There probably wasn’t a more patriotic graduate from the University of Minnesota. Or one dealt as harsh a hand as Tokutaro Nishimura Slocum.
Born in Japan in 1895, he emigrated to America at 10. When his father moved to Canada to escape discrimination, the Slocum family in Minot, N.D., adopted “Tokie.”
He did well enough at the U to gain acceptance to Columbia Law School in New York — just as the U.S. entered the first world war in 1917. Slocum dropped out, enlisted in the U.S. Army and fought in the forests and trenches along the Western Front. German poison gas would scar his lungs for the rest of his days.
Initially denied U.S. citizenship despite his service, Slocum lobbied for legislation granting citizenship to Asian-Americans who fought for the U.S. during the Great War. When Japan attacked Pearl Harbor a generation later, Slocum helped the FBI arrest Japanese immigrants living in America.
That didn’t stop the government from forcibly removing him from his home in Los Angeles in 1942 and locking him up at the Manzanar incarceration camp. He was one of 120,000 Japanese-Americans corralled during WWII.
Slocum battled health problems for years before dying in 1974, two weeks shy of his 79th birthday. Tokie lives on, though, in a massive new mural-in-progress at the Minnesota History Center in St. Paul.
“When this mural is finished, we will showcase 100 individuals who had a hand in creating modern America,” said David Geister, a self-described “storyteller with a paintbrush.”
The mural — three 8-foot-by-10-foot panels slated for completion this month — is part of the History Center’s current WWI exhibit running through Nov. 11. It features well-known 20th-century Americans from President Woodrow Wilson to Helen Keller; F. Scott Fitzgerald to Duke Ellington; Amelia Earhart to Frank Lloyd Wright.
Tokutaro Slocum is part of a lesser-known and “really diverse cast of characters whose narratives we’re trying to weave into this project,” Geister said. By “we,” he means some 200 museum visitors who added brush strokes to Army boots and landscape rocks as the painting progressed.
Sometimes Geister’s wife, Patricia Bauer, and others have posed in costumes. On his computer, Geister replaces the models’ heads with facial photographs of his actual subjects before transferring those images to the 30 feet of canvas.
“The painting preparation has become a combination of digital photography from the computer age and paint and brushes used, more or less, for the last 400 years,” said Geister, 53, a Minneapolis artist and illustrator.
The idea for the mural came from two places: a famous-but-forgotten French painting and a since laid-off Historical Society military expert named Randal Dietrich.
Considered the largest painting in the world when it was created in France during WWI (1914-1918), the “Pantheon de la Guerre” featured 6,000 Allied war figures and covered more than 400 feet in circumference and 45 feet in height.
After WWI, the painting attracted thousands of viewers at the Chicago World’s Fair in 1933 and 1934. Then it was nearly discarded. Stored outdoors for years, the painting was eventually auctioned off to a Baltimore restaurant owner in the 1950s. An artist persuaded the owner to donate it to a museum in Missouri — where what was salvageable was refigured with an American focus. It’s been on display for more than 50 years at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.
That’s where Dietrich saw it in 2015 and came up with the idea to commission Geister to paint a similar albeit smaller mural for the History Center’s WWI exhibit.
“In this way, David is continuing the work of earlier artists, but the most rewarding aspect has been to witness the many people who have discussed history with David as he’s painted in public view since his start in April,” said Dietrich, who lost his job amid budget cuts this summer. He’s now the director of the Minnesota Military Museum north of Little Falls. And he’s proud of Geister’s big mural.
“As a public history project, there is a place for this kind of work-in-progress approach to history because we can all have a hand in making it,” he said. “That’s empowering.”
Geister’s mural, financed with a $20,000 grant, has three parts: the war, the political front and the home front. But there are “mini-narratives” tucked in the mural, he said, like the cluster of minority soldiers in the “war” panel — including Japanese-born U.S. Army Sgt. Major Tokutaro Slocum.
Painted with tight lips and a blank expression under his battle helmet, Slocum stands in the mural right in front of John McCloy, a Harvard-schooled lawyer who fought in WWI and became the assistant secretary of war during WWII. He played a key role in President Franklin Roosevelt’s decision to force Japanese-Americans on the West Coast into internment camps.
“Once I learned that, I knew I had to place him right behind Tokie Slocum in the mural,” Geister said. “It just seemed right to tie them together.”
Slocum remained in federal custody until the end of World War II. He and is wife, Ayako (Sally) Yabumoto, had a son and a daughter. After the war, Slocum kept a low profile — working for the Veterans Administration in Hawaii and then the Social Security Administration in Fresno, Calif., where he’s buried next to his wife.
Curt Brown’s tales about Minnesota’s history appear each Sunday. Readers can send him ideas and suggestions at email@example.com. A collection of his columns is available as the e-book “Frozen in History” at startribune.com/ebooks.