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?





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.


Information from: The Anniston Star,

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. 

"SheSheShe" Camps: A Women's Alternative to the Civilian Conservation Corps

Unemployed women learning job skills at a Depression-era Federal Emergency Relief Association camp in Pennsylvania

The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) of the New Deal Era might have only been for men, but did you know there were also “SheSheShe” camps?

President Franklin Roosevelt launched the CCC in 1933. His wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, was excited by the idea of employing youth in environmental conservation jobs, but she was discouraged by how the CCC only served men. She soon began campaigning for a parallel organization that could provide employment for the country’s nearly 200,000 homeless women. Her first suggestion was that women could work in tree nurseries, an idea that was perhaps unconsciously sexist (or maybe shrewdly deliberate).

Though most New Dealer’s scorned Eleanor Roosevelt’s plan, she gained support from Frances Perkins, the Secretary of Labor. The process of establishing women’s camps was slow, but by 1936 there were 90 residental “SheSheShe” camps, formally known as FERA Camps (Federal Emergency Relief Association). In the end, some 8,500 women benefited from the program.

Learn more information here:
Source 1
Source 2 

Read period articles about women's camps from the CCC Newspaper, "Happy Days" 
Article 1
Article 2 


Video: Chapter 113 - short film documents Maryland CCC Alumni

At our 2013 National Conference last month we were lucky to be joined by members of CCC Legacy Chapter 113 for our plenary session on the 21st Century Conservation Service Corps. We were also lucky to be joined by filmmakers Lance and Brandon Kramer, founders of the DC-based Meridian Hill Pictures production company, who shared their short documentary about the efforts of the Chapter 113 boys to establish a Maryland CCC memorial.

Click here to watch the film and celebrate the 80th anniversary of the CCC!
(Scroll down for the film)