Farming as a Political Act: The Connection between African-Americans and Land - Part 2

Blog by Ashley McNeil, Communications Assistant

For centuries, the connection between African-Americans and agriculture was tainted by the institution of slavery and the exploitative labor systems that continued in the years following the abolition of slavery. Even as African-Americans gained the right to own land, there were - and continue to be - institutional policies and practices that work against black farmers and land owners. In the modern day, however, farming has become a way for African-Americans to reclaim a piece of history and promote community health and healing. In this two-part series, we will explore what it means to be a black farmer. We will discuss history (Part I), as well as the modern black farming movement (Part II), by uncovering stories of heritage, lost and reclaimed. 


PART II: Back to the Land 

Modern Farmer
Engineer-turned-farmer Chris Newman left fast-paced Washington, D.C. for the quiet hills of Charlottesville, VA. In D.C., long hours and fast food halted his quest for a healthier life; he wanted to get outside and move around. Now, living on his farm in the country, he is healthier, eats dairy products again, and enjoys rising with the sun. Newman and his wife raise pigs, ducks, and chickens.

“Because I grow all this stuff, I tend to eat it. I don’t eat at Popeye’s anymore. I think it’s disgusting. I used to love Popeye’s. Now I can’t eat that crap,” Newman said.

The transition from engineering to farming was more a political act than for personal gain. Newman hopes to encourage other people of color to become farmers. He advocates for sustainable farm practices that enable access to healthy food for all communities. His main goal is to fix the system to be more inclusive: farming is more than 90 percent white and the second whitest job in the country. Visibility of African-Americans in this field is somewhat nonexistent.

“You go into Whole Foods around here, you don’t see black people; you go to farmers markets, don’t see that many black people; you go to farms, don’t see any black people.”

Newman suggests money and continued racism are the pitfall of inclusivity in farming. Newman’s produce is expensive: eggs sell for $5 a dozen. This price tag comes from the fact that his farm is completely organic, chemical, and preservative free. His animals fertilize the soil: the healthiest way to grow crops. Newman is quick to acknowledge his food is not affordable or accessible for everyone. In the United States, accessing fresh, healthy food can be particularly challenging for people living in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. Lack of access to healthy food limits overall physical health. According to author Alan Yu, “African Americans are one and a half times as likely to be obese than white people, and they eat fewer vegetables than other racial groups.”

In this new profession, Newman has experienced racism and prejudice first hand. The cops were called on him when he delivered food to customers, and when he pulled over in a white neighborhood to eat his lunch. As he puts it, this is just part of  farming while black. Even so, Newman continues to address the lack of diversity among farmers by hiring interns, prioritizing the recruitment of women and people of color from underrepresented communities.

“It’s about recognizing that there are barriers there for them that there aren’t for other people and that we need that lift, because the world is not our oyster,” he said.

Newman’s hard work paid off: last year his farm broke even. He hopes his story will be an example to people of color that they too can succeed in an industry that has previously taken not only their land, but their connection to the land.


Next Generation
Many black people have strayed from farming because of the legacy of land grabbing and forced labor. In an interview with VICE Impact, Walker Marsh, founder of Tha Flower Factory, a Baltimore initiative to grow local herbs and flowers, stated, “I used to equate land work to slavery. But the first day I started farming, I realized this was not slavery at all. When you can go out and create something, that’s true freedom to me.”

Marsh is one of many black farmers who have new joy in farming and use this work to diversify and reclaim a practice once corrupted with injustice.

According to black famers and activists alike, the revitalization of farming in the African-American community lies in the hands of youth. In partnership with the Chrysler Foundation, the National Black Farmers Association grants scholarships to encourage young people to get involved in farming.

“You don’t see black farmers,” said Marsh. “We don’t know what a black farmer looks like. When I was a kid, I pictured an old white dude with a pitchfork on a tractor. But now that I’ve been doing it, I’ve met black farmers I look up to.”

Representation and visibility are key to improving the number of African-American farmers. Local farmers Xavier Brown, Boe Luther, and Wallace Kirby, founders of Hustlaz to Harvesters, offer the formerly incarcerated a way out of poverty by introducing them to urban agriculture careers through the Dix Street community garden in Washington, D.C. The farm was created through the urban agricultural initiative Soilful City. Thirty-two garden beds serve the predominantly African-American community of Clay Terrace, home to 70,000 people. Like most low-income African-American communities, access to healthy, fresh produce was limited: there’s only one large grocery store. Most of these communities are food deserts. Through the garden, the community was rebuilt. Connection to healthy produce and cultural heritage were regained.

 “Afro-ecology is reorientation of our connection to the land, an organizing principle, and the way we express our culture while we grow food and grow healthy people.” – Xavier Brown



Community Farming 
A number of Corps engage in urban farming or have created community gardens to provide healthy produce to communities in need and train a young, more diverse generation of farmers.

Green City Force
Since 2012, Green City Force has worked with New York City Housing Authority to bring urban farming to low income communities. The Farms at NYCHA program is part of Building Healthy Communities (BHC), a city-wide partnership focused on improving health outcomes in 12 neighborhoods throughout the city. The farms, which are located on NYCHA properties, are designed to bring organic produce to food deserts and promote sustainable living in public housing communities. Their presence is intended to encourage residents to engage in local green spaces and start important conversations about food and environmental justice. The Corpsmembers who grow the food and maintain the gardens are also all NYCHA residents. Through the program, they gain valuable leadership and job skills.

Covering a total of five acres, the NYCHA farms have transformed formerly underutilized areas in low-income communities into lush green spaces that encourage active living and healthy eating. The farms project a spirit of togetherness; fruits and vegetables are distributed to public housing residents in exchange for volunteer time or household compost; over 20,000 residents benefit from this program.

Civic Works
Civic Works’ Real Food Farm initiative works towards a just and sustainable food system by improving access to food, providing education, and developing an economically viable and economically responsible local agriculture sector. Corpsmembers at Civic Works help transform abandoned lots throughout the city of Baltimore into community gardens and green spaces. They also grown local fresh food by managing an eight-acre farm at Clifton Park. Food access in the city is improved through the Corps’ Mobile Farmers Market, a converted delivery truck that sells fresh fruit and vegetables at community gathering locations, like schools and libraries. Since 2009, over 60,000 of food has been grown and over 3,000 people have been educated about gardening, sustainable agriculture and healthy eating.

