The Civilian Conservation Corps was born of pure and progressive intentions: employment for young men, conservation work on public lands, and nondiscrimination. Illinois Representative Oscar DePriest, the only black member of Congress at the time, made sure that the 1933 legislation that established the CCC banned discrimination based on “race, color, or creed.”
During the decade it was active, the CCC succeeded in many ways. It put three million men to work, planted over three billion trees, and restored America’s parks and public lands. But it strayed far from its commitment to inclusion. In terms of racial integration and equality, the CCC represents one of the biggest missed opportunities of the New Deal.
The U.S. Army controlled CCC camp administration and operations, and its policy of racial segregation transferred easily to the new civilian workforce. Most of the CCC’s quarter million African-American enrollees served in segregated companies and were unable to attain positions of authority. Some Southern states categorically excluded blacks, arguing that they were needed for growing and harvesting cotton. There were a few mixed camps in states with smaller African- American populations like Minnesota and Wisconsin, but these were the exception.
“Historian Olen Cole, Jr. and others note that integrated camps existed outside the South in the early years of the CCC. In some areas, however, negative reactions from neighboring communities triggered separation of blacks and whites.”
Black enrollment in the CCC was capped at ten percent of total recruits–roughly equivalent to the proportion of blacks in the U.S. in 1930, but nowhere near proportional to the number of blacks eligible for relief during the Depression. Thousands were turned away.
Robert Fechner, director of the CCC, defended the quotas, extending Jim Crow to the new agency. “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.” It would be twenty years before the “separate by equal” doctrine would be overturned by the Supreme Court, in Brown v Board of Education.
In 2000, as part of an oral history project Willie O’Neal, an African American CCC enrollee in Florida, described segregation in the Corps as “just the norm of being black or white…that was just the way society was.”
The work completed by the black camps was at times particularly poignant. At Gettysburg Military Park, two black companies were assigned to refurbish Confederate and Union monuments to the fallen. Historian Joseph Speakman notes, “No one recorded the sentiments of the young black men, some of them possibly the grandchildren of…slaves, who had done this refurbishing work on behalf of Confederate veterans.”
Speakman, along with other historians, have argued that the CCC failed to live up to its original commitment. Indeed, the restriction on black involvement is often forgotten in New Deal history. Had the CCC stuck to DePriest’s intention perhaps we could measure the success of the CCC not only in trees planted or miles of road built, but in strides toward racial equality.