World War II-era Japanese American Incarceration: A Guide to the Oral History Center’s Work

Anthology created by the Oral History Center
Research by Sari Morikawa, Serena Ingalls, and Timothy Yue, undergraduate researchers

After the entrance of the United States into World War II, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066 on February 19, 1942, which mandated the forced removal of Japanese Americans from their homes on the West Coast into incarceration camps inland for the duration of the war. This forced removal uprooted families, disrupted businesses, and dispersed communities — impacting generations of Japanese Americans. The Oral History Center, or the OHC, and other archival collections in The Bancroft Library, feature several projects on this chapter of American history, comprising hundreds of interviews, photographs, artifacts, graphic illustrations, and podcasts for use by scholars and the public. 

Find these interviews and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. Find all the oral history projects mentioned here, along with more in-depth descriptions, on our projects page

There are six parts to this collection guide to Oral History Center and other Bancroft Library resources:

  1. Projects about Japanese American incarceration
  2. Related projects
  3. Individual interviews
  4. How to search our collection
  5. Selected articles that highlight and synthesize this work
  6. Acknowledgements

Part 1: Projects about Japanese American Incarceration 

Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives 

The Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project is the OHC’s newest project on this subject, consisting of interviews with child survivors and descendants of those who were incarcerated. The project documents the ways in which intergenerational trauma and healing occurred after the United States government’s incarceration of Japanese Americans during World War II. Conducted by Roger Eardley-Pryor, Shanna Farrell, and Amanda Tewes, these interviews examine and compare how private memory, creative expression, place, and public interpretation intersect at sites of incarceration. Initial interviews focus on the Manzanar and Topaz prison camps, and pose a comparison through the lens of place, popular culture, and collective memory. Exploring narratives of healing as a through line, these interviews investigate the impact of different types of healing, how this informs collective memory, and how these narratives change across generations. The first set of interviews, comprised of 100 hours of oral history interviews with 23 narrators, continues to grow with interviews featuring child survivors and descendants of the Heart Mountain and Tule Lake prison camps.  

“‘Dad, were you put in the camps?’ They didn’t talk about it. It was something you didn’t bring up…. He was honest but then he said, ‘But that happened in the past. You don’t need to dwell.’”
—Peggy Takahashi, on intergenerational silence related to her family’s incarceration

The project includes interpretive materials as well. Season eight of The Berkeley Remix, the OHC’s podcast based on oral history, explores themes from the project’s initial oral histories. “‘From Generation to Generation’: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration,” is a four-episode season featuring stories of activism, contested memory, identity and belonging, as well as artistic expression and memorialization of incarceration. In addition, ten graphic narrative illustrations created by artist Emily Ehlen vividly express the experiences of Japanese American incarceration during World War II and its effects on future generations. The interpretive materials, along with the oral histories, are available for use in classrooms. 


Japanese American Confinement Sites

Interviews in the Japanese American Confinement Sites Oral History Project document the experiences of Japanese Americans who were incarcerated during World War II, including UC Berkeley students who attended college before or after the war. Themes running through these interviews include the experiences of forced relocation and incarceration; loss of property and livelihoods; identity; education; challenges faced after the end of the war; and emotional responses to their experiences. Many of the narrators went into fields such as public service, the military, advocacy, art, and education; some of them participated actively in the redress movement.

“Never again should there be such an event as a mass removal of an entire group of people without due process of law. … I try to pass that message on to as many people as I can.”
—Sam Mihara explains why he decided to become a speaker and share his stories

The voices of these narrators are brought to life in the slideshow: “The Uprooted: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans.” This slideshow was made to accompany the 2021–2022 exhibition in The Bancroft Library Gallery, “Uprooted: The Incarceration of Japanese Americans.” All photographs were drawn from the War Relocation Authority Photographs of Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement, 1942–1945, The Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley, BANC PIC 1967.014–PIC. The oral histories are from the Japanese American Confinement Sites Oral History Project. 

