Monuments that deal with contentious issues of race and ethnicity

The living quarters of four bachelor internees of an original barrack from the Tule Lake internment camp, located at the Tule Lake Unit visitor center, National Park Service Tule Lake Unit, WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument, at the Tulelake - Butte Valley Fairgrounds, in Tulelake, Calif. (Gary Coronado/ Los Angeles Times/TNS)

The living quarters of four bachelor internees of an original barrack from the Tule Lake internment camp, located at the Tule Lake Unit visitor center, National Park Service Tule Lake Unit, WWII Valor in the Pacific National Monument, at the Tulelake - Butte Valley Fairgrounds, in Tulelake, Calif. (Gary Coronado/ Los Angeles Times/TNS)

TULELAKE, Calif. — On a late October afternoon, as icy shards of rain pellet the high desert, Angela Sutton pries open the metal door that seals off the old jail that once belonged to the Tule Lake war relocation camp.

The door swings open and we step into the pitch darkness, into air redolent of musty concrete.

Tule Lake, in a rural community in Northern California just a few minutes shy of the Oregon line, was the biggest and most notorious of the Japanese-American internment camps established by the U.S. government during World War II. Almost 120,000 people (mainly U.S. citizens) were incarcerated here for no other reason than their ancestry.

The jail is one of the camp’s few remnants and is now maintained by the National Park Service — one of an increasing number of such sites that deal with contentious issues of race and ethnicity in American history.

Sutton, an energetic young ranger who has worked with the Tule Lake Unit since it was established in 2008, picks her way through the darkness and brings a flashlight beam to rest on one corner.

It illuminates three columns of faded Japanese characters, marking a name and birth date: “Kawano, Toshio, year of 1919” — a man leaving humble evidence of his existence in what must have been dire circumstances.

“One piece of graffiti tells us this story of a person,” Sutton said. “And that is just one story of the thousands of people that came through this camp.”

When the National Park Service was established 100 years ago, it was with the intent of creating a federal agency that would “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects” in the nation’s wilderness area. But over the decades, the NPS’ portfolio has expanded. Of its 413 units, more than a third are historic places and sites — and it’s through some of these that the park service has begun dialogues about race.

That is the case at Tule Lake, as well as at the Nicodemus National Historic Site in Kansas, which harbors a roughly century-old settlement established by freed slaves after the Civil War, and the 54-mile Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama, which marks the path of the fraught 1965 march to secure equal voting rights for African-Americans in the U.S.

“It’s an inherent mission and responsibility to tell the complete American narrative,” said NPS Director John Jarvis. “Not just the good and rosy stories, but the full story.”

That may raise an eyebrow given the diversity issues that have plagued the park service — from its disproportionately white visitor pool to its largely white staff. But the service has made inroads in recent years, and 20 percent of its staff is now composed of minorities.

Plus, Jarvis thinks the development of sites such as Tule Lake can continue to alter the equation.

“By tackling these issues, we have the potential to change both the demographics of our visitation and our work force,” he said.

He also noted that the park service has a long track record of interpreting American history. (It has managed Civil War battlefields since the 1930s.)

But it’s been only relatively recently that it has grown comfortable addressing issues of race. Case in point: those Civil War battlefields. For much of the 20th century, interpretation at these sites avoided the issue of slavery, focusing instead on anecdotes about battle strategy and historical armaments.

“It was just an unwritten policy from the ‘30s until the mid 1990s — 60 years — that the park service just didn’t want to go there,” said Dwight T. Pitcaithley, a historian at New Mexico State University, who has also served as chief historian for the NPS.

That began to change in the 1990s, with the approaching sesquicentennial of the Civil War, when parks began to incorporate discussions of slavery into their materials and guided tours.

It was also during the ‘90s that the NPS began to establish and manage historic sites that directly addressed issues of race and civil rights — including Nicodemus, Little Rock Central High School in Arkansas (where in 1957 the Army helped to forcibly desegregate the student body on the orders of President Dwight Eisenhower) and Manzanar, the former Japanese-American internment camp in the Owens Valley 220 miles north of Los Angeles.

In California, other sites have been added since.

There is the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument, in bucolic Keene, outside of Bakersfield. The site was an organizing center for the farmworker movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s and serves as the final resting place of the Mexican-American labor leader whose struggles often intersected with issues of race and civil rights.

The monument, established in 2012, is still in its infancy; it’s in the process of creating the interpretive plan that will tell the myriad stories of the farmworker movement, which involved key contributions from women and Filipino organizers.

The inclusion of such sites in the NPS portfolio makes an important statement, said Myron Floyd, who oversees the department of recreation and tourism management at North Carolina State University and who has studied issues of diversity in the national parks.

“It’s saying that these are places or histories of national significance,” he said.

“These aren’t just sites of Japanese-American history or African-American history. They are sites of American history.”

And as such, they illuminate aspects of U.S. history that don’t always get a lot of play in the textbooks.

In late October, shortly after my visit to Tule Lake, I found myself standing over the remnants of an old pier in Suisun Bay, near Concord, Calif.

The Port Chicago Naval Magazine was an important World War II-era site, where segregated units of African-American seaman — with little training or proper equipment — had the arduous, life-threatening task of loading munitions onto ships for the war effort in the Pacific.

In July 1944, an accident lighted up a pair of munitions ships and triggered an explosion so massive that it registered 3.4 on the Richter scale. The 320 men on site, most of them African-American, were killed instantly. For most, their remains were never found.

After the disaster, 258 black seamen refused to continue loading because they feared a similar fate. The Navy threatened them with mutiny charges, and 50 men were ultimately convicted — convictions that were never overturned. But the widely publicized case helped launch a debate that eventually led to the desegregation of the armed forces in 1948.

Port Chicago is complicated to visit. (It’s on an active military base and tours can be canceled at any time.) All that remains of the site is a triangular arrangement of battered wood pilings. But the stories it tells — of race and injustice, of war and change — couldn’t be more powerful.

“You don’t hear about this on the History Channel,” ranger Stephanie Meckler said as she walked a small clutch of visitors along the bay, the sound of water lapping on the shore.

“This story gets passed around through conversation.”

The NPS has helped keep that conversation alive.