New emails from college administrators shed light on mural defacement

The Watchdog/Levvy Hedera

You can see the emails we discuss in the article HERE, courtesy of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.

On Feb. 19, 1942, President Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, a directive from the White House to displace and imprison citizens suspected of espionage forcefully. Japanese Americans subjected to civil rights abuses and mass internment have designated Feb. 19 as Day of Remembrance. Those injustices from that fateful chapter in American history are still felt today.

Seventy-eight years later to the day, a commemorative art installation was unveiled near the center of Bellevue College. For Day of Remembrance, local artist Erin Shigaki created a mural with two black-and-white 11-foot tall Japanese American children of the internment era. To the right, the bold-faced words “NEVER AGAIN IS NOW,” of the titular Never Again Action movement—dedicated to calling for an end to rampant immigrant detention.

As we now know, in late February, a small placard below the mural was whited-out by Vice President Gayle Barge. She specifically censored one sentence. “After decades of anti-Japanese agitation, led by eastside businessman Miller Freeman and others, the mass incarceration of Japanese Americans included the 60 families (300 individuals) who farmed Bellevue.”

Internal emails from BC have been made public following the censorship and subsequent outcry. These records uncover in real-time the whitewashing, confusion and shallow reasoning behind the decision. As the chain of events unfolds, so too does a story of identity, privilege and hidden inheritance. The modern-day economic influence of the Freeman family confirms precisely what the mural stands for—that not so distant tragedies are too often forgotten.

In the past two years alone, Bellevue College received over $10,000 from Kemper Freeman Jr., the billionaire grandson of Miller Freeman. Going back to 2013, records indicate another $4,000 of donations by the Freeman family businesses, namely Kemper Develop.m.ent Company and Kemper Holdings LLC. The business interests of the Freeman family are not mutually exclusive to doling out lump sums of cash to institutions.

Faculty emails before the controversy demonstrates a keen interest to accommodate Mr. Freeman as he scheduled a meeting with former-President Weber. The President’s executive assistant sent an email to Kemper on July 23, 2018, explaining that, “… President Weber would be willing to meet early morning for breakfast, after business hours or even on a Saturday if that would be more convenient for Mr. Freeman’s schedule.”

At 3:55 p.m. on Feb. 20, 2020, one day after the mural exhibition, Professor Leslie Lum sent an email to the diversity caucus at BC with photographic evidence of the mural defacement. In her email, she underscored the cultural significance of Miller Freeman in the Pacific Northwest. Attached is an old newspaper clipping, quoting Freeman from 1919 as saying, “I am for a white man’s Pacific coast. I am for the Japanese on their side of the fence. I not only favor stopping all further immigration but believe this government should approach Japan with the view to working out a gradual system of deportation of old Japanese nowhere.” This ghastly statement was an early indicator of the struggles to come for Asian Americans in the region.

The next morning, on Feb. 21, Gayle Barge sent an email directly to Dr. Jerry Weber at 5:12 a.m., “Do you think an alternative could be to delete the name, keep the intent of the sentence and have that reinstalled? Sorry for the early morning message.” At this moment, Barge appears as the sole actor in censoring the mention of Miller Freeman. Much would happen this day. In the meantime, teachers in the know could not help but voice their concerns, awaiting a response from the administration.

Still, the administration deliberated. Around 12:00 p.m., Provost for Academic and Student Affairs, Kristen Jones, emailed the Barge and Weber, urging them to, “… consider sending a letter to the Diversity Caucus that includes information about what was approved by Cabinet and why the sentence was removed… sharing some additional information and context will be helpful in calming the dialogue that is happening as a result of Leslie’s emails.”

At 3:01 p.m., Barge emailed Jones with an attached letter. “… it needs to be a pure apology,” she writes. In this official note, she accepts her mistake and argues that she, a woman of color, has been “… a tireless champion for racial harmony, peace and acceptance.” A heartfelt conciliation. Nineteen minutes later, Barge emails Jones again with a separate follow-up, “I also left a voicemail message of apology for the artist [Shigaki] and shared that we will re-engage her to do another installation of the copy.” At this point, it becomes apparent that Gayle Barge has taken responsibility for what happened. However, Weber’s relationship with Kemper Freeman Jr. is not out of the question. An email would be sent to the Diversity Caucus shortly after that, which also included Barge’s apology.

Then at 5:33 p.m., BC English professor Nan Ma responded to the Diversity Caucus email with an articulate rebuttal.

“I appreciate your attempt at an apology. Unfortunately, your letter falls short at addressing the pain that so many of us in the API (Asian Pacific Islander) community are feeling. This week we observe the Day of Remembrance, a day dedicated to remembering the atrocities that were done to the Japanese American community. Your action, regardless of your intention, triggers intergenerational trauma and colludes with the erasure of Asian American history by the dominant culture.”

Nearly a week passed, and nothing happened to rectify the incident. In the time that passed, faculty members took sides—either supporting Barge or pointing out the willing ignorance of the administration. Around Feb. 26, a reporter for the Seattle Times, Paige Cornwall, reached out to Bellevue College with the hopes of gathering information. There was a hectic effort to extend a statement from Weber or the apology from Barge. Still, once the Times broke the story, a real public outcry overwhelmed the administrators’ inboxes. The next day, Barge was placed on administrative leave. KIRO news investigated the same story, and President Weber was eventually fired.

A mere $15,000 of funding emboldened this public school to consider such an overstep. The impersonality of Barge’s action and the influence of the Freeman family today is emblematic of our forgetfulness. No shifting of blame or communal finger-pointing solves this problem. Societal challenges like these require constant vigilance and introspection on the individual basis. But moreover, the ability to learn from our mistakes, whatever their nature, and not making ourselves complicit in revisionist history. Let us all come to the uncompromising agreement that never again is now, and that the past is never passed.