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Long-lost photos of Japanese Americans provide poignant glimpse into NorCal history

Long-lost photos of Japanese Americans provide poignant glimpse into NorCal history
Long-lost photos of Japanese Americans provide poignant glimpse into NorCal history 07:03

MARYSVILLE, Yuba County -- A chance discovery of a box of photos in a Yuba County storage locker is giving people a unique insight into their community after local historians took it upon themselves to document an important moment in time.

The photos are portraits of nearly 100 Japanese Americans who lived in the Marysville/Yuba City area more than 80 years ago. Most of the photos show a very stoic individual looking directly into the lens of the camera. 

Why the people in the black and white images had their pictures taken is still a mystery.

"It was assumed it was for ID, because there were so many taken in the same time frame," said David Read, Executive Director of Yuba Sutter Arts. "We believe that they believed they were required to have an ID as part of the internment camp experience."

On December 7th, 1941, with the bombing of Pearl Harbor by Imperial Japan, the United States entered World War II. President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, ordering 120,000 Japanese Americans living on the West Coast into internment camps, including the families in the photos.

And while there is no historic record of Japanese Americans needing ID photos before being taken to internment camps, the cache of photos do show a moment in time before they were taken from their homes and lost their possessions.

"You would have loved to sit down and talk to these folks about their experiences. Many or most were American citizens adding to the tragedy of what happened," said Read.

The original portraits were taken between January to March of 1942 by a photographer named Clyde Bush who owned a small photo studio in the basement of his parents' Marysville home.

"The story goes one morning an older Japanese guy came to his studio and asked to have his picture taken," said Terry Bush, Clyde's son who now lives in Los Altos. "So, my father said, OK, took the picture and told him to come back in a few days."

But Clyde had no idea what would happen next.

"The next morning, my dad's mom wakes up early in the morning and yells to Clyde, 'You need to get down here right now,'" said Bush.

When Clyde looked out the window, he saw a line of local Japanese Americans from the front of his studio out to the street.

"He rushed down and started taking pictures, and it went on for two or three weeks all these Japanese coming to his tiny studio," recalled Bush.

Towards the end of the rush, Clyde finally asked one gentleman why everyone was coming to his studio, and not the other studios in town.

"And the man told him, 'Don't you know? No one else would take or picture or treat us decently. You also only charged us the same as anyone else. You did all those things, you were friendly, you were nice,'" said Bush. "He realized; he did something good by just being [himself]."

ALSO READ: Families' escape from Japanese internment camp began historic resettlement saga

The original 35mm rolls of film sat in boxes for nearly 70 years until Myrtle Bush, Clyde's wife, reached out to the Sue Cenjer-Moyers, the unofficial historian of Marysville.

"I worried I wouldn't be able to do justice to them," said Cenjer-Moyers, who immediately realized the historical significance of the photos. "I'm just one small person who came upon this treasure trove of history in 2009 and I wanted to get it to the right place."

After unfurling the crinkled rolls of film, she reached out to Read and Yuba Sutter Arts, where nine years later they were able to put the photos on display and teach the community about the history of local Japanese Americans.

"We worked for weeks, curating the collection, getting the enlargements, and hanging them on the wall in Marysville. I still get emotional just thinking about them and seeing their faces and the uncertainty and everything else they must have experienced," said Read. "Most folks I talked to may have known about the internment experience, but they had no idea local residents were being taken and warehoused literally right here in south Yuba County."

But the exhibit was only the beginning for the photos, which grew into something much bigger after Read and Cenjer-Moyers helped lead the charge to give the people in the images and their story a permanent home.

Today, several of the portraits flank the Arboga Assembly Center Memorial Park. The site was a former migrant farmer workers' camp that was quickly converted to house 2,500 Japanese Americans before they were shipped off to internment camps.

The site is described as an "Interpretive Center that serves as a reminder of the impact the incarceration experience has had on families, on communities, and the country. It is an opportunity to educate others on the fragility of civil liberties in times of crisis, and the importance of remaining vigilant in protecting the rights and freedoms of all."

"So many things happened in this area, and I hope people driving by will ask what happened here, how does this tie into the pioneers and citizens from that were here," said Cenjer-Moyers.

"Having this incredible collection of portraits humanizes this whole experience and you can talk about internment camps and how unjust and unfair it was, but then you look at the faces and you go, wow," said Read. "I also hope it gives people a sensitivity regarding social issues and that discrimination is still with us on so many levels, and maybe there is a lesson to learn here."

The memorial was completed in late 2021. It is located on Broadway Street just east of Feather River Boulevard in south Yuba County.

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