African American Connections to Green Spaces in Chicago During the Great Migration: A Conversation with Dr. Brian McCammack

The Corps Network’s Moving Forward Initiative – supported by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation – seeks to address bias and structural racism in the conservation workforce and help increase the employment of young adults of color in public lands management and conservation-related careers.

As part of this initiative, we aim to provide information to help people develop a foundation to understand the history, policies, practices and societal dynamics that have shaped our country and the conservation field. 

Brian McCammack is an Assistant Professor of Environmental Studies at Lake Forest College in Illinois. He is the author of, among other works, Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago. We spoke to Dr. McCammack about his research into the intersection of environment and race in the Midwest during the “first wave” of the Great Migration.

 


What was the Great Migration?

The first wave of the Great Migration, which my research focuses on, is dated to roughly between 1915 and 1940; the quarter-century or so between World Wars I and II. This is a time when you have 1.5 million African Americans leaving the South for the urban North and settling in cities like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Detroit, etc.

This movement is driven by racial oppression in the South, the tenant farming system, the rise of Jim Crow, disenfranchisement. There are also the labor demands of WWI in the North, the hope of making a better life, finding better jobs, and having at least more of a semblance of equality.

Chicago in particular, along with New York, are the two epicenters of the Great Migration. Chicago’s African American population grew extraordinarily during this period. Between 1910 and 1940, the African American population more than sextupled. Before the Great Migration, only 44,000 African Americans lived in Chicago; by 1940, on the eve of WWII, you have more than a quarter-of-a-million. This dramatically changes not just the demographics of the city, but the culture. You also begin to see, in really stark ways, the beginning of segregation patterns.

Part of what my research aims to do is push back on this notion that the kinds of environments where African Americans found themselves and were able to visit in the city were exclusively tenement houses and unhealthy environments. That really becomes too much of the story and discounts the ways African Americans found slices of the outdoors, both inside and outside the city.

 



From Digital Research Library of Illinois History Journal
 

Can you talk about African American enrollment in the Civilian Conservation Corps in the Chicago area?

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) is created during the 1930s. An interesting thing about that for me is that during the Great Migration – and I’m painting with very broad strokes – you see African Americans leaving manual labor jobs that are directly connected to the soil, whether you’re talking about tenant farming or extraction industries in the South. They’re leaving a lifestyle of knowing the land through labor. Then, when they move north, African Americans are, by and large, getting jobs in factories. In many cases, migrants are leaving the South expressly to get away from knowing nature through labor, because tenant farming was an exploitative relationship. Industrial jobs in the North are arguably just as exploitative, but they do pay better and there is slightly more of a chance for advancement.

When the CCC forms, tens of thousands of young black men – who either themselves migrated out of the South when they were young children, or whose parents migrated out of the South to escape outdoor manual labor – are now going back to the land.

So that chapter of my book explores what it means for African Americans in the North, in the midst of the Great Migration, to go back to the land and know it through labor rather than through leisure, which, increasingly during the Great Migration, is how many African Americans come to experience and seek out nature. The CCC is an outlier – a callback to a relationship with nature that thousands of African Americans had left behind in the South.

 


Considering many of these young men or their parents had escaped exploitative labor on the land in the South, how would young African American men have perceived the CCC? Was it seen as a good opportunity?

A big draw was the dollar-a-day wages. They’re making thirty bucks a month. In the midst of the Depression, the chance to be able to support your family was huge.

In Chicago, you have up to about half the employable African American population out of work. People are literally going hungry. They’re being evicted from their homes. You have people sleeping in the parks in Chicago. There’s a PBS documentary about the CCC, and you see that many enrollees look back fondly on the Corps because you’re getting three meals a day, clothes, new shoes. All of that is beneficial.

And many enrollees liked the labor outdoors. I would imagine just as many probably didn’t like it, no different than any population doing hard manual labor outdoors in all the elements.

The wages, the food, the clothes, and you’re helping out your family and getting job training. The training white enrollees received, based on my research, is generally better. There were more opportunities for advancement in the CCC for white enrollees. But, for all enrollees, there were classes you could take after your day in the field. There were also sports the CCC, promoted to boost morale.

There definitely were some positive aspects of the CCC. However, some of my work focuses on thinking about the ramifications of how the CCC was segregated, even in the North. In this period, we have white officers who are commanding segregated CCC companies. And while several sources, including the Chicago Defender, the biggest black newspaper in the country, say the segregated African American camps near Chicago were some of the best in the country, a lot of black Chicagoans and other black Illinois residents are going to camps in downstate Illinois or elsewhere in the Midwest, where white officers are frequently, and I think rightfully, accused of racial bias and racial intimidation.

So, getting back to the Great Migration, there is this real tension between how moving to places like Chicago gave African Americans a way to assert themselves and find a greater measure of equality than they were able to find in the South. And oftentimes with the CCC, you have these white officers who are treating black enrollees as if they were sharecroppers. The tension is in the feeling that these young men, these products of the Great Migration, have taken a step backwards by enrolling in the CCC, despite all the benefits.

 



From livingnewdeal.org
 

What do you feel is the legacy of the CCC for African American enrollees? 

I think it does, at least temporarily, lead to an increased connection to nature. However, after WWII, you have an even greater wave of migrants to cities like Chicago. This second migration really dwarfs the first wave and leads to intensified segregation and a further restriction of opportunities for African Americans in urban centers to really connect to nature. So, I think there’s this window in the 30’s when African American enrollees – and there’s roughly a quarter of a million nationwide – who are connecting to nature, and I think hold that with them for the rest of their lives. But, the material reality of what comes after this period is the creation of barriers to maintaining that connection to nature.