Los Angeles Conservation Corps
From 2013 – 2017, the Little Green Fingers program, made possible through a grant from First 5 LA, sought to address the growing obesity epidemic in Los Angeles County by providing access to fresh fruit and vegetables to young at-risk children in low-income communities that are also considered “food deserts.” The goal was to help children and their families lead healthier lives and maintain healthier weights.

The LA Conservation Corps and partner organizations worked closely with the community to plan a garden. They considered everything from its layout, to amenities in the garden, to what crops to grow. Families applied to join the garden and played an active role in its construction.

Once constructed, Corpsmembers handled the final details – like ensuring the irrigation system worked, installing fencing, and constructing children’s play equipment – before handing over care of the garden to the community; many garden’s are still run by communities today.


For African-Americans, reclaiming connection to the land is, in fact, a political act. Instead of walking away from farming, and its history of hatred and discrimination, today’s community of African-American farmers recognize the past, and realize the importance of participating in building a future agricultural system that is inclusive, empowering, and capable of making healthy food more sustainable and accessible.


All sources cited in this piece can be found in the Moving Forward Initiative Resource Library.

For your consideration

  1. The vast majority of farm owners are white. What steps should be taken to generate more diversity and inclusivity in farming? How do we move forward?
    • ​In what ways (if any) do you believe our agricultural system might be affected if farm ownership were more diverse?
  2. Newman states “farming while black” can be difficult. Why do you think there is a stigma around black farmers?
    • ​Does unconscious bias play a role?
  3. In the last few years, community farming in low-income communities has boomed. What benefits could community farming bring to any community, not just low-income neighborhoods?



Farming as a Political Act: The Connection between African-Americans and Land

Blog by Ashley McNeil, Communications Assistant

For centuries, the connection between African-Americans and agriculture was tainted by the institution of slavery and the exploitative labor systems that continued in the years following the abolition of slavery. Even as African-Americans gained the right to own land, there were - and continue to be - institutional policies and practices that work against black farmers and land owners. In the modern day, however, farming has become a way for African-Americans to reclaim a piece of history and promote community health and healing. In this two-part series, we will explore what it means to be a black farmer. We will discuss history (Part I), as well as the modern black farming movement (Part II), by uncovering stories of heritage, lost and reclaimed. 

Part I: A Legacy of Loss and Exploitation

Would you believe me if I told you that farming is a political act for African-Americans?

As said by Leah Penniman, a farmer and activist, “You can’t go through hundreds of years of enslavement and sharecropping and tenant farming and convict leasing and not have that trauma get imprinted into your DNA and your cultural history.”

Penniman, Co-Director of Soul Fire Farm in Upstate New York, is a prominent figure in the conversation about diversifying the farming community and reconnecting people to the land. Through accepting food stamps and supporting customers who can’t pay every week, Soul Fire Farm developed a progressive system to feed hundreds in the community. In addition, Penniman offers workshops focused on basic farming skills, healing people and the land, and understanding the history between black people and farming in the United States. The act of farming, as well as teaching and understanding the history of black farmers, is a source of liberation.

“We are in a moment where Black and Brown people are ready to reclaim our right to belong to the Earth and ready to reclaim our place and agency in the food system.” – Leah Penniman, pictured right


History of Exploitation

Farming for African-Americans is tainted with a history of racism and discrimination. During the centuries of enslavement, African-Americans harvested cash crops like tobacco, cotton, and sugar. In addition to their labor, the knowledge of enslaved Africans was also exploited. According to Judith Carney, author of Black Rice, the enslaved people who worked on rice plantations in South Carolina helped create one of the most profitable economies of the 18th century. European settlers, who did not know how to grow rice or millet, could not have achieved this on their own; they relied on the skills of enslaved persons, who brought knowledge of these grains from Africa. Other popular crops brought from Africa to the U.S. include coffee, watermelon, black-eyed peas, and okra.

Post-enslavement, black farmers continued to face injustices, beginning with the failed promise of, “forty acres and a mule,” the federal government’s attempt to distribute land to freed African-Americans.

The idea behind “forty acres and a mule” started during the Civil War, when blacks cultivated land abandoned by whites throughout the South. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln ordered 20,000 acres of abandoned Confederate land be sold to freedmen in 20-acre parcels. Salmon Chase, Secretary of the Treasury, expanded the parcel to 40 acres and agreed to loan army mules to freedmen. By 1865, 40,000 formerly enslaved persons lived on 400,000 acres of coastal land in South Carolina and Georgia. There were indications Congress would expand this program when they authorized the Freedmen’s Bureau to divide additional confiscated lands into small parcels to sell to African-Americans and loyal Southern whites. However, President Andrew Johnson intervened, ordering most of the confiscated land be returned to its former owners, despite how the land had already been settled by African-Americans.

This was the first of many practices crippling African-Americans’ access to land. The Southern Homestead Act, which created a program to help poor tenant farmers and share-croppers acquire land, offered land prices that were still too expensive for most freedmen. Additionally, the development of Black Codes, restrictive laws that forced African Americans into oppressive labor contracts and servant positions, greatly limited hopes of economic prosperity.

For African-Americans who did not own land, the practices of sharecropping and tenant farming were essentially another form of slavery. In sharecropping, landowners (who were primarily white) assigned families land to farm in exchange for food, shelter, clothing, and farming equipment. When the land was harvested, and goods sold, owners deducted a “furnishing” tax for room and board, giving the meager amount of remaining cash to the African-American farmers. By 1930, there were 1,831,470 tenant farmers in the South.

Despite the laws and systems working against them, African-Americans had accrued some 15 million acres of land by the 1920’s. Most of this land was in the South in “low lands” – areas by rivers and swamps that had been abandoned or deemed undesirable by whites. Much of this land was used for farming: at the time, 925,000 farms in the U.S. were black-owned. For generations, however, this number has dwindled. Land has been taken, sold illegally or deviously schemed from black property owners.


Land Grab

“If we don’t have our land, we don’t have our family. This is the battle we’re in now.”
- Queen Quet, Chieftess of the Gullah/Geechee Nation


Roosevelt Simmons (pictured right) of South Carolina is one of many victims of land grabbing. Simmons’ family owned 54 acres on Johns Island for more than three generations, but part of the property was sold last year. The sad reality is that Simmons had been trying to get a title for his land since 1999; the parcel was previously owned by his grandmother and had been in her name. Although he worked with numerous lawyers and spent thousands of dollars immersed in legal battles, the property was sold, without his consent, due to arguments that a “false heir” had claimed it. Offered a mere $50,000 for his share of the land, Simmons continues to fight to get his property back.