Japanese-American Relocation Reviewed 

Japanese-American Relocation Reviewed is a multi-interview volume of oral histories from the Earl Warren in California project, dedicated to a discussion of Japanese American incarceration.  In “Volume I: Decision and Exodus,” staff of the Justice Department, legal advisors to the US Army, and US and California State attorneys discuss the role of the US Department of Justice and the Western Defense Command in defining and administering policy towards enemy nationals, California Attorney General Earl Warren’s role in the forced removal of Japanese Americans to incarceration camps, the civil defense program, martial law, and the development of a constitutional argument for forced removal. 

“We kept saying that we won’t do it and haven’t got the authority to do it. And there are enough precedents, you know with Lincoln suspending the writ of habeas corpus, that if the military wanted to do it, they could do it. But we frankly never thought they would. We thought they were too damn busy getting the troops to go fight a war some place else. That was our mistake.”
—James Rowe, assistant to United States Attorney General Francis Biddle

In “Volume II: The Internment,” members of the War Relocation Authority discuss the authority, selection, and administration of incarceration camp sites; resettlement out of the incarceration camps; origin and activities of the Pacific Coast Committee on American Principles and Fair Play. It also includes an appended interview with a wartime YWCA national board member on Idaho’s Minidoka camp in 1943; an address given by Robert B. Cozzens in 1945, “The Future of America’s Japanese;” and reproductions of Hisako Hibi’s paintings of Tanforan and Topaz.

The Office of Redress Administration Oral History Project

In 1988, President Ronald Reagan signed the Civil Liberties Act, a historic piece of legislation that sought, for the first time, to provide a measure of justice to Japanese Americans forty-six years after their incarceration during World War II. Over its decade-long operation (1988–1998), the Office of Redress Administration reached over 82,000 people with a redress payment and official apology letter from the President of the United States. Redress: An Oral History Project, by Emi Kuboyama, project creator and interviewer, with Todd Holmes, Oral History Center historian and interviewer, documents the complex history of Japanese American redress. The film, Redress, provides the first in-depth look at the historic program as told by both those who administered and participated in it. Additional educational materials supplement the film by providing historical overviews of the Japanese American experience and redress program, as well as a list of resources for further study and discussion. The project received the generous support of the Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Foundation and the National Park Service, US Department of Interior.


The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records and Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive 

The Bancroft Library’s documentation of the Japanese American experience during World War II includes thousands of primary source materials drawn from an extensive collection of manuscripts, photographs, as well as audio and video. The Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records, accessible through the Online Archive of California, consists of surplus copies of U.S. War Relocation Authority agency documents, including publications, staff papers, reports, correspondences, press releases, newspaper clippings, scrapbooks and a few photographs. Included is the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Study, University of California, Berkeley, 1942-1946, containing diaries, letters and staff correspondence, reports and studies. These records include 250.5 linear feet (335 boxes, 84 cartons, 41 oversize volumes (folios), 7 oversize folders, 2 oversize boxes; 380 microfilm reels; 5,660 digital objects) (BANC MSS 67/14 c). The related Finding Aid to the Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records 1930-1974 provides additional detail about the collection, including acquisition information, historic notes, scope, and contents. 

In addition, Calisphere hosts the Japanese American Relocation Digital Archive (JARDA), which contains thousands of primary sources documenting Japanese American incarceration, including: personal diaries, letters, photographs, and drawings; US War Relocation Authority materials, including newsletters, final reports, photographs, and other documents relating to the day-to-day administration; and personal histories documenting the lives of the people who were incarcerated in the camps, as well as of the administrators who created and worked there. Curated by the University of California, JARDA makes accessible materials from libraries, museums, archives, and oral history programs across California.

Part 2: Related Projects 

Rosie the Riveter World War II American Home Front Oral History Project 

The Rosie the Riveter World War II American Home Front Oral History Project comprises more than 200 interviews with women and men about the home front experience in the Bay Area. Many of the interviews in these projects include either brief references to or longer discussions about the World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans, and cover a broad range of experiences from a multiplicity of perspectives. Some interviews feature individuals who were incarcerated, while other interviews feature Japanese Americans in Hawaii and elsewhere who were not, but who recalled being affected by fear and prejudice. Other interviews include people who were friends, classmates, neighbors, and coworkers, who recalled the forced removal, and the emotions they experienced. Some of these acquaintances were troubled or appalled, whereas others were relieved and thought it justified. Some took care of farms and property until their neighbors returned; others benefited financially. Some go into great detail about race relations in farming and other communities throughout California. 

