higuchi asked her daughter, Shirley Ann, for a promise: to continue her work to create a museum and learning center dedicated to Japanese Americans imprisoned during World War II. Higuchi and her husband, William I. Higuchi, had been interned at the Heart Mountain Relocation Center as children and Shirley's mother helped spearhead this effort as a member of the board until she died. 

Shirley kept that promise to her mother and was among those who proudly unveiled the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center on Aug. 20, alongside such supporters as journalist Tom Brokaw, Sen. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii), former Sen. Alan K. Simpson (R-Wyo.) former U.S. Transportation Secretary Norman Y. Mineta and APA President Melba J.T. Vasquez, PhD

The center is located on the grounds of the former Heart Mountain Relocation Center, about 60 miles from Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. From 1942 to 1945, close to 14,000 internees — many of whom were Americans of Japanese ancestry — were imprisoned at the relocation center, one of 10 such centers in the United States. In all, approximately 120,000 people were incarcerated on U.S. soil during the war.

"The learning center is the result of an enormous effort to preserve this historic site and interpret what occurred there for current and future generations of Americans," says Shirley Ann Higuchi, JD, of APA's Practice Directorate, who also chairs the board of the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation that brought the project to fruition. "It will stand as a powerful reminder of the need to balance concern for national security with respect for basic civil rights."

The center features exhibits and interactive displays that capture the harsh realities of prison life at Heart Mountain, including a replica of the barracks where families struggled to maintain routines while living behind barbed wire fences and being guarded by soldiers in nine watchtowers. Exhibits also highlight the challenges these Japanese Americans faced when rebuilding their lives after the war.

Like Higuchi, speakers Simpson and Mineta have powerful connections to Heart Mountain. Mineta was interned there as a child and became friends with Simpson — who grew up in nearby Cody, Wyo. — when Simpson's Boy Scout troop visited the children imprisoned at Heart Mountain. The two men later reunited as members of Congress and worked to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which established reparations for Japanese American internees.  

In his opening ceremony remarks, Brokaw reflected on how Japanese Americans such as Mineta went on to serve rather than turn their backs on a country that mistreated them. In his 1998 book "The Greatest Generation," Brokaw describes the removing of Japanese Americans from their homes and placing them in internment camps as "one of the most shameful acts in American history."

Vasquez echoed his comments, noting that more research on Japanese Americans' resilience during that time could inform work on modern-day discrimination against Muslim Americans.

The Heart Mountain learning center is encouraging such scholarship, says Higuchi. She and her fellow board members plan to host researchers from law, psychology and other disciplines who are interested in furthering work on discrimination, coping and constitutional and civil rights.  

"We are viewing this as far more than a museum," she says. "Our goal is to make this a think tank on cutting-edge issues that affect communities in wartime and other crises."

To see more photos of the opening of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Learning Center, visit our digital edition.