A Negro in the CCC Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, was a public-works program that employed unmarried, unemployed men from 1933 to 1942, during the worst years of the Great Depression. These men, who had to be between eighteen and twenty-five to qualify, were sent to perform unskilled manual labor jobs related to natural resources on federal and state land. More than three million young men were involved in this program over the course of its nine years, with its highest enrollment level at any given time around 300,000. Volunteers planted trees, cleared parks, built roadways and park buildings, and worked to mitigate soil loss and erosion. African American men were eligible to serve, and according to various estimates, from 200,000 to 350,000 enrolled in the CCC in its nine years. Facilities were initially integrated, then segregated, but for many young African American men, it was the only chance of having food, shelter, and a wage during the Depression, and the CCC also employed African American directors and staff. The CCC ran much like the military, with fines for poor work or bad behavior, but it was a desirable posting for young men and gave them valuable work experience and skills. In 1935, the African American periodical The Crisis published an account by New Yorker Luther C. Wandall, about whom no other information is available, detailing his experience working with the CCC.

Summary Overview

The Civilian Conservation Corps, or CCC, was a public-works program that employed unmarried, unemployed men from 1933 to 1942, during the worst years of the Great Depression. These men, who had to be between eighteen and twenty-five to qualify, were sent to perform unskilled manual labor jobs related to natural resources on federal and state land. More than three million young men were involved in this program over the course of its nine years, with its highest enrollment level at any given time around 300,000. Volunteers planted trees, cleared parks, built roadways and park buildings, and worked to mitigate soil loss and erosion. African American men were eligible to serve, and according to various estimates, from 200,000 to 350,000 enrolled in the CCC in its nine years. Facilities were initially integrated, then segregated, but for many young African American men, it was the only chance of having food, shelter, and a wage during the Depression, and the CCC also employed African American directors and staff. The CCC ran much like the military, with fines for poor work or bad behavior, but it was a desirable posting for young men and gave them valuable work experience and skills. In 1935, the African American periodical The Crisis published an account by New Yorker Luther C. Wandall, about whom no other information is available, detailing his experience working with the CCC.

Defining Moment

Public-works programs, such as the CCC, were part of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. This term encompassed initiatives that provided individuals with work and support during the severe economic crisis of the Great Depression. Roosevelt had founded a similar organization while governor of New York and sent a proposal in March 1933 to create a national program for young men that would focus on “forestry, the prevention of soil erosion, flood control and similar projects.” The CCC was jointly supervised by the federal Departments of War, Agriculture, Interior, and Labor, with special programs for veterans and American Indians. Officers from the Army Reserves supervised camps in military fashion, but there was no formal military training and no expectation of military service. Enrollees worked for a minimum of six months and could serve up to two years if they were not able to find outside employment.

CCC work camps were independent, often mobile units, able to feed, house, and entertain hundreds of young men. Since the greatest concentration of projects was in the West and South, while the greatest number of workers was in the East, they also required a network of enrollment camps near urban Northeast cities. As manpower moved West, the CCC was able to make real progress in conservation work, and it is credited with constructing nearly 3,500 fire lookout towers, laying 97,000 miles of fire roads, logging more than four million man-days fighting fires, and planting more than three billion trees.

African American participation in the CCC grew from 3 percent of total enrollment at the program's outset to nearly 11 percent, though it had been capped at 10 percent, roughly the same as the African American proportion of the population overall. Initially, CCC camps were integrated, though African Americans often had the least desirable facilities and jobs. As the CCC camps traveled through the country, including the deeply racially-divided South, these camps faced local hostility. In July 1935, the CCC became thoroughly segregated, despite the protestations of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and other civil rights groups. The CCC remained segregated for the rest of its existence, and there were 150 CCC companies of African American men.

In June 1942, in the face of another world war, funding was cut for the CCC, effectively abolishing it. Its legacy included the completion of countless projects for public benefit and the enrichment of the lives of millions of men, who were reasonably well fed and healthy, had gained work experience, and had traveled across the country in unprecedented numbers.

Document Analysis

Luther Wandall begins the article on his experience in the CCC by outlining the reasons for his initial trepidation about joining. He had heard that African Americans were mistreated and given the worst of everything, a rumor that was often true, as even when camps were integrated overall, they were often internally segregated. Furthermore, Wandall's brother, a veteran, warned him to avoid “anything connected with the Army.” Still, like many men of his age and station, Wandall was unable to find other work, and so he reported to register for duty and was sent to a pier to await further instructions. Wandall describes how his apprehension was increased by the number of men who showed up with registration cards and were then turned away for previous bad behavior, but when he got to the pier, he was surrounded by a familiar scene: “The colored boys were a goodly sprinkling of the whole.… A good many Spaniards and Italians were about. A good-natured, lively, crowd, typical of New York.”

A chaotic scene ensued as men jostled for position in a disorganized line, and finally Wandall, who was expecting only to register, was given a physical and placed “on a bus bound for Camp Dix, New Jersey, without having prepared or told anyone goodbye.” It was a disorienting start to Wandall's tenure with the CCC, and his next encounter was a shock as well, as he encountered segregation for the first time at Fort Dix, where “separation of the colored from the whites was completely and rigidly maintained.” Wandall noted that the officers, all white, and many from the South, varied in temperament from kind to cruel. He was offered a position at Camp Dix, but was eager to leave, particularly after his warning that they would get the worst of everything proved to be true, at least in the case of their tents. When Wandall was shipped out to a site somewhere in the “Upper South,” the conditions were much better: “There [is] plenty to eat, and we [sleep] in barracks instead of tents. An excellent recreation hall, playground, and other facilities.”

Wandall's primary complaints seem to be that the other African Americans he finds himself with are unsavory characters. Though he does acknowledge that there are some officers at Fort Dix that were petty and cruel, he had generally positive comments on the white men he encounters, but describes the African Americans he is with at Fort Dix as “of a very low order of culture.… many were plainly ignorant and underprivileged, while others were really criminal. They cursed with every breath, stole everything they could lay hands on, and fought over their food, or over nothing at all.” He is surprised to find that the African Americans in the South seem unfriendly to Northern black men.

Still, in the end, Wandall found much to recommend about the CCC, though of course it “reflects, to some extent, all the practices and prejudices of the US Army. But as a job and an experience, for a man who has no work, I can heartily recommend it.”

Essential Themes

Wandall's article is intended to give a clear picture of the Civilian Conservation Corps to any African American men considering joining the organization. He seems to present a balanced picture, describing the food, camp arrangements, and people that pleased or displeased him. In the end, he feels that the balance tips in favor of the CCC, as he has been able to work and have experiences he would not have had otherwise. Unclear is whether his opinion would have changed had he joined the CCC later, when units were fully segregated and resistance to African American workers in the South was more pronounced.

Bibliography and Additional Reading
  • Cole, Olen, Jr. The African-American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps. Gainesville: UP of Florida, 1999. Print.
  • Parrish, Michael E. Anxious Decades: America in Prosperity and Depression 1920–1941. New York: Norton, 1992. Print.
  • Shlaes, Amity. The Forgotten Man: A New History of the Great Depression. New York: Harper, 2007. Print.
  • Woolner, David. “African Americans and the New Deal: A Look Back in History.” Roosevelt Institute. Roosevelt Institute, n.d. Web. 10 June 2013.
Categories: History Content