According to Barney Blakeney of the Charleston Chronicle, stories like Mr. Simmons’ are common.

“…the impressive number of Black farmers and rural landowners would drastically decrease over the 20th century. During that century, some 600,000 Black farmers were forced off their lands. The Nation reported that by 1975, only 45,000 Black-owned farmers remained,” said Blakeney.

For many years, black farmers protested and filed suit over these discriminatory practices. In 1999, 40,000 farmers filed a discrimination lawsuit against the federal government, claiming denial of loans. Overtime, the government recognized these injustices. In 2010, President Obama signed into law a settlement that would repay $1.2 billion to about 18,000 farmers; payments of $62,500 began in 2013. This was the second time black farmers received payments from the government. In 1999, several farmers received funding from a class-action lawsuit over claims of discrimination by federal officials who denied them loans and aid because of their ethnicity.* 

In parts of South Carolina, where Mr. Simmons is from, a main force driving African-Americans off their land hasn’t necessarily been the denial of loans, but the development of coastal properties.

Gullah/Geechee, descendants of West African slaves, work to preserve their cultural practices to this day. Brought to the coast of Georgia and South Carolina in the 1700s, the Gullah/Geechee worked on rice fields, cotton fields, and indigo plantations on fertile lands in a similar climate to their homeland. Post-enslavement, they settled in remote villages, forming strong communal ties and a rich history.

Not long ago, the Gullah people inhabited all of Hilton Head Island. The Gullah people thrived in isolation, free of the Jim Crow South. Economic prosperity was finally attained, but, throughout the 1950s – 1990s, the development of high-priced waterfront properties displaced many Gullah people, threatening their history and culture. Some families lost their land due to high taxes, but, according to Leah Douglas of The Nation, many in the community lost their property for a variety of other reasons, including land partition sales, auctions and forced sales by developers, or schemes by partial owners to convince majority-owners to sell the property for a fraction of its value. There was a time where the Gullah accounted for 90 percent of the population across Hilton Head, compared to just 10 percent today.

“The property that we owned was prime property,” says Alex Brown, a Gullah native and chair of the island’s planning commission. “Over time, it’s been sold and traded and stolen.”

Landgrabbers fail to realize that the loss of land is far more than just an exchange of property. Cultural heritage, family legacies, and generational economic opportunity are taken.

*The National Action Network and National Black Farmers Association continue to fight against unfair loans, land grabbing, and other discriminatory practices in agriculture.


Parker Family

My family have been the target of land grabbing attempts as well. Over the last 175 years, my family has owned 35 acres of land in King George, Virginia. My great-great grandparents purchased the property with the intention to live on and work the land. The land is currently owned by my grandfather and his four siblings (who are all alive – ages 85 to 90). For generations, my family has raised children, produce, and countless memories there, but we have also been met with turmoil. I remember as a child, my grandfather talked about how developers offered to buy the land at a price that undercut the value of it, hoping he would fall for a scam. Because of this, my family has been proactive in paying taxes and having accurate titles on the land, just in case we are met with questions of ownership or fraud, like Mr. Simmons.

Whether he’s tending to the yard or talking with neighbors, my grandfather still spends most of his time outdoors. Although we don’t live on a farm, every summer he builds a garden in our backyard. He plants sweet potatoes, corn, kale, tomatoes, bell peppers, watermelon, cantaloupe, squash, you name it. He loves getting his hands dirty and watching the fruits of his labor come to life. I often wondered why he enjoyed spending so much time outdoors, but I now see the connection. His time working, living, and cultivating his family’s land brought him great joy. His early connection to land and nature has continued throughout his life. This connection could one day be lost. We are currently in talks to sell our land. My grandfather and his siblings are getting older and taxes on our property continue to rise. Selling a piece of family history is devastating, but ultimately might be necessary.

While activists like Penniman use farming as a political act to reclaim connection to the land that was once lost, land ownership for my grandfather and Mr. Simmons is a connection to family lineage. Without both, each story becomes a fragment of history and time.



All sources cited in this piece can be found in the Moving Forward Initiative Resource Library.
Photos are linked to their source. 


For your consideration

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

  1. African-Americans have played an enormous role in building our country’s agricultural system. How can we recognize these contributions? Where do we begin?
  2. The agricultural system, and society as a whole, continue to harbor racism. How do we promote one’s agency in a racist system?
  3. In what ways might the false promise of “forty acres and a mule” continue to hinder black farmers? How might farming – or society in general – be different in this country had a program like forty acres and a mule succeeded in giving freed African-Americans land and a livelihood? 
  4. Regarding the 2010 settlement in which the U.S. government agreed to pay $1.2 billion to 18,000 farmers who sought justice for discriminatory practices at the Department of Agriculture:
    1. Do you believe the $1.2 billion payout helped or hindered this community of farmers?
    2. Do you believe the farmers should have received land instead of money?
    3. Why weren’t farmers given the option to choose land or money?
  5. How can the practice of land grabbing be prohibited in the future? Is this something that can’t be fixed?
  6. In about forty years’ time, Hilton Head witnessed the erasure of a culture. How do we reconcile with these circumstances? Should the Gullah community receive some sort of payout as well?
  7. When we visit a new place, we might not fully understand or appreciate the history of its people and cultures. How can we better educate society about the ways in which cultures are tied to land and place?
  8. Do you have any familial ties to land? What would you do if you were faced with selling your property? Would you try to keep it, or would you sell?

Points for further research and consideration:

  • Do some research on the Freedmen’s Bureau. What was its significance for African-Americans after the Civil War? What role did it play in land distribution?
  • The blog discusses “forty acres and a mule.”  Early after the Civil War, land confiscated from Confederates was distributed to freedmen. President Andrew Johnson intervened and ordered that the vast majority of this land be returned to its former owners. Compare this to the Homestead Act of 1866, which was designed to give sharecroppers and other poor families access to land, but failed due to high prices that kept land ownership out of reach for many of the people the program was designed to help. What are your thoughts on both polices/programs? What are the underlying reasons why these programs didn’t work? What could have been done differently to make them succeed?
  • George Washington Carver is widely known as the Peanut Farmer, but his agricultural contributions are enormous, including his research into Crop Rotation and the “biological regeneration of the soil through the Nitrogen Cycle.” Dr. Carver looked to address the stripping of the soil as a result of cotton planting. Take a look at this article and note some of his other contributions:
  • Research the role of other black inventors in America’s agricultural advances, including the contributions of Frederick McKinley Jones, who patented the refrigerated truck in 1940, which allowed for the shipping of produce over long distances. See what you can find and discover for yourself the “hidden history” of black inventors and farmers.
  • The Gullah/Geechee people have been featured in mainstream culture. For example, many of you may remember the Nickelodeon show, “Gullah Gullah Island.”  Additionally, the Gullah/Geechee’s rich history was chronicled in the 1991 film, “Daughters of the Dust.”  Beyond these mainstream cultural artifacts, what else can you find out about the Gullah people of today?



