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News / Northwest

How racism reshaped the Civilian Conservation Corps

The New Deal program that rebuilt Washington parks is remembered as boldly progressive. But early attempts to rid it of discrimination unraveled.

By Sam Wotipka, Crosscut
Published: April 9, 2023, 5:46am

On a Thursday morning in late May of 1934, Washington State Parks Superintendent William G. Weigle drove from his Seattle office to Millersylvania State Park in Thurston County, about 14 miles south of Olympia. It was the day after Memorial Day, which had seen a grand parade downtown that featured aging Civil War veterans who rode through the streets on floats.

Memories of the conflict may have been fading by this point, but even decades after the defeat of the Confederacy ended legal slavery, Black Americans continued to experience pervasive racism. This was true both legally – through Jim Crow laws in the South and other forms of state-sponsored segregation in the North – and in racist attitudes that persisted, even among self-proclaimed progressives.

Washington, despite being far from the Civil War battlefields and having aligned with the Union before gaining statehood, was no exception.

Weigle appeared to carry those attitudes with him into Millersylvania State Park, where he was dismayed to find dozens of young Black men. “Although they appear to be above the average in intelligence,” he wrote in a memo afterwards, “it is unfortunate that we must have them at any park.”

The Black men in question were not picnickers or campers. In fact, a recreational gathering of that many African Americans at Millersylvania would have been virtually unthinkable at that time – the 1930 census had recorded only 32 African Americans living in all of Thurston County, where the park is located.

Rather, the men were Weigle’s own employees, members of Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) Company 1232. They had been brought in to help develop the swampy, forested lands along Deep Lake, which had been donated to the agency a decade earlier, into a modern recreational paradise. They had been at the park for one week.

Later that morning, during a previously scheduled meeting, the State Parks Committee discussed Weigle’s findings. The Committee, the relatively new agency’s governing body at that time, was made up of three high-level state government cabinet members: Ernest N. Hutchinson, the Secretary of State; A.C. Martin, the Commissioner of Public Lands; and Otto A. Case, the State Treasurer.

Hutchinson and Martin formulated a plan to address the “negro situation,” as they deemed it. A letter would be written to Martin Smith, a Democrat representing Washington’s 3rd congressional district, where Millersylvania was located, “asking him that [the Black CCC workers] be placed where they would not come in contact with people visiting the parks.”

The committee then wrote a separate letter to the state’s five other congressional representatives to call their attention to the letter written to Mr. Smith. Meanwhile, the camp superintendent agreed to develop a separate bathing beach for the Black enrollees and noted that “effort would be made to segregate them as much as possible.”

Similar events played out across the United States in the months following the establishment of the CCC and the deployment of thousands of work camps filled with young, unemployed men to every corner of the country.

Successive generations of American progressives have looked to the New Deal as inspiration for how the powers of government can be harnessed to tackle vast social and environmental problems. The CCC, popularly remembered as “Roosevelt’s Tree Army,” enjoys a particularly lofty status. In addition to addressing unemployment, it is credited with creating a model for national service utilized by later programs like the Peace Corps and AmeriCorps, and helped establish countless national and state parks.

But in recent decades, historians have chipped away at the New Deal’s progressive legacy, pointing to overt policies of discrimination and segregation. Despite early efforts to guard against unfair treatment of its participants, the CCC faltered in this regard as well. Events in two of Washington’s state parks – pieced together from limited surviving state and national documentation of their development – reveal how the progressive aims that guided the CCC’s approach to matters of race early on soon came undone.

A fast response

By any measure, the CCC came together rapidly. Elected president at the height of the Great Depression, Democrat Franklin Delano Roosevelt took immediate action to address mass unemployment. About 25% of the labor force was out of work.

On March 9, 1933, five days after his inauguration, Roosevelt outlined a plan to employ 500,000 young men in conservation work. Twelve days later, a final draft of the bill for “The Relief of Unemployment Through the Performance of Useful Public Work and for other Purposes” was presented to the U.S. Senate and House. Roosevelt requested a fast response.

Congress had not been consulted on the bill and it generated contentious reactions on both sides of the aisle, but especially from organized labor, which objected to the paltry $30 monthly wage and the proposed role of the Army in the recruitment of enrollees and supervision of the camps – an arrangement that drew comparisons to the fascism of Hitler’s Germany. Though greatly outnumbered, Republicans also voiced strong opposition to giving the federal government the power to set such low wages.

To ensure a speedy vote and provide a degree of political cover for Congress, the Senate struck the controversial provisions from the bill and amended it to simply give the president the authority to enact the program as he saw fit “under such rules and regulations as he may prescribe, and by utilizing such existing departments or agencies as he may designate.”

This change proved sufficient to ensure the legislation’s passage. Roosevelt signed the bill on March 31 and established the CCC by executive order on April 5, 1933.

The program took shape much as Roosevelt had originally envisioned. The CCC would be administered through cooperation among four agencies: The Department of Labor was responsible for recruiting and selecting enrollees, specified as single men between the ages of 18 and 25, especially those whose families were receiving welfare.