“We used to say, now, why did they make all the Japanese pilots look so ugly?”
—Gladys Okada, in reference to World War II American war films

Volumes about Earl Warren 

Two projects, Earl Warren in California and Law Clerks of Earl Warren, center around Earl Warren, who was California’s attorney general (1939–43) and governor (1943–53), before becoming chief justice of the Supreme Court (1953–69), and include an interview with Warren himself. The California project focuses on the years 1925–53, and documents the executive branch, the legislature, criminal justice, and political campaigns; Warren’s life; and changes in California during this period. The California project includes numerous multi-interview volumes that address different issues, including two volumes on labor, exploring Warren from the perspective of union members and labor leaders. The Law Clerks project comprises interviews of more than 40 of Warren’s law clerks; these narrators discuss watershed cases, the evolution of constitutional law, and other issues related to the court. Among other subjects, issues that arose in the interviews in these projects included the ways in which the narrators responded to the executive order; economic, military, and other motivations for the order; the process of identifying individuals and where they lived; reparations; economic consequences; and reflections on Warren’s actions and opinions. Earl Warren himself, in his interview, Conversations with Earl Warren on California Government, briefly addresses the incarceration and aftermath, including enforcement and other issues related to the Alien Land law, preparation of maps documenting where Japanese nationals and Japanese Americans lived, rationale for incarceration, reparations, and return from the camps. 

“‘We urge you to appoint immediately a trustee to hold in trust all the properties of the Japanese in this state… lest they be taken over by the wolves.’  They didn’t do anything. All the wolves came in and took over their property.”
—Richard Perrin Graves, executive of the League of California Cities and member of the Ninth Regional Civil Defense Board, on his telegram to the US attorney general

Related Papers

The Bancroft Library and greater UC Berkeley Library have extensive collections that address Japanese American incarceration during World War II and related matters. Here are a few. The complete files of the Fair Play Committee (Pacific Coast Committee on American Principles and Fair Play) are held in the library and include a comprehensive file of newspaper clippings from West Coast publications. The papers of Senator Hiram W. Johnson have information on land laws and Asian immigration. Senator James D. Phelan‘s records document anti-Japanese sentiment in the 1920s. The papers of Robert W. Kenny, who succeeded Earl Warren as attorney general in 1943, have information on law enforcement questions in the aftermath of forced relocation. 

Part 3: Individual interviews

“We can’t deny that the black people who lived in the Western Addition moved into places that were vacated because [of] the Japanese Americans who were put into internment camps. Our relationship with Japanese Americans is somehow affected by that history.”
—Carl Anthony, architect and environmental justice activist

Dozens of individual interviews scattered throughout the Oral History Center archive, with people from different backgrounds and walks of life, also detail many facets of this chapter in history. Although they were interviewed about other matters, the narrators in their oral histories in some way addressed Japanese American incarceration — sometimes only in passing, at other times more in depth. Some of the more well-known narrators include the following. Photographers Ansel Adams and Dorothea Lange discuss the artistic process, the ownership of their photographs, and the conditions in the camps. Willie Brown, speaker of the California Assembly and mayor of San Francisco, and Carl Anthony, architect and environmental justice activist, address race relations and how some black communities may have benefited from the forced relocation of Japanese Americans. Thomas Chinn, a historian and publisher of the Chinese Digest, discusses the evolution of race relations between Chinese and Japanese Americans in the United States, and noted that after Pearl Harbor, some people in Chinese communities wanted to distinguish themselves in order to avoid the same fate. Japanese American artist Ruth Asawa details her father being taken away by the FBI, her family’s subsequent incarceration, and the role incarceration played in her development as an artist.  