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.



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 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?


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.

Bender, Albert. “History shows that joblessness among Native Americans can be lowered. People’s World. 22 September 2014.

“Native Americans.” Digital History, 2016.

White, Cody. “The CCC Indian Division.” Prologue Magazine. Vol.48, No.2. 2016.


Gower, Calvin W. “The CCC Indian Division: Aid for depressed Americans, 1933-1942.” Minnesota Historical Society.

Bromert, Roger. “The Sioux and the Indian-CCC.” South Dakota State Historical Society. 1978.

The Editors of Encyclopedia Britannica. “Dawes General AllotmentAct.” Encyclopedia Britannica. 12 December 2016.

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

Bureau of Indian Affairs. “Indians at Work.” 1933 Bureau of Indian Affairs.

WPAToday. “The CCC on Indian Reservations.” YouTube, 27 June 2015,

Native Americans: Everywhere and Nowhere

From the Americans exhibit at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

Blog by Cassandra Ceballos, Programs Assistant, The Corps Network

On Sunday, February 18, I found myself striding purposefully into the Museum of the American Indian.

Although I’ve lived in D.C. for the past six months, this was my first trip to the museum. Despite my mestizo heritage, I never felt a connection to the curvilinear, limestone building. I'm not alone in this sentiment; fourteen years old, the museum has, as stated in The Washington Post, “struggled to find an audience, and settle on a consistent approach to how it tells stories and presents information.”

Once inside, I ascended the steps of the grand staircase, two at a time, barely able to contain my excitement. The reason for my visit was simple: the Americans exhibit. Unveiled on January 18, 2018, the exhibit will run until January 2022.

The Washington Post calls Americans "an exhibition that examines how images of native people have been fundamental to American culture, commerce, and government."

Dichotomy exists between how this country uses Native American culture and our discourse on Native Americans. It is increasingly acknowledged that the United States government and institutions took steps to eradicate indigenous people. So why do we idolize imagery and names associated with Native Americans? We are surrounded by Native American influences and examples of the appropriation of Native cultures, yet, according to a 2015 study, Manifesting Destiny: Re/Presentations of Indigenous Peoples in K–12 U.S. History Standards, nearly 90 percent of curriculums in the United States do not refer to the existence of Native Americans after 1900.

I understand intimately the erasure of indigenous people from society's view. Read below to learn about my experience at the museum.

Native Americans: Everywhere & Nowhere
The sign below welcomes visitors as they enter the exhibit. I was immediately struck by the economic perspective invoked in the first sentence: "nearly all that can be named or sold has at some point been named or sold with an Indian word or image." Commerce lies at the center of the United States' national identity, and thus does the Indian. If you doubt the truth of this statement, uncertainty vanishes when you walk into the main gallery.


Hundreds of meticulously numbered images and items covered the walls of the oblong gallery. In the middle of the gallery, two touch tables allowed visitors to learn more about an item using its number. Cigarettes, motorcycles, sports teams and merchandise, motor oil, magazine covers, cornmeal, city insignias, whiskey, soda, butter, candy, movies, toys, military fighter jets and torpedoes… a motorcycle?

I spent over an hour walking back and forth from different images to the touch tables, reading more about the Tootise Pop wrapper, American Spirits’ packaging, a giant Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade balloon, and the RCA Indian-Head Television Test pattern from 1939, just to name a few.



More than half of the other people milling about the exhibit were white, about evenly split between older people and young families. It being a Sunday afternoon, this made sense, I suppose. While the gallery was filled with the sounds of chatter and movement, this melody melted in the side rooms.

Five side rooms extend off the gallery, three on the left and two on the right. The first two rooms on either side contained “stories”: The Invention of Thanksgiving, Queen of America, The Removal Act, and The Indians Win. Each one briefly examines the history of how and why Native American images and names are so prolific.

Walking through each room, the spaces were very quiet, and the mood reverent. I took care to read all the information and noticed that everyone around me was doing the same.

In the Indian Removal Act room I was greeted with the words, "Even today the Indian Removal Act remains one of the boldest and most breathtaking laws in American history." Which is a bit disappointing, when you think more deeply about the choice of wording. Boldest and breathtaking? Why not call it what it was: atrocious, unhuman, devastating.

After making my way through the “story rooms,” I entered the final, fifth room. The sign outside read “Americans Explained.” In stark contrast to the first four rooms, this space contained very little color or imagery. The entire room was white and brightly lit. On the wall to the left of the entrance were four large blocks containing text, the last of which I placed at the start of this blog, cut into two pieces.


View larger


Videos of individuals, diverse in age and background, played on the wall opposite of the text blocks. Each short film featured one person talking into the camera, describing their reaction to the exhibit, what they learned and felt along the way, what Native American imagery and narrative meant to them.

Dozens of postcards filled the wall space to the right of the film strip. These were messages left from previous visitors. Blank postcards sat in the center of the room, and persons were invited to write their own notes and deposit them into bins for a chance to be displayed.


View larger


Prior to exploring the fifth room, I was a bit underwhelmed by the exhibit. While the hundreds of images in the main gallery elicited provocative feelings, and the stories in the side rooms offered a nuanced perspective, the overall effect left me wondering about the curator’s overall goal. However, upon entering the fifth room, I finally understood. Everything encountered thus far, all the images, the first four “story rooms,” and the entire layout of the exhibit, suddenly made sense.

Representations of Native Americans from the nonindigenous point of view are stuck in a Machiavellian time-warp. Native Americans images and names are in our pantry, on our televisions, our bodies, our street corners, our money, in our mouths. It’s awe-inspiring, really. And overwhelming.