The biggest CCC project I write about is north of Chicago – building what’s called the Skokie Lagoons – taking all this marshland and basically digging it out and trying to create lakes connected by channels so there’s flood control and you can develop the land around it. This space also becomes a leisure retreat for those who live nearby. The sad reality is that this is on the far North Side of the city, which is almost entirely white. This is the kind of segregation that I’m talking about, that pretty much restricts African Americans to the South Side of the city, far from all these places where enrollees worked. The products of their labor are actually enjoyed by middle class whites.

For enrollees, I think the story is one of personal connection to nature during that period when they’re in the CCC, but there are these broader structural forces that, once these enrollees exit the program, really prevent them from maintaining those connections. Even if they’d enjoyed their time in the CCC, even if they found it productive from the standpoint of connecting to nature, it becomes harder and harder to do that in the post-WWII era.

As far as job opportunities, you can’t discount the training in the CCC and the way it helped African American enrollees learn skills they could actually apply. However, it’s also worth noting that African Americans were likely to stay in the CCC longer. They’d stay for six months, then re-up for another six months, or even stay longer. Especially during the Depression, it was harder for them to find jobs due to racial discrimination. Last hired, first fired. Even when the economy starts picking up in the late ‘30s, the white working class is the first to benefit. The African American working class – the kinds of young men that are in the Civilian Conservation Corps – really don’t see the fruits of that until industrial production ramps up with WWII.

 


Can you talk about green spaces that African Americans sought out or created for themselves as they moved North? For those who settled in cities, what were the opportunities to get outdoors?

I think one of the biggest reasons connecting with green spaces was so important for migrants was because it was intertwined with connections to Southern folk culture. Being able to connect with the environment is a way to connect with the rural lifestyle you left behind. A lot of migrants didn’t necessarily want to leave the South; they were essentially forced to leave because of the racially oppressive and violent policies afflicted upon them.

The sad story is that they find racial oppression in the North, it’s just different. The majority of migrants in the Great Migration aren’t living in suburban environments. They are, by and large, restricted to the more cramped, rundown and unsanitary portions of the city. So, if they’re connecting to green spaces, chances are it wasn’t privately owned green spaces. Most of the working-class migrants coming to Chicago don’t have a yard, don’t have room or time to cultivate a garden. There certainly were black Chicagoans who did that, but I think that was more of an exception. So, if they’re seeking aspects of nature, they’re doing so in public spaces. They’re becoming modern urban dwellers, seeking out green spaces just like every other working class modern urban dweller seeks out nature in city parks, in the beaches, in the forest preserves around the city. And, if you have little bit more money, going on vacation at a rural resort.

A lot of black Chicagoans, especially those who were more well-off, went to resorts. The most well-known one that I write about is in Idlewild, MI. Several hours away from the city, a self-segregated African American resort colony springs up, and this is only the most notable of them. This is happening all over the country on various scales.

The predominant story, however, is that these urban dwellers would, maybe on a Sunday – the one day off they have each week – go with their family and friends to a city park and just hang out. One of the things I write about is playing music – ukuleles and things like that – on the tennis courts in Washington Park, a massive 371-acre Frederick Law Olmstead-designed park that’s built in the late 19th century, when African Americans didn’t live anywhere near it. But as the “black belt” on the south side of Chicago expands further, it ends up abutting this huge park. By the 1930s, it becomes a de-facto black park.

 


So Chicago’s parks were at least informally segregated?

Yes, I think that would be the best way to put it. “De-facto segregated.” There weren’t necessarily signs posted. However, to give you an example, look at Jackson Park Beach on the South Side of the city. African Americans began using the lakefront and continued to push south as the black belt expanded. They’re going to beaches that are closest to where they live and work. Well, the white folks who lived in Hyde Park and elsewhere and were using Jackson Park Beach – and there’s no official explanation for how this came to be – but there was a fence erected on the north end of Jackson Park Beach and it was just generally known that African Americans were only to use the north end of that beach and whites reserved the longer, sandier, better portion of the beach for themselves. If an African American ventured to the southern portion of the beach, they were risking violence. This is how the race riot started in the city in 1919. A young African American boy – 17 years old – unwittingly floats too far south into what whites were trying to protect as a whites-only beach. A stone is thrown at him and he drowns, and it touches off this race riot.

So yes, parks were not officially segregated, but, if you were to interview folks who grew up in Chicago in the ‘30s and ‘40s, they’ll say you just knew you couldn’t go to the white recreation areas. And that line keeps shifting over time. Washington Park was a white park up to the 1920s. Then there’s this decade of transition and, by the ‘30s, whites basically abandon their use of Washington Park.

 


One thing we want to examine is why the environmental movement looks how it does today. Why has it lacked diversity? From your perspective, do you see any historical context for why the conservation movement and our land management agencies are predominantly white?

That’s sort of my next project, actually. Figuring out how environmentalism stayed white is basically the argument of my second book – it’s still in its infancy.

I think there are a lot of reasons. The Civilian Conservation Corps gives you one indication. I think a lot of white enrollees look back fondly on their time in the CCC, and I think that’s true for many black enrollees, but that vastly different labor context that we talked about taints that connection to the environment.

In the period right after the Civilian Conservation Corps, you have mass suburbanization, white flight from city centers, and hundreds of thousands of additional African American migrants pouring into city centers. Opportunities to connect to nature, whether you’re talking about city parks or forest preserves, or even the wilder spaces where CCC companies worked, they become more restricted because of suburbanization and these structural barriers that are erected in the post-WWII era.

