Dr. David Childs, D.D., Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University
“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.”
-1934, Robert Fechner, Director of the CCC
Introduction: What was the Historic Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)?
The Great Depression was a time when families throughout the US struggled to make ends meet in their households. It was a time of widespread poverty that was unprecedented in the United States. As a result, President Franklin Deleano Roosvelt developed multiple programs through the New Deal to help provide economic release throughout the country. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a major part of the New Deal. It was a volunteer program that supplied manual labor jobs to young men ages 17-28 in the areas of conservation and development of natural resources. The work was primarily in local, state and federal government owned rural areas that needed development allowing the public and industries more access to the areas. The primary role of the CCC was to supply jobs for young men and to relieve families who had difficulty finding jobs during the Great Depression.
Civilian Conservation Corps Poster (1930’s).
Many Young Men Were Employed in the CCC Program
The CCC was a massive government project, employing 300,000 men at one time during the height of the program. Over the nine years that the program was in operation over three million young men were employed. The CCC not only paid the men a wage of $30 a month, but provided them with food, clothing and housing. They were required to send $25 out of their monthly salary back home to their families.
The program was the most popular program of Roosevelt’s New Deal and was deemed a success. Experts and the media during that era spoke glowingly of the program, claiming that when the young men worked for the CCC they became more employable, their physical condition improved and they possessed a more heightened morale. Furthermore, the program gave the public a greater appreciation for the outdoors and a greater respect for the nations natural resources.
Invisible African Americans and the CCC
When sociologists, historians and Black Studies scholars study African American history and culture they hearken back to Ralph Ellison’s notion of “the invisible man.” That is, the idea that the culture and history of certain ethnic groups in society are not valued and thus their historical contribution or their very existence is often ignored or overlooked. African Americans’ historic involvement in the Civilian Conservation Corps is perhaps a textbook example of that.
When articles are written and public discussions take place about the CCC, it is generally from a predominantly white perspective and the scores of Black men that helped on the countless public works projects are often completely ignored in the historical record. During the course of the CCC program more than 200,000 African Americans were employed by the organization.
Enrollee Sighting Through an Engineers Level at Camp SCS-NC-5, Yanceyville,
However, the experience of Blacks in the program did not mirror that of their white counterparts. The CCC used the argument that “segregation is not discrimination,” and thus did not live up to their stated policy of being inclusive. When the Civilian Conservation Corps was in operation Jim Crow was the order of the day. And although the language of the Act that implemented the CCC stated, “that in employing citizens for the purposes of this Act, no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color, or creed,” segregation was still the rule and order of the day. Black corpsmen were primaily placed in seperate camps, with just a few exceptions. Furthermore, even though the Black community was hit especially hard during the Great Depression they faced discrimination in the hiring process, and were frequently denied positions they were qualified for.
Even when they were successfully hired they experienced racial discrimination from their white co-workers and supervisors, making their working conditions hostile. They were often given the least desirable living quarters and were issued inferior equipment to work with. They were the subject of cruel racist jokes and derogatory slurs, all reflective of the larger society’s treatment of African Americans throughout the country.
However, even though African American members of the CCC faced unspeakable hardships on the job, like their white counterparts, they were able to make great financial contributions to their families as a result of the program. In addition to the financial benefits, Black men were able to access educational resources from elementary to university level, as a result of the CCC.
However, because most African American males were from urban centers, they did not have an easy time transferring their forestry and conservation skills to employment after the program ended in 1942. 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.” In fact, many African American CCC members went on to so-called “negro jobs” such as gardening, butlers, cooks, chauffeurs, laborers and in the dangerous mining industry. Many of the most desirable public lands jobs were not available to African Americans, and were more likely to go to white applicants. In short, some experts argued that the CCC had very little lasting impression on African American corpsmen’s economic development after World War II, but was merely a temporary way to make money that did not necessarily prepare many of them for a career.
Classroom Resources and Lessons for Teaching about Diversity and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)
A major part of bringing visibility to the African American males who worked with the CCC. The men that helped build the infrastructure of many local, state and federal parks must pass the information on to the youth in PK-12 classrooms and beyond. Below are some resources and lesson plans that can help educators teach this material in their classrooms.
Lesson Plans and Resources
Lesson 3: African-Americans and the New Deal’s Civilian Conservation Corps
Civilian Conservation CorpsStudent Activity African-Americans & CCC
The Civilian Conservation Corps| Teacher’s Guide
Civilian Conservation Corps Lesson
New Deal and African Americans Using Evidence: Did the New Deal provide relief and recovery for all Americans? Why or why not?
Civilian Conservation Corps Teacher Resources Find Civilian Conservation Corps lesson plans and worksheets
African Americans and the Civilian Conservation Corps (1941)
Civilian Conservation Corps
Moving Forward Initiative: The African American Experince in the Civilian Conservation Corps
A Black New Yorker Describes Life in a CCC Camp
The Men in Green: African Americans and the Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942
African Americans in the CCC
Company 818 and Segregation in the Civilian Conservation Corps
Please share what resources you find useful for your teaching.
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