Invisible Workers: Rediscovering the African Americans Who Worked with the Civilian Conservation Corps (1933-1942). Including Teaching Resources

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,
North Carolina.

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.

We are open to feedback and discussion. If you see any typos or grammatical errors please feel free to email the author and editor at the address below:


  1. The CCC program sounds like it was very helpful to the black community during the time. It reminds me of the Freedman Bureau established during Reconstruction, trying to help black people get opportunities. As I was reading it also made me think of Job Corps as it has to mission to help young people get jobs but the CCC. I think it is very important to highlight the importance of black people in the CCC and how hard they worked to support themselves during that time.

  2. I enjoyed reading this article because it was very eye-opening. The lack of portrayal on the African American culture in the CCC program really goes to show how many aspects of historical events are overlooked in textbooks and course materials. The fact that we overlook things like these can lead to us being bias now. Today, many people (not all) who are “right winged” take pride in the idea that America is only for Americans and they believe that we should not allow other cultures and ethnicities into the US. However, their lack of knowledge on true US history makes it easy for them to have this thought process. Growing up, all they saw were pictures of white historical figures in textbooks and course materials, the treatment of African Americans and other ethnicities was never discussed. This creates the viewpoint that white males did everything for this country and made this country what it is today, when in reality that is not true.

  3. This article shines a spot light on the under/none represented history of black people during the great depression. I thought it was very interesting that the government claimed to be none discriminatory towards African Americans while doing the exact opposite. furthermore it was a little audacious for Robert F. to make the claim that “This segregation is not discrimination and cannot be so construed.”. Implying that African Americans have the same resources and hare happy to be segregated.

  4. I enjoyed reading this article because it informed me a lot of new information that I had no idea about. I believe these men deserved to be in the Civilian Conservation Corps program. African Americans worked hard and tried their best to support their families through tough times. Many opportunities were taken away from them because of the white owners. They were treated with disrespect and was not in a good space during this time.

  5. I had never heard of the Civilian Conservation Corps but I am probably among many that would say that the idea, especially during the time of the great depression, to give young men an opportunity to work and earn money to support their families when there were very few other opportunities while also improving the land which we live around is a great idea. Although it was founded with the idea that there would be no racial discrimination, it failed to resolve the discrimination that was very present at that time on a societal level. Maybe if there was more done to create an institution that actively punished racism and sought to bring all Americans together during a time of shared hardship, this could have had a better outcome. This is a lesson that the declarations against racism only matter when there are institutional barriers put in place to reinforce it.

  6. I really don’t know much about the Civilian Conservation Corps. If it was talked about in school, it was probably only as a footnote to what was a time of great upheaval in our nation’s history; we went from WWI into a decade of prosperity with the Roaring Twenties, then everything fell apart on Black Thursday. The Depression was a period of great economic hardship for almost everyone, but then came WWII which, on its surface, united people against a common foe and lifted the country out of the dire economic straits in which we were mired. I think that the most nonsensical, yet completely predictable thing about all of these events, and especially the Great Depression, is that while everybody was struggling and suffering, they still had time for prejudice and discrimination. Here, there are hundreds of thousands of men with the same clear goal: to provide for themselves and their families. They should have been united. They should have seen that no matter the color of their skin or where they came from, they were all in the same place trying to do the same thing, and the young African American men should not have had to face what they did at the hands of both other participants and the project administrators.

  7. The CCC program sounds like it could’ve helped many people. It’s hard to read that African Americans were treated with such disrespect when everyone was going through a hard time. These men had every reason to join the program and help their families as the white men did. Making the working environment a space for harassment is cruel.

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