If you look at the decade after that, when the environmental movement is coming about in the ‘60s and ‘70s, it’s mainly a middle class white movement. One thing I’ve talked about and written about before is the Black Panthers talking about environmental justice issues: pollution in the cities, inadequate garbage removal, disease, and other issues that afflict their communities in the ‘60s. They’re talking about stuff that the Clean Air Act helps resolve. However, by the time you get all that legislation on the books in the early ‘70s and the environmental movement becomes institutionalized and more of a lobbying and litigation movement rather than a grassroots movement, it begins to wholeheartedly ignore African Americans and issues that concern people of color in favor of promoting rural and wild spaces.

And that’s how you get the environmental justice movement springing up in the ‘80s and ‘90s. You have people of color saying the environmental movement and conservationists are not representing our interests. And it’s only in the past decade or two that I think environmental groups have made a conscious effort to diversify their ranks, to address issues that matter to people of color, to get more people of color into the national parks. There’s still a long, long way to go.

The story I tell about the 1920s and ‘30s is the beginning of institutional barriers that prevent African Americans and other people of color from accessing nature. The barriers that come up in that post-WWII era dwarf the ones I write about in the 1920s and ‘30s. This is a story of mass suburbanization, redlining, residential segregation, disinvestment in communities of color and the lack of opportunities afforded them. All of that has an impact on the ability of African American families to maintain connections to nature. I think we’re still dealing with that legacy today.

 


Can you elaborate on what some of those barriers were that came up in post-WWII era that would’ve separated African Americans further from opportunities to enjoy green spaces?

The vast majority of African Americans who migrate to places like Chicago settle in city centers and the white tax base flees in droves. You have massive disinvestment in cities in this post-WWII era, and that has a tangible effect on places like Washington Park. Just walking into Washington Park, you can tell it doesn’t receive the kind of maintenance it needs. This is something I touch on briefly in the epilogue of my book, but all of those social problems that come along with disinvestments in communities – drugs, violence, gangs – that’s not confined just to city streets. That spills into park spaces and makes them uninviting places to go. All the issues that afflict black communities during what historians call the “urban crisis” in the ‘60s and ‘70s – that has a tangible impact on the experience of green spaces in the city. Parks became places that weren’t safe to let your kids run around.

The same sort of thing happens in a place like Idlewild, which was a retreat for middle and upper class African Americans. With the collapse of formal segregation barriers in many places in the post-WWII era, African Americans have no reason to maintain their own segregated resort any more. So you see a disinvestment in Idlewild. The resort is sort of in a remote, not exactly picturesque part of Michigan. If you could be on a nicer lake, or right on the coast of Lake Michigan, why wouldn’t you want to be there? However, this place where African Americans had traditionally connected with nature disappears. So that’s just one example of a way that African Americans’ connections with nature are severed in the post-WWII era.

 


For your consideration:

  • To this day, people of color are underrepresented among visitors to parks and other green spaces. What steps can be taken to make parks more accessible and inclusive?  
  • In your community, do you see any “de facto segregation” of parks or other outdoor spaces?
    • If yes, what are some reasons this might be happening? Is this de facto segregation problematic and, if so, what steps can be taken to integrate outdoor spaces?
    • If no, in what ways do you believe outdoor spaces in your community have been able to maintain visitation and use by diverse populations?
  • During our intervirew, Dr. McCammack discussed how there was tension among Chicagoans about the “proper” way to utilize green spaces. Some people looked down on new comers to the city who used the park for Southern folk traditions, like outdoor baptisms. In your experience, have you seen tension among different park visitors? Do you believe these tensions ever fall along racial, ethnic, or class lines? Have you ever been made to feel like you were using an outdoor space “improperly”?
  • Dr. McCammack discusses how one reason why the mainstream environmental movement has remained predominantly white is because the movement has traditionally ignored issues that are relevant to communities of color. What environmental issues concern you most? Do you feel like these issues get adequate attention? What are some reasons why these issues may or may not receive attention? 
  • For Corps: Do you make it a priority to engage in green spaces that can be enjoyed by all members of a community? Do your Corpsmembers serve in spaces that they can readily access during their free time? Would your Corpsmembers feel comfortable recreating in all the spaces where they serve? 

The CCC Indian Division: Native Americans in the Civilian Conservation Corps


Via WPAToday, YouTube: "During the New Deal era, tens of thousands of Indians enrolled in the Civilian Conservation Corps. This brief film clip shows some of their work. The clip is from a longer film created by the U.S. Department of the Interior, and is provided courtesy of the National Archives."
 


Blog by Ashley McNeil, Communications Assistant, The Corps Network 

Created during the Great Depression, a time when the United States faced grave economic peril, the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a federal work relief program that, from 1933 until 1942, put 3 million unemployed young men to work building and restoring America’s natural resource infrastructure.

Though the CCC was intended to provide stability and a new beginning for its participants, the benefits of the program were not equally distributed among all populations; the main beneficiaries were white enrollees. As detailed in a previous blog, the CCC failed to live up to its promise to provide equitable work and training opportunities to African American Corpsmembers. Many African Americans faced hostility from white supervisors, or were forced to serve in black-only camps, where conditions were poor. For Native Americans, however the federal work relief experience was quite different.

Technically, most Native Americans did not serve in the CCC, but rather in a parallel program. In 1933, not long after the formation of the CCC, the Indian Emergency Conservation Work (IECW) program was created at the request of John Collier, Commissioner of the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA). It was Collier’s hope that work relief projects, like those performed by the CCC, could benefit reservations. Pressure to create a separate program came from Native Americans and the BIA, who objected to having the standard military-style CCC camps on tribal land.