“All this equipment my father had gathered — the books, everything that had to do with Japan — they just made a big bonfire and burned all of that. Everybody had panicked at that time. My sister cried and she said, ‘Oh, please don’t, don’t burn the books.’”
— Ruth Asawa, artist, on the fear her family experienced after her father was taken away

The best way to find individual OHC interviews that address any subject is to search by keyword from the search feature on our home page. Use as many keywords as you can think of (one at a time) that might relate to the topic. When you get to the results page, you will see a list of oral histories. Click on any one to get to detailed metadata about that oral history, plus access to the PDF of the oral history itself. As a first step, the abstract provides an overview of the major themes in the oral history. For a more comprehensive look, you can open the oral history directly from this page within digital collections; then use the search feature from within the oral history to find keywords. The oral history will also have a table of contents, and some also have an interview history and other front matter that will provide more information. 

Part 4: How to search our collection:

Browse and access all of the oral history projects mentioned in this collection guide from the Oral History Center’s projects page. The projects page will provide a description of the project, and a list of all the oral histories on that project in the UC Library’s digital collections. To search the OHC’s archive by name, keyword, and other criteria, go to the OHC search feature on our home page. The OHC’s guides to various subjects in our collection can be accessed from the collections guide page. If you’re interested in making a documentary, podcast, or in undertaking other creative endeavors, you can access the audio/video and any related photos or ephemera through The Bancroft Library. You will need to open an account to order and access materials in the Reading Room. And here is more information about Rights and Permissions.

Explore collections related to Japanese American incarceration during World War II at all UC campuses by going to the UC Library Search. To explore all holdings from The Bancroft Library, go to the Advanced Search option from the Library Search page, and check “UC Berkeley Special Collections and Archives,” then search by keyword and other criteria. 

Part 5: Selected articles that highlight and synthesize this work

The Oral History Center Presents the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Project, by Shanna Farrell

The Oral History Center Presents The Berkeley Remix Season 8: “‘From Generation to Generation’: The Legacy of Japanese American Incarceration” by Amanda Tewes

Graphic Narrative Art by Emily Ehlen from OHC’s Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project, by Roger Eardley-Pryor

Q&A with Artist Emily Ehlen on Illustrating the OHC’s Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project, by Roger Eardley-Pryor

New podcast series explores the legacy of Japanese American incarceration: Read a Q&A with the Oral History Center’s Shanna Farrell about the Project, by UC Berkeley News reporter Anne Brice   

‘I knew I had to draw it’: Illustrator brings to life testimonies of Japanese Americans incarcerated during WWII and their descendants in new Oral History Center project, by Dan Vaccaro, writer for UC Library Communications

Interconnections, by Roger Eardley-Pryor

Out of the Archives: Patrick Hayashi: From Mail Carrier to Associate President to Artist, by UC Berkeley undergraduate research apprentice Zachary Matsumoto

OHC URAP Student Zachary Matsumoto Reflects on Work with Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Project, by UC Berkeley undergraduate research apprentice Zachary Matsumoto

‘Never again’: Library exhibit tells story of WWII Japanese American incarceration, sounds alarm on importance of remembering by Dan Vaccaro, writer for UC Library Communications

Oral history project highlights the little-known Japanese American redress program, by UC Berkeley News reporter Anne Brice

Redress: A film about the Office of Redress Administration by Edna Horiuchi in Discover Nikkei 

Janet Daijogo: Japanese Incarceration and Finding Her Place through Aikido and Teaching, by UC Berkeley undergraduate and Oral History Center research assistant Deborah Qu 

Bury the Phonograph: Oral Histories Preserve Records of Life in Hawaii During World War II, by UC Berkeley undergraduate and Oral History Center editorial assistant Shannon White

Part 6: Acknowledgements 

National Park Service, Department of Interior

The following projects were funded, in part, by a grant from the US Department of the Interior, National Park Service, Japanese American Confinement Sites Grant Program. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as representing the opinions or policies of the US Government. Mention of trade names or commercial products does not constitute their endorsement by the US Government.