The Army was initially charged with transporting, feeding and clothing the young men, the last of which they did using surplus World War I uniforms. (Their role soon expanded to constructing and operating the camps, as had been feared by some critics of Roosevelt’s initial proposal.) The Department of Agriculture and the Department of Interior were responsible for selecting the camp locations and projects and supervising the work.

There would be up to 200 enrollees per camp serving for six months at a time. They would be paid $30 per month, with $25 of their wages being sent to their families if they were receiving public assistance. In addition to vocational instruction gained on the job, enrollees would have the opportunity to receive formal education (many had dropped out of school to help feed their families). Roosevelt said that he wanted 250,000 men enrolled by summer.

The Democratic leadership of the Senate and House had emphasized the emergency nature of the measure throughout the legislative process, and sought to minimize amendments as they guided it toward passage. However, Oscar DePriest, a Republican from Illinois and the only Black representative in Congress, managed to add language stipulating the program be implemented without discrimination “on account of race, color, or creed.” This clause would prove impactful, although it was enforced unevenly at best.

It would fall to Robert Fechner, a Tennessee-born labor leader whom Roosevelt picked to head the CCC, to implement Representative DePriest’s amendment.

Fechner’s solution was simply to allocate 10 percent of the available placements to African Americans, a figure that matched their percentage within the overall population. This approach ignored the fact that the unemployment rate for African Americans was nearly double the national average.

Further complicating matters was the delegation of enrollee recruitment to state and local government officials, an action deemed necessary to meet Roosevelt’s ambitious enrollment targets. Particularly in Southern states, local selection agents actively excluded African Americans from the program.

In Georgia, for instance, where they made up 36 percent of the population, not a single African American applicant was accepted in the first months of the CCC’s operation. Florida also initially failed to enroll any non-White applicants, “on the basis of merit,” according to its state director. Eventually, the threat from federal CCC administrators to withhold funding managed to convince Southern officials to begin enrolling African Americans, although still at numbers far lower than their share of the population.

At the outset, most African American CCC enrollees were placed in segregated companies. This was not an official policy, but it reflected common practice at the time. However, in some Northern states, African American enrollment was so low that full 200-man companies could not be formed, necessitating the creation of integrated companies. At least two of these companies were sent to state parks in Washington.

Parks in need

In 1933, when the CCC was established, Washington’s 20-year-old state park system was in disarray. After the formation of the State Parks Committee in 1913, the agency had experienced a period of tremendous expansion, growing from a mere 31 acres in 1919 to nearly 10,000 acres spread across 27 properties by 1929.

Governor Roland Hartley, a Republican elected in 1925, had presided over much of this growth. In the spring of 1929, he brought the progress to a resounding halt by vetoing the agency’s entire budget. This decision was not about economics – the national unemployment rate was barely over 3 percent and the Great Depression wouldn’t begin until August. Rather, it was philosophical.

“These parks were set aside in order to preserve some of the natural beauty spots untouched by civilization and the greed of man,” he argued. “They were never intended for tourist camps and amusement parks.”

On April 1, Washington’s state park system shut down. Hartley vetoed the entire state parks budget again in 1931. By that point, unemployment was approaching 16% and America was spiraling into the Great Depression.

The 1932 general election brought a new governor to Washington, along with the transformative change taking hold on the national stage. In February 1933, governor Clarence Martin, a Democrat, restored the state parks budget, and substantial aid from the federal government soon followed.

With the restoration of its budget, the State Parks Committee moved quickly to hire a new superintendent to manage the agency. Weigle, a career Forest Service official who was then supervisor of Snoqualmie National Forest, was selected for the role.

The agency had spent the past four years without any paid employees, but Roosevelt’s CCC gambit changed that. By the end of June, Weigle had more than 1,000 enrollees and camp supervisors at work in five parks. In two years’ time, 12 camps had been established at 11 parks.

The impact of the corps

The CCC was a comparatively small program within Roosevelt’s massive New Deal. Its effect on America’s public lands, however, was immense and lasting – especially in the West, where the majority of federal land was located and several states were making efforts to start or expand their own park systems.

The work of the CCC in Washington extended far beyond the state park system. As was the case nationally, the majority of camps were located in national forests, where enrollees fought fires, planted trees and constructed amenities for visitors and staff. More than half a dozen camps operated at Mount Rainier National Park, employing more than 1,000 young men at peak periods.

Enrollees greatly expanded the popular park’s trails, campgrounds and day-use areas; built the iconic Chinook Entrance Arch; and added a village of rustic staff residences at Longmire that are still used today. Similar work occurred at Olympic National Park, including construction of the park’s administrative office in Port Angeles. The CCC’s impact on Washington’s state park system cannot be overstated.

Even before Gov. Hartley’s veto years, Washington’s state parks had limited facilities of varying quality. Many parks functioned like rest stops for motorists taking advantage of the state’s rapidly expanding highway system. Without modern roads, parking areas and campgrounds, visitors would simply drive their cars onto open lawns and beaches and set up camp. This caused significant resource degradation.