President Franklin Roosevelt initially approved $5,875,200 in funding for the IECW, which, by executive law, was renamed the Civilian Conservation Corps Indian Division (CCC-ID) in 1937. The program was focused on “Indian work”: employing Native Americans on federally recognized reservations with a goal of preserving tribal lands and promoting sustainable ranching and farming. Projects involved road construction, erosion control, reforestation, and water resource development.

Records indicate 80,000 – 85,000 men served in the CCC-ID during the years of the Depression. Outside of work on reservations, the CCC-ID built dams, roads, trails, and fences on land near reservations. Native Americans received training in gardening, animal husbandry, safety practices, and academic subjects. As stated by political columnist Albert Bender in the article “History shows that joblessness among Native Americans can be lowered,” “The Indian Division produced awesome results. To cite only a few, reservation forests had 9,739 miles of truck trails laid out; 1,351,870 acres put under pest control; and countless fire lookout towers constructed. Indian grazing and farm lands had 263,129 acres subject to poisonous weed eradication, and 1,792 large dams and reservoirs were constructed.” Some of these accomplishments are still visible to this day.

While day-to-day operations at CCC camps were largely managed by the military, the BIA and tribal governments, or “agencies,” oversaw the CCC-ID. For example, branches of the CCC-ID were overseen by the Crow Agency of Montana, the Northern Cheyenne Agency of Montana, the Flathead Agency of Montana, the Turtle Mountain Chippewa of North Dakota, and the Sioux of South Dakota.

The CCC-ID was one part of what would be the called the “Indian New Deal.” In 1934, John Collier encouraged President Roosevelt to sign into law the Wheeler-Howard Act, otherwise known as the Indian Reorganization Act. This legislation reversed harsh restrictions enacted through the Dawes Act of 1887, which had authorized the federal government to assimilate and strip Native Americans of their culture and claim 90 million acres of tribal land.

Under Wheeler-Howard, Native Americans could purchase new land. Additionally, the government recognized tribal institutions and repealed prohibitions on Native language and customs. In conjunction with this legislation, the CCC-ID was the first measure to bring material aid to reservations, encouraged self-administration by Native Americans, conserved tribal land resources, and employed thousands of Native men.

As Collier said, the CCC-ID was, “the greatest opportunity and the greatest challenge confronting the Indian Service and the Indian tribes.” In simple terms, this was the first time the federal government allowed Native Americans to, at least to some extent, hold the reigns. Collier went on to state, “No previous undertaking in Indian Service, has so largely been the Indians’ own undertaking.”

Once the CCC-ID received funding, the program grew quickly. Within six months of its inception, 72 camps were present on 33 reservations in 28 states. The CCC-ID received more applicants than anticipated. To accommodate this, officials staggered employment of enrollees and allowed them to work on neighboring reservations only if it was approved by tribal council.

With assistance from the BIA, tribal councils oversaw CCC-ID camp enrollment, structure, and projects. Because of this, records of enrollees were processed differently, with some tribal governments collecting more data than others. Many tribes created narrative reports detailing work completed by enrollees. Some tribes opted to publish information about their work in their own newsletters, such as the Shoshone Tattler and the Blackfeet Tom Tom Echoes. These publications featured anecdotal history, as well as jokes, stories, and drawings from corpsmen.

One notable source that discussed Native contributions was, Indians at Work. This monthly publication, produced by the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA), contained articles, photographs and drawings of Native Americans, reservation life, and western scenes that helped promote the accomplishments of Native corpsmen.

Besides its management structure, the CCC-ID program differed from the CCC in many ways, including such elements as age restriction, living arrangements and wages. The CCC only enrolled men between the ages of 18 and 25. The average age of Native American corpsmen was 34; 172 enrollees were over the age of 35, and three were over the age of 75.

While CCC camps employed 200 men for six-month terms, only 40 to 50 Native Americans worked in units together. Also, as opposed to the traditional camp-setting, Native corpsmen lived in one of three types of domiciles: the permanent boarding camp for single men; the home camp for those wishing to live at home; and the family camp for projects of short duration where the entire household could reside temporarily in tents (another difference about the CCC-ID was that married men could serve). African American and white corpsmen did not have these housing options.

The basic wage for CCC-ID members was $30.00 for twenty workdays a month, or $1.50 per day, plus a 60 cent-per-day subsidy for those living at home. Enrollees also received from $1.00 to $2.00 per day for use of their own teams of horses. For those who lived at home, their pay was $2.10 per day for not more than twenty days in any one month, a possible total of $42.00 per month. In comparison, white and African American corpsmen earned a flat $30.00 per month, $25 of which had to be sent home to their families.

While the CCC-ID had what could be considered advantages over the CCC, there were some downsides. For instance, some living conditions were unsanitary. In all, however, the CCC-ID was more flexible than the CCC. It had less militarily structure and focused primarily on the goals of the Wheeler-Howard Act and improving Native American self-sufficiency.

The CCC and CCC-ID came to an end in 1942 when, as the U.S. joined WWII, Congress rejected funds to continue programming. For Native Americans, the CCC-ID was progressive in many ways. Native peoples reclaimed aspects of their culture, gained new educational and agricultural skills, and saw employment opportunities. The end of the CCC was arguably a setback; the program was important to Native Americans because one of their most valuable resources – their land – was cultivated, and small parts were returned to them. Collier stated, “The ending of CCC...is a heavy, heavy blow to Indian Service, to the Indians, and to social policy in the United States. It is just that: a heavy and undeserved blow.”


