Rutgers joins national exhibition, explains Japanese-American internment at Seabrook Farms
Not many students have heard of Seabrook Farms, a farm in Southern New Jersey, and few have heard of its connection to Japanese-American internment, said Amy Clark, a School of Arts and Sciences junior.
“Invisible Restraints: Life and Labor at Seabrook Farms,” is an online exhibition launched at Alexander Library on April 20, as a way to examine the ways in which the farm recruited Japanese-Americans and other minority groups.
The online exhibition is the culmination of content created by students in a fall 2015 course called "Public Histories of Mass Incarceration and Detention," taught by Andy Urban, a professor in the Department of American Studies and the Department of History.
The work is also part of a larger national exhibition that was launched at the New School's Humanities Action Lab called "States of Incarceration," a collaboration of many universities, including Rutgers.
“Rutgers University's Libraries Special Collections has a digital repository of thousands of documents, including photographs and small memoirs, relating to Seabrook Farms,” Clark said.
The goal of the project was to tell a largely untold history, Clark said.
“Our exhibit takes a more complicated and critical approach to Seabrook, analyzing the ways in which racism, wartime demands for labor and other structural forces restrained the groups of people who came to work at Seabrook,” she said.
But the exhibit is not simply an attack, she said.
“There are commendable aspects of Seabrook Farms that the exhibit does not ignore, such as the fact that it was one of the few places offering family accommodations for Japanese-Americans,” Clark said.
Students who have heard of Seabrook Farms might see the narrative as a celebratory one, she said, but the exhibit shows other aspects of Seabrook’s history.
The exhibit depicts events such as when Japanese-American residents were evicted at Seabrook for having an "undue ratio" of dependents to workers.
“The importance of critically examining Seabrook was not lost to the people working on this project,” Clark said.
This is largely because Seabrook was very careful about portraying their company in a positive light, she said. The company’s photographic department took most the photos in the collections.
The exhibit in many ways challenges the self-image the company presented, Clark said.
The issues concerning Seabrook are also relevant today, she said, particularly regarding the refugee crisis.
“During our course, the mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, justified barring Syrian refugees on the grounds that, like Japanese-Americans during WWII internment, the refugees posed a security threat,” she said.
Seabrook Farms employed Japanese-Americans who became qualified for supervised work release after their incarceration in internment camps during World War II, she said.
Charles Seabrook, the farms founder and president, also actively sought after after other minority groups of workers with limited options and mobility, she said.
Some of these groups included Eastern European refugees, German prisoners of war, migrant workers from the U.S. South, and contracted guest workers from Barbados and Jamaica.
Because of how much there is to uncover about Seabrook and because the history of Seabrook tends to be a celebratory one, a more in-depth exploration of Seabrook as a historic site was needed, she said.
Seabrook is often cited as an early example of multiculturalism, which obscures the ways in which racism informed management, housing, and hiring, Clark said.
“Both the HAL exhibit and the NJDH panel were successful,” she said. “Down the road, I believe the NJDH exhibit will eventually be used to develop curricula for k-12 students on Seabrook Farms' history and its connection to internment and incarceration.”
More information can be found at the exhibit's website.
Noa Halff is a School of Arts and Sciences sophomore majoring in journalism and media studies. She is an associate news editor for The Daily Targum.