Powerful Field Trip to FDR Library

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Photos, not Books, Most Powerful in this Library

Second in a four-column series chronicling my recent father-son road trip to the FDR Presidential Library & Museum in Hyde Park, NY, and more.

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Growing up, my favorite part of school was the field trips. I think more learning occurs on them than in the classroom.

As a grown up, I still love field trips and try to go on one as often as possible. And so it was that I recently visited the Franklin D. Roosevelt Presidential Library & Museum in Hyde Park, NY.

The destination was my son’s choosing, for he collects visits to presidential museums and libraries the way others collect baseball trading cards.

Traveling by foot, by subway, by train, and by Uber, the Library & Museum was nearly three hours from my son’s apartment in Lower Manhattan – and nearly a century back in time.

Entry to a powerful exhibit at the FDR Presidential Library & Museum

Photographs are powerful in telling an ugly chapter in U.S. history at FDR Presidential Library & Museum.

Moreover, we learned that Matthew Vassar’s operation was so profitable it allowed him to establish numerous benevolent causes, including nearby Vassar College. Beer and books have a long college history, indeed.

More history awaited us at FDR’s Springwood estate, which also houses the Library & Museum. The family home is impressive, yet pales to the two homes we visited on our prior presidential field trip: George Washington’s and Thomas Jefferson’s.

At Mount Vernon and Monticello, the sin of slave ownership by our first and third presidents is addressed in depth. At the Library & Museum of our 32nd president, a similar ugly stain is on display front and center: Executive Order No. 9066.

Signed by FDR on Feb. 19, 1942 – 10 weeks after the bombing of Pearl Harbor – the order led to the incarceration of 120,000 people of Japanese descent, including approximately 80,000 American citizens. They lost their freedom, as well as almost everything they owned.

More than 200 photographs in an exhibit entitled, “Images of Internment: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II,” turns those massive numbers into individual human faces and stories.

In the same manner that Ansel Adams’ black-and-white photographs show the beauty of Yosemite Valley as even color pictures cannot, wall after wall of black-and-white images reveal the ugliness and injustice of this infamous chapter in American history. Adams’ work, by the way, is among the internment images featured.

The photographs reveal cabins with tar-paper walls; horse and livestock stalls used for “evacuees”; living spaces resembling slave quarters at Mount Vernon and Monticello.

The photos show camp conditions that are both freezing and boiling, windy and sandy, desolate and depressing.

The photographs show American citizens as POWs in America.

Here is a long line of families, dressed in their Sunday best as though heading to church, boarding railcars while a gauntlet of uniformed U.S. soldiers oversees them.

Here is an American soldier in uniform, on a few days leave, helping his family move into a stark internment camp.

Here, similarly, is a son, father and mother posed together before an American flag backdrop – and on her lap she is holding a framed photograph of a second son in U.S. military dress.

Here is a barren, dust-blown internment camp with two long rows of small cabins. In the open dirt area, two children – the only people in view – are running together. And at the center of the camp, dominating the photograph, is an American flag waving high in the wind. It is a haunting image.

That is an important thing about field trips: the best ones don’t necessarily entertain you, so much as they affect you.

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Woody Woodburn writes a weekly column for The Ventura County Star and can be contacted at WoodyWriter@gmail.com.

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