For your consideration 

As you read this blog, here are some questions for you to consider: 

  • The CCC and CCC-ID were disbanded in the early 1940s as the country turned its attention to WWII. John Collier described the end of the CCC-ID as a “heavy and undeserved blow.” Do you agree with his statement? If the CCC-ID program had continued (or possibly still functioned to this day), how do you think it would have influenced Native communities culturally? Economically? Socially?
     
  • The Smithsonian Libraries website offers the opportunity to read old copies of Indians at Work, the Bureau of Indian Affairs publication from the ‘30s and ‘40s. What do you learn from these publications? What do you not learn?
     
  • After decades of stripping Native peoples of their land and culture, the federal government gave tribal leadership a degree of agency over the CCC-ID program. How do you think tribal governments felt about this?
     
  • It has been over 80 years since passage of the Wheeler-Howard Act, or “Indian New Deal.” However, as stated by the National Congress of American Indians, “Tribal communities are among the poorest in the country and unemployment rates in Indian Country often stand above 50 percent.” What do you believe the federal government should do to address these ongoing issues?   
     
  • What can land management agencies do to better share the history and accomplishments of Native Americans on lands that are now national parks, national forests and other public spaces?
     
  • For Corps: Do you engage Native American youth in your programs or offer programming specifically for Native youth? If so, how is programming for Native youth different? How might any specialized education and activities offered in Native American programs also benefit non-Native Corpsmembers?
    • If your Corps does not actively engage Native American youth, what steps can you take to better engage Native populations in your region?

Resources

These resources, and much more, can be found in the Moving Forward Initiative resource library.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Indian Reorganization Act.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 10 October 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Indian-Reorganization-Act


Bender, Albert. “History shows that joblessness among Native Americans can be lowered. People’s World. 22 September 2014. http://www.peoplesworld.org/article/history-shows-that-joblessness-among-native-americans-can-be-lowered/


“Native Americans.” Digital History, 2016. http://www.digitalhistory.uh.edu/disp_textbook.cfm?smtid=2&psid=3449


White, Cody. “The CCC Indian Division.” Prologue Magazine. Vol.48, No.2. 2016. https://www.archives.gov/publications/prologue/2016/summer/ccc-id.html

 

Gower, Calvin W. “The CCC Indian Division: Aid for depressed Americans, 1933-1942.” Minnesota Historical Society. http://collections.mnhs.org/MNHistoryMagazine/articles/43/v43i01p003-013.pdf
 

Bromert, Roger. “The Sioux and the Indian-CCC.” South Dakota State Historical Society. 1978. http://www.sdhspress.com/journal/south-dakota-history-8-4/the-sioux-and-the-indian-ccc/vol-08-no-4-the-sioux-and-the-indian-ccc.pdf
 

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Dawes General AllotmentAct.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 12 December 2016. https://www.britannica.com/topic/Dawes-General-Allotment-Act
 

https://www.bia.gov/
 

McLerran, Jennifer. “A New Deal for Native Art: Indian Arts and Federal Policy 1933-1943.” The University of Arizona Press 2012. https://bit.ly/2pT07jI 
 

Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Indians at Work.” 1933 Bureau of Indian Affairs. https://library.si.edu/digital-library/book/indians-work
 

WPAToday. “The CCC on Indian Reservations.” YouTube, 27 June 2015, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JbKIPSdjlh0.
 

Moving Forward Initiative: The African American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps


Picture from Forest Army blog
 

In 1933, at the peak of the Great Depression, the overall unemployment rate in the United States was well over 20 percent. African Americans were hit hardest, experiencing an unemployment rate two to three times that of white Americans. 

In these desperate times, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC): a federal work relief program that, from 1933 until 1942, put 3 million unemployed young men to work building and restoring America’s natural resource infrastructure. In exchange for their labor, corpsmen received $1-per-day, regular meals, housing, and access to education. Though the CCC disbanded when the US entered World War II, its model lives on in more than 130 modern Corps across the country, most of which are managed by nonprofits or units of state or local government. 

The CCC was created with progressive intentions. With persuasion from Oscar DePriest, an Illinois representative and the only black member of Congress, the legislation that established the CCC included language forbidding discriminatory practices based on “race, color, or creed.”

Throughout the years of the program, more than 200,000 African Americans and 80,000 Native Americans served in the program. However, their experience was, in many cases, markedly different from that of their white peers. Under the argument that “segregation is not discrimination,” the CCC failed at its promise of inclusivity.

The CCC existed during the era of Jim Crow segregation. Though CCC camps were, at least in the beginning, supposed to be integrated, this largely only happened in areas where the African American population was not large enough to warrant a separate camp. To reduce community outcry, many of the 150 African American CCC camps were built on remote federal lands, away from the public.

In 1934, Robert Fechner, Director of the CCC, ordered the Army to review national practices around African American enrollment. Contradicting the Army’s conclusion that the CCC should not enforce segregation, as this would exacerbate the problem of finding locations for black-only camps, Fechner issued an order in 1935 to make the “complete segregation of colored and white enrollees” the rule.When questioned about this action by the NAACP, Fechner wrote.

“I am satisfied that the negro enrollees themselves prefer to be in companies composed exclusively of their own race…This segregation is not discrimination and cannot be so construed. The negro companies are assigned to the same types of work, have identical equipment, are served the same food, and have the same quarters as white enrollees.”