For where are they, the Native Americans? How is it that they appear everywhere, and exist nowhere?

“Americans” does not attempt to answer that question. Rather, it attempts to get you questioning.

All in all, my first visit to the exhibit reinforced what I already knew, as well as taught me much more. This last room, “Americans Explained,” hastily visited in the final minutes before the museum closed for the day, was by far my favorite part. Reading others’ responses on the cards and hearing their thoughts through the videos allowed me to better understand the exhibit’s purpose and approach.


A Time to Discuss

Following my first exploration, I read several reviews and news articles about the exhibit, all of which are cited at the bottom of this blog. The new information lead me to visit the museum once more in the month of February. My curiosity immediately paid off; previously unnoticed, a clear bin mounted to the wall immediately to my right enticed me closer.

The bin contained about nine large, spiral books: a "Gallery Discussion Guide." How had I missed this vital piece to the puzzle?

I flipped through the pages of the book and found it to be utterly remarkable.

The book began with an exploration of the gallery area. The first pages asked visitors to look around the room and identify familiar objects, as well as objects connected to the government, such as city seals and military aircraft.

View larger


The remainder of the book accompanied the stories featured in each of the four side rooms. Individuals are encouraged to make their way through each room, noticing symbolism and learning about the history and origin of how these stories came to be told, rather than another version.

Additionally, readers are challenged with thinking critically about the implications of these stories, both for the founding of the United States and the lives of Native Americans. 


Americans Online

An interactive website allows visitors to explore some of the images and objects on display at the museum. Users click and drag the webpage to search through, selecting artifacts or “stories” individually to learn more. 

Unfortunately, you’re unable to search for an item on the website using the ID numbers in the museum. Perhaps this feature could be added, so visitors could go back to items that were of particular interest, even after they’ve left the exhibit.

The stories from the exhibit - The Invention of Thanksgiving, Queen of America, The Removal Act, and The Indians Win - are also on the website in a modified version. I encourage you to use the links above to explore the stories, especially if you’re unable to visit the exhibit in D.C.

Below you will find several links to reviews and news articles about “Americans,” so that you may learn more about the curators’ intent.


For your consideration

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

  • Native Americans comprise less than one percent of the U.S. population, yet Native American imagery and names seem to be everywhere in our culture. Why do you think this is the case? How is that Native Americans can be so present and so absent in American life?
  • The history of the United States is checkered with the mistreatment of Native Americans. Through legislation and policy, the U.S. government once made efforts to destroy native cultures and assimilate Native Americans into mainstream society. So why, especially in the past 100 years, do you think Native American imagery has been seen as a marketing tool? 
  • The names of half the states in the U.S. are derived from Native American terms. In your own community or region, are there towns, streets or geographic features with Native American names? What do you know about the people or cultures behind these names? 
  • In what ways is the use of Native American imagery and names problematic? In what instances might it be considered "appropriate" or respectful? 
  • In what ways do imagery, language or cultural traditions associated with other minority groups appear in mainstream U.S. culture? In what ways might the assimilation of these cultural artifacts be okay, and in what instances might it become exploitative or offensive? 
  • Why do you think that certain stories are told and others not?  In one section of the Americans exhibit entitled, “Queen of America,” which is about Pocahontas (you can learn more here), a frieze is presented, which depicts the story of Pocahontas and Captain John Smith.  In this frieze, Pocahontas is “defying her father and saving Captain John Smith.”  It is acknowledged, however, that it is an incident that historians doubt happened at all.  Why do you think this particular story was told?
  • Do you know of any Native American “hidden history” figures?


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

Dingfelder, Sadie. “Why there’s Redskins merch at the National Museum of the American Indian.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 25 Jan. 2018,

Fonseca, Felicia. “New exhibit examines Native American imagery in U.S. culture.” The Columbian, Associated Press, 25 Feb. 2018,

Kennicott, Philip. “Review | The American Indian museum comes of age by tackling this country's lies.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 19 Jan. 2018,

“Looking at Indians, white Americans see themselves.” The Economist, The Economist Newspaper, 10 Feb. 2018,

Loria, Michael. “Americans at the National Museum of the American Indian.” On Tap Magazine, 27 Feb. 2018,

Miranda, Carolina A. “Its not just Chief Wahoo. Why American Indian images became potent, cartoonish advertising symbols.” Los Angeles Times, Los Angeles Times, 29 Jan. 2018,

Rothstein, Edward. "'Americans' Review: Detailed Portrait of a People." Wall Street Journal. Wall Street Journal, 17 Jan 2018,

Schjeldahl, Peter. “America as Indian Country.” The New Yorker, The New Yorker, 22 Jan. 2018,

Shear, Sarah B., et al. “Manifesting Destiny: Re/Presentations of Indigenous Peoples in K–12 U.S. History Standards.” Theory & Research in Social Education, vol. 43, no. 1, Feb. 2015, pp. 68–101., doi:10.1080/00933104.2014.999849.

Smith, David. “Trump doesnt understand history: Native Americans tell their story in DC.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 11 Feb. 2018,


Moving Forward Initiative Guest Series: Interview with Dr. Andrew W. Kahrl on African American Leisure and Recreation Spaces in the Era of Jim Crow

Dr. Andrew W. Kahrl is an Associate Professor of History at the University of Virginia. His research focuses on the social, economic, and environmental history of land use, real estate development, and racial inequality in the 20th century United States.

Dr. Kahrl is the author of The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South (UNC Press: 2016), as well as the forthcoming book, Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline (Yale University Press: 2018).

As part of The Corps Network’s Moving Forward Initiative, we spoke with Dr. Kahrl about the outdoor leisure and recreation opportunities available to African Americans during the era of Jim Crow. Read our conversation to learn how policies, events and social practices shaped the way African Americans recreated and utilized outdoor spaces in the first half of the 20th century. We also discuss historical influences on the modern conservation and outdoor recreation movements. 

Click for Moving Forward Initiative homepage


Tell us a bit about your area of study and how you came to focus on the intersection of race, the environment and the economy in 20th century America?

I wrote a dissertation, that then formed the basis for my first book, that looked at the history of African American outdoor leisure spaces in the Jim Crow South. The question that framed my first book was, “how did African Americans develop parallel social spaces in a segregated society?”

We’re familiar with whites-only swimming pools and parks, but there was less information available about how African Americans created alternative social spaces in a Jim Crow world. What types of spaces – especially outdoor spaces – were available?