Japanese American Confinement Sites Oral History Project

Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project

Japanese American Evacuation and Resettlement Records

Office of Redress Administration Oral History Project

Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Foundation

The Office of Redress Administration Oral History Project received generous support from the Henri and Tomoye Takahashi Foundation. The foundation also provided generous support for a second phase of interviews for the Japanese American Intergenerational Narratives Oral History Project. 

About the Oral History Center 

UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, or the OHC, is one of the oldest oral history programs in the world. We produce carefully researched, recorded, and transcribed oral histories and interpretive materials for the widest possible use. Since 1953 we have been preserving voices of people from all walks of life, with varying perspectives, experiences, pursuits, and backgrounds. We are committed to open access and our oral histories and interpretive materials are available online at no cost to scholars and the public. You can find our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. Search by name, keyword, and several other criteria. Sign up for our monthly newsletter  featuring think pieces, new releases, podcasts, Q&As, and everything oral history. Access the most recent articles from our home page or go straight to our blog home.

Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to the Oral History Center if you would like to see more work like this conducted and made freely available online. The Oral History Center is a predominantly self-funded research unit of The Bancroft Library. As such, we must raise the funds to cover the cost of all the work we do, including each oral history. You can give online, or contact us at for more information about our funding needs for present and future projects.

In memoriam: Aleksey Navalny ( Navalʹnyĭ, Alekseĭ)

The ongoing wars in several parts of our beautiful planet have taken their toll on our humanity. Sometimes, unexpected but awaited news of the killing/ demise of someone who believed in democracy desperately shakes me- such was the news that prompted this post.

I am a librarian and not a politician; I serve students, faculty, and members of the public. But this morning, a Russian colleague from the Russian Federation alerted me that “it is finally done, and it was to be expected, and that we are going to hell.” It was early morning, and I could not understand until I read the famous/infamous NY Times online. The news told me that Aleksei Navalny was no more…I looked for Kira to post something, but she did not.

See here for those interested in knowing more about Aleksei Navalny-related books in our catalog.

As a librarian, I gather information and do not engage in academic debates about just-in-time or just-in-case types of collections. I do not have ideological views on what we collect (I do have personal views; the cloak of American librarianship ethics separates them from my work).

For example, what does this book teach us?

Voronkov, Konstantin. Alekseĭ Navalʹnyĭ : groza zhulikov i vorov  / Konstantin Voronkov. Moskva: ĖKSMO, 2012. Print.
Or how about this Polish imprint? What is it that the author is trying to say?

Besides books, I debated whether I should post the following documentary. After all, I might get banned from visiting Russia, and for a Slavic Librarian, it is a big no-no… Then I decided why not; it was Aleksei’s documentary, and one should choose to watch it. After all, as a proud Indian-American Slavic Studies Librarian blessed by UC Berkeley’s Academic freedom doctrine, I remain grateful to the United States Constitution for guaranteeing some fundamental freedoms–Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of…Queda mucho por aprender

Save the date: Documentary Screening: “Una Escuela llamada América”- September 17, 2021

The library invites you to attend a virtual documentary screening of “Una Escuela llamada América” and a conversation with the director Antonia Mardones Marshall, Ph.D. Candidate in Department of Sociology on Friday, September 17, 2021, from 3 pm to 5 pm.

This event is virtual, and all are welcome to attend with prior registration. This documentary screening event is co-sponsored by UC Berkeley Library, the Center for Latin American Studies, and Berkeley Interdisciplinary Migration Initiative.

Register at

From the Oral History Center Director — July 2021

From the Oral History Center Director — July 2021

I recently had the pleasure of watching a new documentary film, The Sparks Brothers (2021), which details the solidly unconventional musical career of Ron and Russell Mael, lifetime stalwarts of the band Sparks. This film has everything one might want from a rock and roll documentary: rare footage of live performances, insightful commentary from artists influenced by the band (Beck, Bjork, Weird Al), and a narrative charting several artistic ups and downs. You might watch it and think that you caught an episode of “Behind the Music” (without the cliche visits to Betty Ford) or This is Spinal Tap (the new wave remix). But the thing about this film that really caught my attention — and got me thinking about our work at OHC — is how revealing and edifying a full life history can be (as is done with The Sparks Brothers as well as with many of our oral histories).