Picture from Digital Public Library of America
 

To appease citizens concerned about the placement of all-black camps in their communities, only white supervisors were put in charge of such camps, leaving black corpsmen little opportunity for advancement. President Roosevelt suggested this practice be relaxed to allow a few token “colored foremen,” and Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes was vehemently opposed to Fechner’s racist policies against having African Americans in leadership roles. However, pushback from communities and legislators, as well as Fechner’s beliefs and prevailing discriminatory practices meant that African American corpsmen generally did not have the same upward mobility as white corpsmen.

Meanwhile, Native Americans almost exclusively served on reservations in programs operated in collaboration with the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Critical infrastructure improvements were needed on reservations, and tribal leaders in fact had quite a bit of say in which projects were completed. There is limited literature on corpsmen from other non-white racial and ethnic groups participating in the CCC, but many Hispanic and Latino men certainly participated, especially in the American Southwest.*

African American enrollment in the CCC was capped at 10 percent, reflecting the racial profile of the national population, but this ignored the fact that African Americans faced disproportionately worse economic situations than white applicants. Despite the CCC’s founding language barring discrimination, qualified African American applicants were frequently turned away. When hired, they often faced hostile work environments. This included racial slurs and jokes, forcing black corpsmen to the back of the line, and giving them the least desirable quarters and equipment. Certainly reprehensible, these aggressions were unfortunately common in society at the time. However, there were more extreme cases of racism, including one account of an African American corpsmen being discharged from a camp in New Jersey for refusing to fan flies from a white officer.

CCC camps in some Southern states initially outright denied African Americans under the argument they were needed to tend fields. John de la Perriere, the Georgia director of the CCC, stated all applicants in Clarke County be “classed A, B and C” based on need. However, all non-white applicants fell into classes B and C and were far less likely to be recruited. In Florida, state director John C. Huskisson agreed, when pressured by the federal government, to "lower his standards" enough to accommodate two hundred black corpsmen.

Despite Fechner’s segregation order, some camps remained integrated, particularly in the North and in regions with smaller African American populations. Fechner allowed this “because of the natural adaptability of Negroes to serve as cooks.” In some integrated camps, African American corpsmen were indeed assigned kitchen duties as opposed to more technical work outdoors. Also, contrary to Fechner’s claims that African American camps completed the same projects as white camps, there are accounts that black camps in some regions only did routine work and were not assigned special or priority projects.


Picture from Oregon State University Special Collections and Archives.
 

Despite this, it is undeniable that African American corpsmen played a significant role in conservation efforts and the development of our nation’s public lands. Aspects of the CCC were certainly discriminatory, but, as stated by historian John Salmond in his book on the CCC, “to look at the place of the Negro in the CCC purely from the viewpoint of opportunities missed, or ideals compromised, is to neglect much of the positive achievement.”

Black corpsmen did ultimately gain much needed financial assistance through their service, and tens of thousands of African American corpsmen participated in educational programming from the elementary to college level. There are countless anecdotal reports from African American corpsmen who were grateful for the opportunity to learn and work in the CCC. 

To this day, however, the more than 200,000 black corpsmen of the CCC remain “hidden figures” in the development of our nation’s public lands. Most African American corpsmen were from cities where the forestry and conservation skills they learned in the CCC were not applicable. As Dr. Olen Cole, Jr. states, this work “must have seemed artificial and impractical- or at the very least, to have little relevance to their past and future lives.” Many CCC members went on to “negro jobs” as chauffeurs, cooks and gardeners. Many desirable public lands jobs were not, at the time, open to black men, or were more likely to go to white applicants.

As Cole states, the CCC had little lasting impression on the way African American corpsmen felt about the outdoors. It was merely a temporary way to make money, not prepare for a career.

“This failure, critical then, remains a failure of many environmental organizations today.”
 

 

*More to come on this topic – including the experience of Native American, Hispanic and Latino men in the CCC - in future blogs.

Please find a list of resources used for this blog on the Moving Forward Initiative homepage. 

 


For your Consideration:

As you read this blog, here are some questions for you to consider: 

  1. What do the policies of the CCC tell us about how the federal government viewed racial discrimination at this time? 
     
  2. As some historians state, the CCC's work opportunities seemed irrelevant to African American corpsmen who mainly lived in urban centers. How might this relate to the problem public lands agencies face today with limited visitation from non-white populations?
     
  3. What can federal resource agencies do today to increase the presence of people of color visiting and working on public lands? 
     
  4. Read this firsthand account from Luther Wandall, an African American member of the CCC. What was positive and negative about his experience? How do his remarks make you feel? 
     
  5. For Corps: What measures have you taken (or can you take) to increase the presence of people of color in administrative or leadership roles in your organization? 
     
  6. For Corps: How do you conduct outreach in your community to people of color? Have your ideas been accepted? Do you believe the information you provide is culturally relevant?
     
  7. For Corps: Have your Corpsmembers ever experienced any racially-motivated hostility in the communities where they work?
    • How can this be combated? What conversations do you have with Corpsmembers in the event racism, hostility, or discrimination on the job occurs?

 


 

 

#CCCAnchor

Protecting an Island that Honors America's "Conservation President:" A Corps Network Day of Service Project


Photo Credit: Ted on Flickr


While The Corps Network's 2nd Annual Day of Service will begin on Friday at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, a service project to remove invasive plants will take place at an important National Park Service site named for one of the other famous Roosevelts: Theodore. 