I realized early in the research how extensive the network of black social spaces was. The importance of these spaces didn’t just reach into the world of recreation and leisure, but also into black economic life. Two of the main things I uncovered were, 1) just how widespread African American landholdings were in coastal areas, which was something I initially wasn’t expecting. And 2) how critical African American leisure spaces were to local black economies.

In my mind, these findings spoke to how we should look at people’s interactions with the outdoor world not just through the lens of environment, but also through the lens of economy. Furthermore, we should think of Jim Crow not only as a racial regime, but a land regime. Jim Crow profoundly influenced the built and natural environments of the South, both in the way whites excluded people, and in the way African Americans carved out spaces of their own.

For my first book, I gravitated specifically towards the history of black beaches because, for one, there were so many of them scattered throughout the South. These beaches were a product of opportunity: African Americans having land that they owned and could then turn into enterprises.

Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library, Duke University - via


Can you discuss why, in the first half of the 20th century, there was a need and desire to create black-owned leisure spaces?

In the era of Jim Crow, the types of activities from which African Americans were fully excluded tended to involve more intimate spaces: funeral homes, barber shops, restaurants, and leisure spaces, too. These were spaces where segregation was so complete that African Americans’ opportunities to carve out parallel institutions was greatest.

When we think about what people want when they seek out leisure, they want relaxation, comradery. Unless you are seeking to engage in a form of protest or challenge the social order, the last place you as an African American would want to spend leisure time is surrounded by hostile, racist white folks. It stands to reason that African Americans who had the time and resources to carve out moments of leisure would want to find welcoming environments.

It’s important to note how, especially for many working class African American families, it was rare to find moments of respite, and rare to find moments when you could rest from having to deal with white people. Daily interactions with white people in the Jim Crow South could be frustrating, hostile, humiliating – everything that leisure is not. So that gives you a sense of why it was so critically important for African Americans to have spaces of their own.


Can you talk about what the Green Book was? What was its purpose and what information did it offer?

The Negro Motorist Green Book was a guide – published from 1936 to 1967 – that provided a list of welcoming restaurants, hotels, and other accommodations for African American travelers trying to navigate a Jim Crow world. It was geared towards providing information on a town-by-town, state-by-state basis. If a certain town was not listed, that was a signal to keep driving.

The Green Book primarily provided names of small, black-owned businesses, but, as you get into the last days of its publication – you begin to see corporate chains making it known to readers – who were mostly middle class African Americans – that their business was welcome.

The Green Book existed because America was a racist country. It responded to a need among African American consumers for information about places they could go where their money would be accepted and they would be treated with dignity.

An important point for many African American mothers and fathers with small children was a desire to shield their families from racism. Not to try to create a fantasy world where racism didn’t exist, but to try and prevent any humiliating or dangerous encounters if possible. This need was part of what the Green Book aimed to serve. By patronizing businesses in the Green Book, families would not need to experience rejection.

In doing interviews for my book, one thing noted by African Americans who grew up during this time was that, if their family was travelling a long distance or going through the Deep South, they would leave in the dead of night so they could get to their destination while the kids were asleep. This was to avoid situations where the kids might say, “let’s stop here,” or “I have to use the restroom,” and the parents would need to have a difficult conversation where they’d explain why they couldn’t stop.


The Idlewild Club House, Idlewild, Mich., September 1938. (Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images) - via

Where were black-owned outdoor leisure spaces? Were they predominantly in the South, where racism and segregation would have been more overt?  

A lot of African American leisure spaces grew up informally. Many of the black beaches I write about began with black families who owned land who would let it out to picnic groups, church groups, and people seeking a place to relax on the weekend. If you flip through the pages of the Green Book, you’ll find that many of the locations listed as lodging are people’s homes – or what are called “Do-Drop-Ins.” These are places where a black family that owned a house would let out an extra room. It was sort of like an early version of Airbnb.

As you might expect, black-owned leisure spaces grew up around areas with large concentrations of African Americans. They followed the demographic changes that unfolded during the 20th century. In the nineteen-teens and twenties, as the black population grew in northern cities, you began to see black vacation communities sprout up in places like rural Michigan or northern Indiana. In Michigan, there was Idlewild, which was a famous vacation destination for black doctors and professionals who lived in Chicago.

In the South, there were both formal resort communities, as well as destinations that would more resemble a space for local folks or the working class.

Black outdoor leisure spaces were as varied and diverse as black America itself. There were places for the highly educated or, as they were sometimes called, the “aristocrats of color.” These were places like Highland Beach, which is outside Washington, DC on Maryland’s western shore. This was where Howard University professors and the black cultural elite of Washington would go. This was a place where working black families would not feel welcome. The families that lived at Highland Beach worked just as hard as white elite resort communities in excluding certain people from their spaces. On the other hand, you had places that very much catered to working families. Class segregation or separatism was very pronounced in black America, especially when it came to leisure spaces.


Archival photo from Shenandoah National Park - National Park Service historic photos


Would African Americans have frequented national parks? In our research, we came across an archival photo from Shenandoah National Park of a sign pointing towards the “negro area” for camping and picnicking.

I’m not an expert on this, but, from what I’ve read, African American presence at national parks was very, very small. Especially in the South, there was certainly a climate of hostility towards African Americans seeking out these types of spaces. State parks in the South were segregated across the board. There was a great book about this – Landscapes of Exclusion, by William O’Brien – that tells the story of a whole parallel world of black state parks that developed throughout the South. Some of these parks were areas of existing state parks, while some were separate places altogether.



Could you tell us a bit more about African American beaches in the Jim Crow South and what became of these spaces?

The story I tell in my book is one in which many of these places – and, consequently, one way in which many African Americans interacted with the natural world – declined quite dramatically from the 1960s to the present as waterfront properties in the South became highly coveted. African Americans who owned this land often found themselves being swindled out of it or forced off the land by the courts or public officials.

The story of black land ownership in the South in the 20th century is one of decline. The high watermark for black land ownership in 20th century America was 1910. It’s a time we conventionally associate with African Americans lacking political rights and opportunities in the workplace, but part of the story is that, because there were so few avenues of opportunity, black Southerners worked extraordinarily hard to acquire land. Land ownership was a means of liberation. However, this freedom increasingly eroded over the course of the 20th century, even as African Americans gained political rights.