Album cover
Sparks in Outer Space, 1983

Growing up in California in the early 1980s, Sparks originally came to me as another hip, ironic, proudly nerdy Los Angeles new wave band. Surely the first song of theirs I heard was “Cool Places,” an absurdly upbeat synthpop song performed with and co-written by Jane Weidlin of the Go-Go’s. I saved my pennies and soon purchased the album (Sparks in Outer Space) and loved most every song. I followed their career through another few albums then, as teenagers do, moved on to other bands and sounds. To me Sparks remained in my memory as a genre-band — a very good one, but still one of a particular type. 

Watching this full-life documentary, however, upset my own memories of this band. It revealed parts of their lives (including telling moments of their childhood) that were unknown to me. It showcased their early years as a Zappa-like freak band, their move to England where they earned fans as glam-rockers, their burgeoning interest in synthesizers and ultimately their collaboration with synth-god Giorgio Moroder, and finally their return to Los Angeles and reincarnation as a new wave band. The film also details the years since the 1980s, which took the pair in even more esoteric musical directions while continuing to win new fans, garner critical accolades, and stage frankly amazing artistic achievements. After watching this video, I am now eager to dig deeper into their music and thus discover bits of pop music past that thus far had been hidden to me. New music need not emanate from this day and age after all. 

This is one of the reasons that I think the life history interviews we do at the Oral History Center are so incredibly valuable. When we conduct this type of oral history (ten hours or more with a single individual) we not only have the opportunity to ask the obvious questions (“tell me about the research that led to your Nobel Prize?” “What was it like to win at the Supreme Court?”), we are afforded the freedom to explore the lesser known aspects of a narrator’s life. With the additional hours of interviewing, we can document the narrator’s family background, upbringing, and education. We can detail early career moves that maybe didn’t amount to much but which taught crucial life lessons. We can document failures as well as successes. In my interview with Herb Donaldson, the first gay man appointed as a judge in California, I also learned about his side job as a coffee importer and roaster who gave key advice to a certain coffee shop getting started in Seattle (yes, Starbucks). With former Kaiser Permanente CEO George Halvorson, I got a fascinating account of his establishing a new health system in rural Uganda. And in my in-progress interview with famed Newsweek and Vanity Fair reporter Maureen Orth, there’s a lengthy description of her two years in the Peace Corps. While perhaps not what these people are best known for, these “other projects” not only provide great insight into the individual but often offer useful insights into historical events. Sometimes you think you know the whole story, or at least the most important part of that story. But when you read — or conduct — life history interviews, you soon learn that all parts are important and those less regarded can be the most surprising. 

In this spirit of uncovering less known accomplishments, I want to pay tribute to Bancroft staff who recently retired. At the end of June we witnessed the departures of Bancroft Director Elaine Tennant (also a renowned scholar of German literature and culture), Deputy Director Peter Hanff (also a recognized expert in all things Wizard of Oz, which he detailed in his oral history), finance manager Meilin Huang (also the savior of the Oral History Center on many occasions), and photographic curator Jack von Euw (also an excellent curator of many Bancroft exhibits). We bid farewell to these four esteemed colleagues. We hope that retirement adds several new and interesting chapters to already very accomplished lives.

Find these and all our oral histories from the search feature on our home page. You can search by name, key word, and several other criteria.

Martin Meeker, Charles B. Faulhaber Director, Oral History Center

Crip Camp and Judy Heumann: Studies in Movement Snapshots

by Annabelle Long


Annabelle Long  is an Undergraduate Research Apprentice at the Oral History Center. She worked with Shanna Farrell during the Spring ’21 semester. Annabelle is a third-year History and Creative Writing student from Sacramento. She works as a conduct caseworker in the Student Advocate’s Office and enjoys going on long walks in Berkeley. You can find her on Twitter @annabelllekl.


