Auburn’s Own Monument to White Supremacy

Like any cemetery, the Auburn Pioneer Cemetery (previously known as the Slaughter Cemetery) is scattered with monuments of various shapes and sizes. Standing prominently among them is an oversized but otherwise innocuous boulder. This very large rock does not mark a grave, but affixed to its face is a simple bronze memorial plaque. It reads, “In memory of the Pioneers of Slaughter.”

“In memory of the Pioneers of Slaughter”

Although the prominence of this monument is unexplained, it seems straightforward enough—a common sentiment toward a community’s founders. Pretty bland, in fact. What could it possibly have to do with white supremacy?

Like so many of the monuments under discussion currently, the story doesn’t come into focus until you begin to ask when these monuments were erected and why. In this case, the rock itself was placed in the early 1960’s as an act of defiance. At that time, Auburn was moving forward with a plan to widen and straighten Auburn Way, and the improved roadway would require space from the western edge of the cemetery.

When first announced, this plan didn’t inspire much controversy. After all, the cemetery, at that time, was known informally as The Japanese Cemetery—a remnant of the vibrant Japanese and Japanese-American community that was sent to prison camps, just twenty years earlier, for the duration of WWII. At the war’s end, local civic groups formed in Auburn to discourage the newly released families from returning to the White River Valley. These efforts were largely successful. It’s estimated that only one in ten Japanese families ever returned to our area. The remaining Caucasian population had little concern for gravesites of people that many still viewed as the enemy.

But as the plans for the roadway progressed, local groups realized that the cemetery still included more than just Japanese graves. Although most Caucasian burials had been moved to Mountainview and other local cemeteries as they opened (because of flooding at the old cemetery downtown), there were still a handful of burials representing some of Auburn’s earliest white settlers—“pioneers,” in other words, a label that was clearly not intended to include the early Japanese arrivals to our area. The thought of disturbing these important “pioneer” graves, unlike expendable Japanese graves, was a great affront to Auburn’s white community. It was only then that resistance to the road project began to foment. The protests ultimately culminated in the placement of the oversized boulder directly in what would have been the bulldozer’s path.

Although Auburn abandoned the plan to straighten the road at the expense of the cemetery, the community felt they should do more to ensure the cemetery’s on-going protection. It was then that they held a brief ceremony to formally re-name the cemetery, not “The Auburn Cemetery,” but “The Auburn Pioneer Cemetery,” to underline the presence of important graves of the community’s white founders in perpetuity. At the same time the plaque we see today, also honoring the community’s “pioneers,” was placed on the stone that ultimately prevented these white graves from being disturbed. And so it sits today, a memorial to the fact that even in death, our Japanese neighbors were never seen as important as their white counterparts.

4 thoughts on “Auburn’s Own Monument to White Supremacy

  1. Wonderful and meaningful post. Thank you so much. The Issei and Nisei deserve the respect and honoring.

    Ps – Extra, extra points for acknowledging the difference between Japanese and Japanese American. Kudos.

  2. Thanks, Bif. It’s natural to lapse into using “Japanese” as shorthand for “people of Japanese descent,” regardless of their citizenship. I’m guilty of that myself on occasion. I do feel, however, that drawing the citizenship distinction is VERY important when discussing internment. We need to remember that, conservatively, two-thirds of those imprisoned were American-born, US citizens who should have had the full protection of the US Constitution (and many of the Issei generation would have pursued citizenship too had our racist laws of the time not prevented them from doing so). We can only hope the US never again turns against its own people, even in war.
    Thanks for your encouraging comment.

  3. Hi Kristy I sent you an email to the address in the Esperanto Bulteno but it was returned.
    I would like to send you the email if I may.
    Regarding the Kanji Issue: Have you tried to contact the local Buddhist Church (most likely Jodo Shinshu) whom may even consider doing a service, as well as reading the Kanji? Also there is Megi Barrish, a Shinto Kannushi (priest) that heads the Tsubaki Grand Shrine of America in Granite Falls. If you explained what you were doing and sent him photos, he might be able to translate them for you or know someone who could.

    • Hi Don. Thanks for contacting me. We actually worked with a young woman from Japan for the initial translations of the stones. Since then, I’ve worked with at least two other translators for more detail. The challenge here is not so much reading the characters, but the eroded state of many of the stones. Still, we’ve assembled a remarkable amount of info for each, all things considered.
      I’m sorry your earlier email didn’t come through. I’ll send you an email, so be on the lookout!

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