At the time when many African Americans acquired these coastal lands, they were not valuable. In fact, they were probably some of the least desirable properties in the South. Coastal properties were remote, hard to get to, and were often not conducive to largescale agriculture. Additionally, they were, and still are, subjected to violent storms. These were places that, by and large, white Southerners avoided.

As an example, the South Carolina Sea Islands became home to the largest concentration of African American landowners anywhere in the South. This was land that was essentially abandoned by slave owners during the Civil War. Edisto Island was the birthplace of “40 acres and a mule”: the idea of taking land that had been captured or abandoned during the Civil War and redistributing it to the slaves who had worked on it.

In short, these coastal properties were cheap and readily available. Also, if you’re an African American seeking to create as much physical distance between yourself and white society, this was the type of place you would gravitate towards.

Now, of course, things change dramatically over the course of the 20th century as we begin engineering shorelines, building roads and bridges, and taking other steps to make these areas conducive to largescale development. That’s an important story of the 20th century: the story of the increased effort to bring land under control and make it profitable at a time when more and more Americans have the time and means to vacation and buy second homes. That’s the story of how these places became so highly coveted and how African Americans who owned land often found themselves in the crosshairs of speculators and developers.



Most of the black-owned outdoor leisure spaces you write about have died out. Can you talk about why this happened? What would you consider to be the legacy of these spaces?

One of the most obvious examples of the legacy of black beaches and resorts was that these spaces nurtured a whole generation of black performers who would later go on to become some of the most famous artists of the 20th century. James Brown, Otis Redding, Jackie Wilson, Moms Mabley – these were African American performers who would cross over into the mainstream and become world famous, but many of them got their start performing at black leisure spaces.

The important lesson of these spaces is one that I stress in the subtitle of my book: “how black beaches became white wealth in the coastal South.” With the Civil Rights movement and the end of segregation, there is a demise of black Main Streets and other African American cultural institutions and businesses that segregation had necessitated. When this happened, what was the loss to the sense of community and camaraderie these spaces fostered?

Highland Beach Picnic Group, 1930. Image Courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Behring Center, Smithsonian Institution - via

One thing that was undeniably lost was wealth. The places I write about – like the South Carolina and Georgia Sea Islands, Maryland’s western shore, the Gulf Coast of Mississippi – these are places where the land that African Americans owned in the first half of the 20th century is now some of the most valuable property in the United States.

Property that’s worth in the tens of millions of dollars used to be owned by African Americans and it was taken from them, often through various forms of chicanery and deceit, if not outright theft. The black families that owned that land never saw a dime.

When we have these conversations about the origins and persistence of the racial wealth gap in America, many times people seek to identify all the opportunities that African Americans have been denied. And that’s important, but we often lose sight of what was taken from previous generations. This was wealth that was in their hands, but they were never able to fully realize it. Instead, it became someone else’s wealth. It became the wealth of corporate developers who acquired the land for very cheap. African American families are now sometimes cleaning the bathrooms and tending to the lawns of land that their ancestors owned. That should give us pause when thinking about the legacy of these spaces.



As part of the Moving Forward Initiative, we hope to examine why there is a persistent lack of diversity in visitation at parks and participation in outdoor recreation. Do you see any historical context for this disparity?

Well certainly there’s the role of urbanization and the concentration of non-white populations in inner cities. During the 20th century, you saw African Americans being systematically excluded from becoming homeowners in the suburbs, coupled with the lack of public transportation options to access areas outside the urban core. This severely limited the ability of African Americans living in the urban North to have access to outdoor space.

Additionally, the natural environment has a whole different meaning in the collective memory for African Americans than it does for white Americans. Historically, spaces that for many white Americans provided a sense of adventure were, for some African Americans, a place of fear and uncertainty. These were places where their ancestors or own family members were terrorized. Outdoor areas in the rural South are littered with stories of lynching, violent deaths, unsolved murders – all sorts of crimes were committed against African Americans in these places.

Then, you combine that with the fact that many outdoor destinations that were once familiar to African Americans disappeared with integration. For some African American families, part of why they may have little direct experience with outdoor recreation is because the places that were once a part of their family tradition are gone.



Relatedly, do you see any historical context for the lack of diversity in the mainstream conservation movement?

The conservation movement has, throughout much of the 20th century, been white-dominated and defined by issues that concern white Americans. At the very least, the movement has certainly been oblivious to the concerns of black Americans.

There has been a sense among African Americans that the conservation movement was not for them, it was not in their name. There’s a perception that the interests of the conservation movement are directly in opposition to the interests of African Americans; this is due, in part, to the way opponents of conservation have tried to exploit division

To give you an example, there was a famous controversy in the area around Hilton Head over the efforts of BASF – an international conglomerate – to locate a plant along a waterway. The plant would’ve brought lots of jobs, but also would’ve polluted rivers and streams. Folks in the environmental movement, who were dead-set against this plant being located there, were framed as an enemy for blocking job creation. Part of this was BASF trying to work-up divisions and appeal to African Americans for their support.

That’s just one example of how, particularly in struggling African American communities that need jobs, many have come to see, either through direct experience or perception, that the interests of the conservation movement come at the expense of their own pocketbooks.



You have another book coming out soon regarding race and beaches in America. Could you tell us a bit more about the issues this book explores?

This is a story of the Northeast, and particularly Connecticut. In a way, I’m looking at the flipside of the story that I write about in my first book in that I’m telling the story of exclusive white beaches along Connecticut’s Gold Coast. These are communities that worked diligently to exclude the public.

Alongside of that, you have the issue of segregation in the North. The children of those who migrated north during the Great Migration are, by the time we get to the 1960s and ‘70s, living in very concentrated urban neighborhoods with very little practical access to the great outdoors due to a whole host of factors.

So that’s setting the stage for the story that unfolds, which is one in which a social activist – Ned Coll - started an anti-poverty organization that was dedicated to improving the living conditions within Hartford’s black neighborhoods. He was also trying to engage the support of white America – specifically liberal white America: the folks that expressed their solidarity with African Americans, yet often lived in all-white suburban communities and had very little direct contact with African Americans. Coll was trying to break down those walls separating white and black America.

One idea that he latched onto was to get black children in Hartford and other cities out of the ghetto in the summer and down to the beach. This would provide opportunities for them to venture into new places, and would help foster better understanding among white Americans.

But when he tried to bring a busload of city kids down to the Connecticut coast, he discovered there was nowhere to go. Almost the entire state shoreline was closed off to the public. At that point he became an activist, a very creative and inventive one, for the cause of open beaches.

