In training at a former internment camp, an Aurora civics teacher connects to her own family history

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Prairie Middle School teacher Rachel Baumgartner and educators from across the country participate in a workshop at Heart Mountain WWII Japanese American Confinement Site in June. Courtesy of Rachel Baumgartner.

Rachel Baumgartner, a 6th grade social studies teacher at Prairie Middle School, will have a unique answer for anyone who asks what she did over the summer.

This June, Baumgartner participated in a weeklong workshop for educators at Heart Mountain in Wyoming, the site of an internment camp for Japanese Americans during WWII. 

Set in a remote location in Park County, Wyoming between the towns of Cody and Powell, only a few barracks remain at Heart Mountain these days. But during the war it was home to almost 14,000 people who were forcibly displaced from their homes throughout the western U.S., making it at one point the third largest town in the state.

“It is really beautiful, but it’s home to this part of history that’s not so beautiful,” Baumgartner said of Heart Mountain.

The program was sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, and Baumgartner heard about it through the district and received a stipend to attend. She was interested in the workshop because of the opportunity to incorporate more place-based knowledge into lesson plans for her students but she also has a personal connection to that period of history — her own grandparents were placed in internment camps.

Many Japanese Americans spoke little about their experiences in internment camps after the war, particularly those who were interned as children and understood less about what was happening at the time, she said, including her own family.

“My grandparents talked about it a little bit but it didn’t spark in them any type of activism,” Baumgartner said. “It was just part of history and they were ready to move on.”

The program helped her to connect with them and gain a deeper understanding of what they lived through.

“There is a lot that I didn’t know about my own family’s experience and it gave me a way to talk to them about it, and that was really impactful for me,” she said.

With the generation that lived through the events of WWII becoming older and older, she said that programs like this that help preserve their memories and work to ensure that similar atrocities don’t take place in the future are more important than ever. Since the program began a few years ago, several of the speakers who came to share their personal stories have already passed away.

“Time is not really on our side for preserving some of their stories, but whatever we have right now we should be taking advantage of and make sure we’re learning as much as we can,” Baumgartner said.

The workshop was a part of the Mineta-Simpson Institute at Heart Mountain, a project run by former Wyoming Sen. Alan Simpson, a Republican, and former Democratic Congressman and White House secretary Norm Mineta, who died this May.

The two lawmakers met as boys when Mineta and his family were interned at Heart Mountain. Simpson was living nearby in Cody and his Boy Scout troop visited the camp. Though in different political parties during their careers, the two remained friends and worked together to pass the Civil Liberties Act of 1988, which provided redress to those who were interned.

The Institute will have a retreat space at Heart Mountain that will hold workshops and programs designed to foster that spirit in the next generation of leaders.

“Over the past several years, fear and anger have become the dominant forces in American politics,” the Institute’s website said. “For our elders, who were unjustly imprisoned during World War II because of their race, this political climate feels all too familiar. To satisfy our mission, we realize the Heart Mountain Wyoming Foundation must not only educate about the past, but also help shape the kind of leaders we need for the future.”   

There are a lot of different ways Baumgartner’s experience at Heart Mountain can be incorporated into lesson plans about the internment, from studying the art that people made in the camps to exploring their geography and how they were used for local agriculture. Each year students in Colorado have a civics segment as part of their social studies curriculum, and she plans to incorporate what she learned into a section about “what it means to have rights and responsibilities and what happens if those rights and responsibilities disappear.”

She hopes that sharing people’s stories and her own firsthand accounts will help the lesson come alive for students.

“You want to weave as much of everyone’s collective story into the curriculum as you can because you never know what’s going to catch some students and interest them,” she said.

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Jane Barber
Jane Barber
2 months ago

I hope she is allowed to teach real history without interference from well intentioned parents .