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5,344 Americans were forced to live at the Fresno Fairgrounds. Here’s what it was like

FRESNO, Calif (KSEE/KGPE) – A California woman who lived for five months in a temporary internment camp at the now Fresno Fairgrounds says she still has an empty feeling inside when she revisits the fair and sees it as a place she used to live.

Frankie Wilkinson lived in the middle of the horse race track at the Fresno Fairgrounds from May to October 1942.

Wilkinson was eight-years-old when the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. She said her sister came home on the day of the attack and told her family the news. Wilkinson says at the time she had no idea where or what Pearl Harbor was.

Two months after the attack, President Franklin Roosevelt signed an executive order forcing more than 120,000 Japanese-Americans on the west coast to relocate into internment camps. At the time there was a perception of “public danger,” according to the National Archives.

The Fresno Fairgrounds were one of 15 so-called assembly centers established across the western United States. These facilities were used for the temporary confinement of Japanese Americans on the way to longer-term internment camps such as Manzanar.

In this undated photo provided by the War Relocation Authority, armed guard overlooks barracks built in the middle of the racetrack at the Fresno Fairgrounds in Fresno, Calif. The assembly center, one of 13 built in Calif., was the first stop for detainees before they were sent to permanent internment camps. About 5,300 people were held at the center between May and October 1942. (AP photo/War Relocation Authority)

Three months after the executive order was put into effect, Wilkinson’s family of 12 got word that they would have to move to one of the twelve centers at the Fresno Fairgrounds.

Wilkinson’s parents were told by a family friend that they were going to be moved to the Fresno Fairgrounds and that they need to bring items that most people would not think to bring. Her family brought a bucket, a mop, a broom, and even a bathtub.

Wilkinson says the bathtub was one of the most significant items her family brought. According to Wilkinson, the rest of the camp was forced to use one bathroom; Women, Men, and children were forced to use the same bathrooms without dividers or any kind of separation.

In total, 5,344 Japenese-American passed through the Fresno Fair Grounds according to the Fresno Fair.

Wilkinson says they were told from the beginning that the fairgrounds stay would only last for six months before they were moved farther east.

Families were also forced to eat in mess halls, according to Wilkinson.

“There wasn’t a lot to do,” said Wilkinson. She and the other kids in the center had to come up with their own games most of the time. She says there wasn’t any room to be a kid.

After their time in Fresno, the family of twelve was sent to Gerome, Arkansas until March of 1944. Wilkinson’s father got his family out of the camp after he was sponsored by a man in Arkansas to help with the labor shortage due to the war.

After the war, Wilkinson says a lot of parents in the Japanese-American community didn’t talk about the forced relocation. Wilkinson says her father told her that Japanese-Americans cooperated with the government to show they were not a threat and that the move by the U.S government was to keep them safe during the war.

Wilkinson’s family remains linked to the site to this day. Each member of her family that lived at the fair has a commemorative brick at the Assembly Center Memorial outside the commerce center at the fairgrounds.

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