I watched the 2020 documentary Crip Camp to get a sense of Judy Heumann, the disability rights icon and architect of a movement that created a more accessible world. I had only recently read her oral history, conducted by UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center, and I was eager to learn more about the woman behind the words on the page. When she is first shown in the film, she is doing what I’ve learned that she does best: leading a group. She has a big voice and a bigger grin, and talks campers through their options for dinner later in the week. She’s already thought it through—she considered veal parmesan, but found the veal to be too expensive, so next on her list is lasagna, the suggestion of which elicits both cheers and groans from the crowd. She offers everyone a chance to make their case, and then takes a vote. Lasagna wins—barely. This vote, in its consequences, probably meant very little to Judy and very little to everyone else. But in my mind, it makes one thing clear: Judy didn’t make any decisions without considering and consulting the group. She cared what people had to say, and she listened. And so campers had lasagna, and eventually, thanks to her activism, disabled Americans had laws to protect them.

Crimp Camp provides a snapshot of the disability rights movement through the lens of Camp Jened, a summer camp for disabled children and teenagers that opened in upstate New York in 1951. Each summer, about 120 campers moved in for four to eight weeks. The camp, despite often being credited with changing the lives of its campers, had immense financial struggles and closed its doors in 1977, leaving its legacy in the hands of the many campers who passed through. Judy contracted polio and became paralyzed at 18 months old, and for every summer from ages 9 to 18, she was one of those campers. She credited her time at Jened with shaping her approach to activism and life generally.

Judith Heumann, from left, Nicole Newnham, James LeBrecht, Sara Bolder, Andraea LaVant and service dog Gofi LaVant arrive at the Oscars on Sunday, April 25, 2021, at Union Station in Los Angeles. (AP Photo/Chris Pizzello, Pool)

Jened resembles the woodsy summer camps of my childhood, but it had more of a Summer of Love aura about it—the rec room was boisterous and the softball games were passionately played, but at Jened, counselors were hippies, campers fell in love, and the bunkrooms and mess halls overflowed with eager conversations about the state of disability rights and the world. It was in those conversations, Judy would go on to say, that she learned to listen to a group, lead a group, and speak as a part of a group. To Judy and the other campers, Jened was more than a camp: it was a place to be fully and truly oneself, a place to try out new politics, and often, a place to meet close friends and lovers (Judy even said she never dated outside of camp). It almost seemed sacred.

Jened is both a moment and an enduring feature in the history of the disability rights movement, and Crip Camp seeks to understand it as both: as a physical place, where people gathered and grew, and as a concept, a memory and idea that endured well beyond the summers it operated. Oral history, as a practice, seeks to accomplish something similar. It draws on memories of particular moments, the feelings that make something worth remembering, and unites those memories with broader historical narratives to give a complete picture of a life and a time. But I can’t help but wonder—what does it mean when a story continues after the taping is done? When the end of the recorded narrative turns out to be the midpoint of a real and full life?

Judy Heumann’s oral history focuses on her time UC Berkeley, where she received her master’s in Public Health, and the 504 sit-in of 1977, which she was critical in organizing. For 25 days, Judy and well over 100 disabled people occupied the San Francisco office of the United States Department of Health, Education, and Welfare and demanded enforcement of Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act of 1973, which stated that no institution receiving federal funding could exclude people on the basis of their disability. Judy’s activism in 1972 was critical to getting Section 504 written in the first place, and she and other disabled people were tired of it being completely unenforced—schools, cities, and buildings were still inaccessible despite the law’s promise. Schools lacked elevators to allow disabled students to get to their classrooms; sidewalks lacked defined dips in the corners and thus often forced wheelchair users to take inconvenient, circuitous routes to their destinations or left them stranded. In response, disabled people occupied government buildings across the country in protest. The San Francisco demonstration was the longest lasting and arguably the most successful, largely thanks to the motivating force that was Judy Heumann.


Judy Heumann

In Crip Camp, Corbett O’Toole, a disabled activist and one of Judy’s contemporaries at the Center for Independent Living at UC Berkeley, said that “we were more scared of disappointing Judy Heumann than we ever were of the FBI or police department arresting us.” This was because Judy served as the central organizing force of the occupation—she held down the fort, ensured people’s needs were met (no easy task when many occupiers required around-the-clock physical assistance), and negotiated with government figures to advance the cause. I’d be scared to disappoint her, too.