He would do amphibious landings where they would come ashore and kids would get off the boats and play on the beach. Legally, the beach belonged to the public, but you had to get creative if there was no way you could get to the shore from land.  

He was trying to draw attention to this lack of access to the shoreline. Also, he was trying to draw attention to the real deprivation of the urban poor, especially in regard to outdoor spaces and outdoor leisure. He wanted to challenge the liberals that liked to talk a lot about concern for the poor, but did very little in their own lives to improve conditions for marginalized populations. 


For Your Consideration 

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

  1. Scroll through copies of the Green Book using this digital collection from the New York Public Library. Do you notice any patterns in the advertisements or listings? How does the Green Book change over the years and what might these changes say about society?
  2. What do “the great outdoors” mean to you? What comes to mind, or what do you feel, when you hear that term? What has shaped your thoughts and feelings about the outdoors? 
  3. In the modern day, have you witnessed any racial or ethnic division in how people choose to (or are able to) recreate and spend leisure time? If so, why do you believe these separations exist? How might these divisions be problematic? In what ways might they not be problematic? 
  4. When you were growing up, or in your own family and friend groups today, where did/do you go to vacation or recreate? To what extent were/are your leisure decisions based off traditions with which you were raised?
  5. For Corps: When working with Corpsmembers who may have limited experience living and working in the wilderness, what do you do to support them? What are reasons why these Corpsmembers might have limited exposure to camping, hiking, boating or other outdoor activities in which your crew engages? Have you ever had a discussion with Corpsmembers about barriers to outdoor access?


Resources & Supplemental Readings

View the complete Moving Forward Initiative Resource Library here.


Douglas, Leah. “African Americans Have Lost Untold Acres of Land Over the Last Century: An Obscure Legal Loophole is Often to Blame.” The Nation, 26 June 2017. Web,, 07 November2017.

A look at how African Americans gained land following the Civil War, but gradually lost it throughout the 20th century due to a variety of reasons, including legal loopholes, forced buy-outs, discriminatory lending practices, and the Great Migration.


Engle, Reed. “Segregation/Desegregation,” Resource Management Newsletter, January 1996. Web,, 07 November 2017.

Cultural Resource Specialist Reed Engle looks at the segregation and desegregation of Shenandoah National Park.


Goffe, Leslie. “How the 1964 Civil Rights Act Cost Black America,” New African Magazine, 08 May 2014. Web,, 07 November 2017.

A look at how the Civil Rights Act led to the movement of African Americans to white suburbs and the decline of African American businesses, cultural institutions and community in urban areas.


“The Green Book.” The New York Public Library Digital Collections, 12 September 2017.

Digital copies of the several editions of The Negro Motorist Green Book, a travel guide published annually from 1936 – 1967 that listed lodging, restaurants and businesses that catered to African Americans.


 “Idlewild, Michigan (1912 - ).”, Accessed 07 November 2017.


Kahrl, Andrew W. The Land was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South. Oxford University Press. 2012.

By reconstructing African American life along the coast, Kahrl demonstrates just how important these properties were for African American communities and leisure, as well as for economic empowerment, especially during the era of Jim Crow in the South.


Leland, John. “Investors Move Next Door, Unsettling a Black Beachside Enclave,” The New York Times, 25 August 2016. Web,, 07 November 2017.

Some residents of Sag Harbor, NY have grown wary of an increasing number of investors sweeping up properties in the area.


O’Brien, William E. Landscapes of Exclusion: State Parks and Jim Crow in the American South. University of Massachusetts Press. December 2015.

From early in the twentieth century, the state park movement sought to expand public access to scenic American places. During the 1930s those efforts accelerated as the National Park Service used New Deal funding and labor to construct parks nationwide. However, under severe Jim Crow restrictions in the South, African Americans were routinely and officially denied entrance to these sites. In response, advocacy groups pressured the National Park Service to provide some facilities for African Americans. William E. O’Brien shows that these parks were typically substandard in relation to “white only” areas.


Winerip, Michael. “A Legend and his Catskills Resort for Blacks,” The New York Times, 15 July 1985. Web,, 07 November 2017.

A look at Peg Leg Bates Country Club, a resort for African Americans in the Catskill Mountains of New York that operated from the 1950s to the 1980s. The business closed two years after publication of this article and now sits abandoned.

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?





Moving Forward Initiative - What it is and What to Expect

"Moving Forward, Together"


The Work
Launched by The Corps Network (TCN) in the spring of 2017 through a W.K. Kellogg Foundation grant, the Moving Forward Initiative is designed to identify, examine, and address unconscious bias and structural racism impacting the Corps movement. The goal is to expand career exposure and increase employment in conservation and resource management for youth and young adults of color.

TCN describes our work in racial equity as a journey. The start of this journey is the development of a foundation of knowledge on which to examine racism in the United States and understand our own personal and professional connections to institutional racism. To build this foundational knowledge, The Corps Network is actively curating a library of articles, essays, academic studies, films, podcasts and other materials that will be housed here on The Corps Network’s website. This library will be updated on a regular basis. We will also publish original blogs, share questions, host discussions, and provide other means of engaging in this journey and thinking about race and racism.

“If racism was constructed, it can be undone. It can be undone if people understand when it was constructed, why it was constructed, how it functions, and how it is maintained.” – The People’s Institute

Why It’s Important at This Time 
It has become clear to us at The Corps Network that, as MLK Jr. once stated, there is, “a fierce urgency of now” in addressing the issue of racial equity in the world of conservation and the communities where our Corps work. The Corps Network realizes that we must be proactive in addressing the deeply imbedded and historically ingrained racial inequities that impact all of us, and particularly our Corpsmembers. Young adults of color represent roughly half of our Corpsmembers, and, with the development of native youth programs and the expansion of Corps in both urban and rural areas, we realize that this number will grow.

Failure to address systems and knowledge deficits that limit opportunities for Corps and Corpsmembers would be antithetical to our mission of helping Corps empower America’s youth. As the national liaison between Corps, which train the next generation of conservation professionals, and the agencies that hire such professionals, TCN is uniquely positioned to – with the guidance of experts in racial equity – help make racial equity the standard in resource management.

On August 17, 2017, we will introduce our first blog that will look at the experience of people of color within the Civilian Conservation Corps and introduce you to the works of Olen Cole, Nikhil Swaminathan and Daniel Medina.