Art World

Presidio exhibitions reflect Japanese American incarceration during World War II

Detail of Clem Albers, Arcadia, California, April 5, 1942. Photo: National Archives


First They Came is a poem written by the German Lutheran pastor and theologian Martin Niemöller about cowardice in the face of the rise of the Nazi party leading up to World War II. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum quotes this portion of the text:

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out —

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me — and there was no one left to speak for me.

From Jan. 18 through May 27, 2019, the Jonathan Logan Family foundation partners with the National Japanese American Historical Society and J-Sei to present “Then They Came for Me: Incarceration of Japanese Americans During WW II and the Demise of Civil Liberties.” This multimedia exhibition will feature notable photographers including Dorothea Lange, Clem Albers, and Ansel Adams along with the U.S. government’s War Relocation Authority’s commissioned photographers.

This story began with Executive Order 9066, issued on Feb. 19, 1942. Franklin D. Roosevelt’s order authorized the Secretary of War to assign areas as military zones “… from which any or all persons may be excluded.” Exclusion came to mean Japanese Americans who were then moved to internment camps out of racially motivated fear instead of a justifiable military necessity.

The exhibition tells the stories of the forced removal of 120,000 Japanese American citizens from their homes without due process or constitutional protections. Photos documenting Japanese American citizens being evicted from their homes and their subsequent lives in the camps are taken from the images discovered in the National Archives for the book Un-American: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II by Chicago-based photographers Richard Cahan and Michael Williams. Included are artifacts made by incarcerees, historical documents, and images of daily life in the camps by artists and inmates Toyo Miyatake and Mine Okubo. One of the dominant themes of this exhibition is the state-sanctioned racism that encouraged anti-Japanese sentiments at the end of the 19th century. The condition of the camps and the irreparable harm done to Japanese American citizens included loss of personal properties, businesses, and a stripping of identity because the dark message was received and understood that they were outcasts. 

“Then They Came for Me” will host a series of programs featuring author Duncan Williams with musician scholars No No Boy, Kambara & Dancers, and a talk about tracing the subjects of Dorothea Lange’s photographs with photo historians Richard Cahan and Michael Williams along with Lange’s official biographer, Elizabeth Partridge. Additional events will include conversations on the current state of U.S. immigrant detention camps, the Muslim ban, and rise of Islamophobic hate crimes, film screenings, music, family activities, and more.

“Then They Came for Me:” Wednesday–Sunday 10 a.m.–6 p.m. Jan. 18 through May 27, free, Futures Without Violence, 100 Montgomery St., Public reception Friday, Jan. 18, 7–9 p.m.


Extended through Spring 2019, this special exhibition, “Exclusion: The Presidio’s Role in World War II Japanese American Incarceration,” examines the Presidio’s role in the unjust incarceration of Japanese Americans for the purpose of “national security.” The Presidio, as headquarters of the Western Defense Command, was a source of 108 civilian exclusion orders. These actions forced the evacuation of Japanese Americans for the duration of the war. “The Presidio of San Francisco played a pivotal role in the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II”, explains Presidio Trust curator Liz Melicker. “This exhibition encourages reflection and invites visitors to investigate the issues and decisions that led to this dark chapter in American history. How did leaders arrive at the decision to incarcerate Japanese Americans, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens? How did Japanese Americans and others respond to the violation of their civil liberties? And what, as a nation, have we learned that can help us address present-day issues such as mass incarceration, immigration reform, and racial profiling?” The Presidio hopes the exhibition will start a meaningful dialogue to use the lessons of the past to transform injustice into tolerance and acceptance.

“Exclusion:” Tuesday–Sunday 10 a.m.–5 p.m. through spring 2019, free, Presidio Officers’ Club, 50 Moraga Ave., 415-561-5300,

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Sharon Anderson is an artist and writer in Southern California. She can be reached at