Sometimes referred to as the conservation president, Theodore Roosevelt left behind a massive legacy as a conservationist. According to the National Park Service, "after he became President in 1901, Roosevelt used his authority to protect wildlife and public lands by creating the U.S. Forest Service and establishing 51 Federal Bird Reservations, 4 National Game Preserves, 150 National Forests, 5 National Parks, and enabling the 1906 American Antiquities Act which he used to proclaim 18 National Monuments. During his presidency,Theodore Roosevelt protected approximately 230,000,000 acres of public land."


Located just outside of Washington DC, Theodore Roosevelt Island and the memorials on it serve to honor Theodore Roosevelt's passion for the outdoors and desire to protect nature (there is also a national park in North Dakota that honors his legacy). Before the Island was in his name, it was originally called Mason’s Island and had quite a vast amount of vegetation for the small size, which was about 90 acres. In the 1930’s, the Theodore Roosevelt Administration asked architects to transform it from neglected and overgrown farmland to mimic the original natural forest that was probably on the island (see proposed designs here).

After selecting a design made by the famous landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted, the Civilian Conservation Corps (shown right) implemented the plan. Today the island has miles of trails through wooded uplands and swampy floors. Near the center of the island, where all the trails interconnect, there is a 17 foot tall statue of Roosevelt with pillars with quotes from Roosevelt about nature and conservation.


Unfortunately, Theodore Roosevelt Island now has an abundance of non-native plants. The service project that participants will complete on Friday will help address this problem and keep Theodore Roosevelt's island memorial intact in line with the original work done by the CCC. You can learn more about Theodore Roosevelt Island on the National Park Service's website.

Boiler Plate: 
While The Corps Network's 2nd Annual Day of Service will begin on Friday at the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, a service project to remove invasive plants will take place at an important National Park Service site named for one of the other famous Roosevelts: Theodore.

Civilian Conservation Corps Museum Reopens at Cheaha after 18 years

Article appears on WKRG News.

DELTA, Ala. (AP) — Tammy Power tried her hardest not to cry as she greeted guests to the Civilian Conservation Corps museum for the first time in 18 years.

"This has been my dream," said Power, the superintendent for Cheaha State Park, which on Saturday hosted a ribbon cutting ceremony for the long-closed museum dedicated to the workers who helped build the roads and buildings on top of Alabama's highest point. "This was on my bucket list."

As part of a statewide celebration of the 75th anniversary of Alabama's state park system, Cheaha State Park welcomed visitors to see the beginnings of how the mountain came to be a destination for campers, hikers and tourists.

In the 1930s, hundreds of young men came to the mountain as part of the Civilian Conservation Corps project, a New Deal program that gave work to unemployed, single men ages 18 to 25 during the depression. At Cheaha, the corps built campsites, lodges, roads and the observation tower, which now houses the museum dedicated to their history.

"I can't help but wonder if those young men knew what they were building would still be around 75 years later," said Rob Grant, assistant director for Alabama State Parks. "I think this is a great way to honor them."

The museum, which includes tools used by the corps, as well as cots they slept in and blankets used at their camps, originally closed in 1996 for renovations. Power said the park needed a bigger room to hold the material they had. In the meantime, the park displayed other exhibits while working to finish the museum.

Another reason for the delay, Power said, was in honor of the corps. Everything in the museum, including the display cases, was built by hand by the park's staff.

"We wanted to make sure everything was in-house, just like how this place was built," Power said. "That was very important to us."

Speakers at the event included Cleburne County Probate Judge Ryan Robertson and Alabama Sen. Gerald Dial. Everyone who spoke mentioned how important a role Cheaha had played in their lives.

Dial, a Lineville native, worked at a concession stand on the mountain during his summer breaks from school while in college, living in the lodge of the mountain for months at a time.

"I'm one of the most fortunate people alive because every morning when I sit at my breakfast table, from my window I can see the top of the mountain," Dial said. "It reminds me of what a great country I live in."

Many in attendance Saturday were related to the men who built the park. Ethan Branch, from Clay County, said his grandfather would like to tell stories about how tough it was to build the roads which led to the mountain. The personal touch adds something special to his own visits, he said.

"It's special to see the legacy that he left behind here," Branch said. "He worked hard to be to able support his family, and it was a tough job. I admire him."

The celebration will continue next weekend when the park hosts the opening of a new campsite on Saturday. The new camping area was the same one used by the corps when they were building the park.

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Information from: The Anniston Star, http://www.annistonstar.com/

Southwest Conservation Corps and CCC Legacy Celebrate Anniversaries Together in Tucson, Ariz

From Southwest Conservation Corps' E-Newsletter

Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Legacy, Inc. held its national celebration of the 80th anniversary of the CCC in Tucson, Ariz. October 24-27. CCC alumni joined in the events along with other supporters, family, and friends.  Over the four-day event, alumni and participants heard from experts about the CCC's impact in Arizona, mingled with authors of books about the CCC, and celebrated with a service project at the Desert Museum.  Keynote speakers included Arizona Representative Raul Grijalva, US Department of Agriculture Under Secretary Robert Bonnie, Tucson Mayor Jonathan Rothschild, and Corporation for National and Community Service Deputy Chief of Staff John Kelly.

The Southwest Conservation Corps (SCC), with an office in Tucson, co-hosted the event and also celebrated its 15th anniversary. 

SCC, an AmeriCorps program, enables a new generation to carry on the CCC's ethic of environmental stewardship.  Nearly 7,000 AmeriCorps members serve in this capacity nationwide, including 700 young people and veterans who serve with SCC each year.  Built on the legacy of the CCC, SCC embodies the same principles of hard work, lasting impact, and individual growth.