There’s no debate about her status as an organizing powerhouse. In the early days of the disability rights movement, everyone in her orbit seemed to recognize that she had a knack for getting people together, getting people to listen, and perhaps most crucially, getting people to act. Mary Lester, a staff member at the Center for Independent Living spoke about Judy in her own oral history and credited her with the movement’s expansion.

“Judy was the one who brought in deaf services and was the one who always wanted to expand the population we were serving. She was pushing us in those directions to broaden the coalition. She was a networker supreme,” she said, “Judy wanted to push CIL as far as it could go in terms of being a model and being a pioneer and bringing all of the different disability factions, if you will, together.”

Judy was meticulous and thoughtful in her activism; no stone went unturned, no idea went unexplored, and no voice went unheard.

“We had the civil rights aura, but we had the facts,” she said of the Independent Living Movement, which she helped develop in Berkeley, “I mean, I think the civil rights aura without the facts actually doesn’t get you where you need to be. But the facts without the civil rights perspective doesn’t necessarily get you there either.”

Berkeley, as a city and community center, played a critical role in shaping the 504 sit-ins and the disability rights movement more broadly.

“Well, you know Berkeley is a small community, period. And many of the people certainly at that time were activists. And you lived on the same block with somebody, or a couple of blocks away,” she said, starting to laugh, “And that’s just the way it is. It’s a town.”

UC Berkeley was to Judy and her friends what Jened had been to them in their youth. Crip Camp gets at this: many of Judy’s friends from her camp days eventually made the same westward journey that she did, and ended up in and around the UC Berkeley community. There, they took the community they’d built in upstate New York and turned to activism. Jened taught them the importance of their community; Berkeley taught them how to fight for it.

Judy Heumann recorded her oral history with UC Berkeley’s Oral History Center in 2007, decades after her time at Camp Jened and some of her most well-known organizing efforts. Since then, she’s lived nearly another decade and a half—enough time to feature in an Oscar-nominated documentary, host a podcast, produce a research paper on improving media representation of disabled people, publish a memoir, and work on advancing disability rights internationally as a special advisor to President Obama in the State Department.

She spoke about her international ambitions and hopes for the disability rights movement in her oral history, before Barack Obama was even the Democratic nominee for president; before there was even an inkling that her role as his special advisor on international disability rights would ever exist. In this way, oral history provides us with a window into her mind, a snapshot of a moment in the unfinished history of the disability rights movement. This, perhaps, is part of the value of an oral history conducted before the end of someone’s life—it reveals the in the moment motivations and thoughts behind future actions, and is definitionally more than just temporally distanced reflection or speculation about how and why something occurred.

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Judy Heumann at the 2021 Academy Awards

In the same way that Crip Camp sought to capture multiple dimensions of Camp Jened and its legacy, looking at Judy Heumann’s oral history in light of the more recent years of her life allows for a complex and interesting portrait of her and her accomplishments. As a history major, the people I study often never lived to see the worlds that they created, so it is especially wonderful to know that Judy Heumann saw the disability rights movement from its inception to a piece of storied history behind the world as we know it now.

“But you know, you walk up Telegraph Avenue, you go to Rasputin’s, and you see this history of the disability movement, and the owner of the store proudly displaying history of the disability rights movement on a building,” she said in her oral history, “You see, I go into a restaurant yesterday and there are two young disabled people coming in from Berkeley sitting down and having lunch together. The waiter’s moving the chairs out, and I’m like, oh, I guess two people in chairs are coming. And these things are natural now, because there is such a large number of people here that the community itself has become more accepting. It’s normal.”

I am a student at UC Berkeley and I live a block from Telegraph Avenue; between me and Judy’s tangible legacy sits a sidewalk that slopes down at the corners for wheelchair access. The world is not perfectly accessible, and there is still much to be done to ensure that disabled people’s rights are protected, but I like to think about how my normal is the product of Judy’s life’s work.