Japanese colony started with railway

By Emily Crowe
Staff writer

In 1910, just one year after Clovis was incorporated as a locomotive town along the Santa Fe Railway, an immigrant named Kizo Nishibata became the first recorded Japanese resident of the fledgling new city.

Nishibata worked as a locomotive wiper, then messenger and after-hours janitor at Santa Fe Railway before eventually rising to the job of locomotive painter in 1920.

Nine more Japanese settlers came to Clovis between 1919 and 1922 to work for the Santa Fe Railway, according to John J. Culley, who wrote about Japanese railroad workers in Clovis in the book “Racial Encounters in the Multi-Cultural West.”

The railroad workers and their families lived rent free in housing quarters provided by the railway just south of the train tracks, in what was known as the Japanese or Jap camp.

A nationwide railroad strike in 1922 divided the Japanese workers from their counterparts as they did not take part in the subsequent shop walk-out and march down Main Street.

As the story goes, the Japanese workers were later rewarded for their loyalty to the Santa Fe Railway and many eventually held high positions as machinists.

In subsequent years, the children of the Japanese workers attended Clovis schools and the entire colony became a known part of the community.

The small colony was eventually comprised of 10 men, five women and 17 children, though several workers and family members came and went from Clovis, or passed away while living here.

Robert Stebbins, 82, was born and raised in Clovis and remembers being in second grade with Mary and Freddie Kimura, children of railroad worker Tamon Tom Kimura.

“In those days, we went to school and there was reading, writing, arithmetic and the playground,” Stebbins said. “That was really most of the connection that we had with the Japanese community because they lived on the other side of the railroad tracks.”

Lifelong Clovis residents O.T. and Lila Rozzell, 87 and 86 respectively, have fond memories of being in school with several of the other Japanese children, including Willie and Thomas Sugihara, sons of Kanjiro Sugihara.

Lila Rozzell said she and other children were sometimes invited to attend birthday parties at the Japanese camp, and O.T. said all of his Japanese classmates were pleasant to be around and were mostly straight-A students.

Those in the Japanese colony lived generally peacefully among the Clovis community until Dec. 7, 1941, the fateful Sunday morning when the Japanese bombed U.S. Naval Base Pearl Harbor.

As Culley wrote, anti-Japanese sentiment was at an all-time high throughout Clovis and the rest of the country, and some railway workers expressed anger and resentment toward their Japanese colleagues.

In addition, many Clovis men were serving with the New Mexico National Guard in the Philippines at the time of Pearl Harbor, and their local family and friends were angered by the presence of the Japanese people in their community.

“We had boys and men over there and the hatred was running bad,” Lila Rozzell recalled. “These railroaders were ready to get their guns and go kill them all.”

At midnight on Jan. 23, 1941, the entire Japanese colony was taken into federal custody and evacuated from Clovis.

The decision to move the Japanese colony came from the general negative sentiment toward the colony among locals, the Santa Fe Railway’s desire to protect their workers and the U.S. Justice Department’s need to implement a national enemy alien control program, Culley wrote.

The prisoners of war spent the next year at Old Raton Ranch, located near Fort Stanton Military Reservation southwest of Capitan.

According to Culley, the camp was extremely isolated and left the Japanese devoid of meaningful work, recreation and even education for the school-age children.

In December 1942, the government transferred the internees from New Mexico to War Relocation Authority camps in Utah and Arizona, with two men leaving the camp on parole.