"We are thrilled to be in Tucson to celebrate the 80th anniversary of the CCC," said Joan Sharpe, CCC Legacy's President.  "Arizona has a strong history of conservation service, and Tucson is an ideal location to celebrate the six million men and the tremendous legacy they left for America."

"SCC is built on the legacy of the CCC, so it is an incredible honor for SCC to host this important national celebration," said Rob Spath, Executive Director of SCC's Arizona programs.  "Each year hundreds of young people and returning Veterans at SCC commit to improving recreation access, protecting communities from wildfire, and strengthening Arizona's national resources."

48 Members of The Corps Network Among First Group of Officially Recognized 21st Century Conservation Service Corps Programs

 

Famous and Crazy TV Car Salesman Cal Worthington was also in the CCC

Car dealer and TV personality Cal Worthington passed away September 8 at his California ranch.  He was 92. 

Worthington made a fortune selling cars in California and beyond with crazy commercials featuring his "dog," Spot (see one here).  But Worthington also had a CCC connection, a fact noted in his New York Times obituary.

At age 15 in 1936, he joined the Civilian Conservation Corps in Colorado where he was stationed at a camp in Estes Park. He worked on trails in what would become Rocky Mountain National Park.

He recalled those days, saying "I got the first toothbrush I ever had in my life in the CCC. And it was the first time in my life I had a balanced diet."

He went on to become a decorated bomber pilot during World War II, then a multi-millionaire, owning auto dealerships from Southern California up to Alaska.

More recently, Worthington was among the contributors to the "CCC boy" statue in the foyer of the California Conservation Corps headquarters in Sacramento.

Boiler Plate: 
Worthington made a fortune selling cars in California and beyond with crazy commercials featuring his "dog," Spot (see one here). But Worthington also had a CCC connection, a fact noted in his New York Times obituary.

Civilian Conservation Corps and Modern Youth Corps Honored by Congressional Resolution

CCC Alumni Receive President's Call to Service Award

Story and photos from Maine Conservation Corps 

2013 marks the 80th anniversary of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The CCC was a work-relief program instituted in 1932 by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Over the eleven years of the program, three million young men served in the CCC. In Maine, they worked in the woods, built roads, cut fire trails, and performed all types of conservation work. They were paid $30 per month, of which $25 had to be sent home to their families. On Thursday, May 16, 2013, at Camp Mechuwana in Winthrop, a recognition event was held by the Maine Conservation Corps (MCC) to honor the service of the CCC members in Maine.

The MCC is an AmeriCorps program that performs conservation work throughout Maine. The MCC continues the CCC’s tradition of conservation service. This year is the 30th anniversary of the MCC.

The honorees in attendance at the event were Ralph Bonville, John McLeod, Philip Gouzie, and Anne Madore, Peter Madore’s widow. All the CCC Boys in attendance served in the armed forces in World War II after leaving the CCC. Eighty-five percent of those who served in the CCC across the country went on to serve in the military during World War II.



 

Other speakers included MCC Director Jo Orlando, Congressman Michael Michaud’s Deputy Chief of Staff John Graham, Jr., Maine Commission for Community Service Director Maryalice Crofton, Bureau of Parks and Lands Director Willard Harris, and Supervisor of Outdoor Recreation Mick Rogers.

Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation, and Forestry Commissioner Walter Whitcomb presented each of the honorees with the President’s Call to Service Award. This highest level volunteer service award is for extraordinary service, at least 4000 hours over a lifetime. They also received the service award pin and congratulatory letters from President Obama and  AmeriCorps director, Bill Basl.

Ralph Bonville, age 94, joined the CCC after high school because of the lack of other work. He served in the “Far East” CCC camp in Princeton, Maine. The CCC built part of the Stud Mill Road in that area to aid in firefighting. His job was shoveling. Often the ground was frozen and had to be dynamited. After leaving the CCC Bonville served in the Army. He went on to become a 2nd generation painter.



 

John McLeod, age 89, joined the CCC in 1940 and served in Camden Hills camp. He helped build Camden Hills State Park, from the buildings to the trails to the picnic area by the water. He then served as a camp hospital orderly, which paid and extra $6/month. After the Camden camp closed in 1941 McLeod was transferred to the camp in Bar Harbor, where he continued to serve as a hospital orderly until the CCC program ended in 1942, when he assisted in the final inventory. After the CCC, McLeod worked as a shipyard welder, a skill he learned in the CCC, and then he served in the United States Marine Corps.

Anne Madore spoke about her late husband, Peter. He was the 8th of 13 children. Their mother had died young, and the father was raising the children by himself. Many of Peter’s siblings also joined the CCC. He served in the Princeton camp, where he learned how to fell trees, use dynamite, build stone walls, and all type of construction work. These skills served him well for the rest of his life as he pursued a career in construction. He had many of the skills and knowledge that his younger coworkers did not, and he taught them everything. After leaving the CCC, Peter Madore served in the U.S. Army in the South Pacific, where he was awarded the Bronze Star for heroism.

Philip Gouzie, age 90, is a Former Vice President of the National Association of CCC Alumni, CCC Legacy Board Member, President of CCC Legacy Chapter 111. He served in the 1124th CCC Company, in Bridgton, Maine. The Bridgton camp was administered by the Forest Service with a focus on insect and disease control. Gouzie talked about looking for gypsy moth egg clusters and painting them with creosote to kill them. He talked about how the boys searched the treetops using ropes and looked under barns, etc. He also delivered food to the boys serving in the field, helped maintain the motor pool, ran the movie projector at the camp, and also served as a helper to the camp doctor. He served in the Navy, in the Submarine Service, during and after World War II. 

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