The projects undertaken by the CCC brought organization and professionalism to the state park system. Each camp was overseen by staff from the National Park Service (NPS), who helped plan the developments and instituted the agency’s signature “rustic” design approach, which required that park improvements blend in with their surroundings and utilize local materials like stone and logs.

Amenities were clustered to minimize impact to the natural environment and specifically designed to meet the needs of two distinct user groups: overnight automobile campers and day-use visitors. Trails and roads were built to connect different areas of the parks. Construction work was led by local craftsmen who guided enrollees in skills like masonry, blacksmithing and carpentry.

The resulting structures – kitchen shelters, picnic tables, drinking fountains, restrooms, caretaker’s residences and bridges among them – are instantly recognizable for their distinct design aesthetic.

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In addition to the CCC, other New Deal public works programs geared toward unemployed adults, such as the Public Works Administration (PWA) and the short-lived Civil Works Administration (CWA), helped develop more than a dozen state parks, including Sacajawea State Park near Pasco and Schafer State Park north of Elma.

After nine years, when the New Deal work relief programs were sunsetted, they had collectively transformed Washington’s state park system into one of the nation’s finest, with thoughtfully designed amenities capable of handling the state’s swelling population.

An integrated company

On May 24, 1934, 84 new CCC enrollees from New York and New Jersey arrived at Millersylvania State Park where Company 1232 had been stationed for the past year. Among them were 51 African Americans, whose arrival effectively doubled Thurston County’s Black population. About a month earlier, 28 African Americans from Illinois had joined Company 1633 in Doty, a small logging town in the Willapa Valley, to work at Rainbow Falls State Park.

Little is known about the activities and experiences of the Black enrollees at these camps. They barely register in the scarce reports and memos that remain from this era of the agency’s development.

Surviving documents indicate these workers were assigned to work in the kitchen at Millersylvania and were segregated from the other enrollees, who were out working on construction projects in the park and learning important vocational skills from the local craftsmen employed to supervise the work.

No Black enrollees appear in the dozens of photographs taken by the NPS that year documenting the progress the company made building roads, bridges, trails, picnic shelters, a caretaker’s cabin and floats for a bathing beach on Deep Lake, which the Black enrollees would be prohibited from using.

Yet other photographs, and a 1986 interview recorded with a former supervisor at the Rainbow Falls camp, suggest that white and Black enrollees there worked side by side, although the barracks were segregated.

“We got along pretty well with them,” said Joe Mackovich, a woodsman from Pe Ell who oversaw bridge construction at the park. “All our fellows were from Chicago, and when they’d come they’d bring them in by train at that time, and they would weigh them and some of them would weigh maybe 105 to 110 pounds. And in six months’ time you wouldn’t believe it – a lot of them weighed 165-170 pounds.”

Weight gain was a common experience for enrollees across the country and a testament to the level of destitution during the Great Depression. A central focus of the CCC was “building men,” a phrase meant both literally and figuratively.

Mackovich describes supervising mixed crews on brush-clearing projects and teaching them to sharpen axes. “I would lay out so much work – then you can goof off for the rest of the day. And boy I’ll tell you, they would really work.”

An apparent point of friction between Mackovich and the Black enrollees he supervised was his habit of referring to them by their skin color. “You had to call them by their name,” he recalled. “They were very touchy on that subject.”

The letter the State Parks Committee reportedly sent to Representative Smith requesting that Black CCC workers at Millersylvania be kept away from park visitors may have had the intended effect. After completion of their first six-month term of service, the Black enrollees at Millersylvania were sent back to Camp Dix, a United States Army post in New Jersey used as a CCC training and logistics center, for reassignment. It appears the Rainbow Falls contingent exited at this time as well.

The October 19, 1934 issue of the Millersylvania Grapevine, the camp’s enrollee-published newsletter, offered a cheerful, albeit patronizing, farewell message to the so-called “Cotton Club” under the heading Bon Voyage.

“It is seldom that a ‘mixed’ company of whites and negros gets along together as this company did during their stay here,” the writers declare. The Black enrollees are lauded for their talents – both social and athletic – and for their work on the kitchen crew; that this posting was intended to keep them out of public view goes unsaid.

Particular praise is given for the enrollees’ obedience, a common point of emphasis in the Army-run camps. “By their respect for this order of things the colored boys won the respect of everyone in camp.”

The conflict over integrated CCC companies within Washington’s state parks mirrored events taking place nationally. In the first months of the CCC’s operation, as both the segregated camps and a handful of integrated camps were dispatched across the country, complaints from local officials and citizens soon poured in.

Fechner quickly bent to the pressure. “Whether we like it or not, we cannot close our eyes to the fact that there are communities and States that do not want and will not accept a Negro Civilian Conservation Corps company,” he wrote in a letter to an Ohio Senator. “This is particularly true in localities that have a negligible Negro population.”

In 1934, Fechner issued a directive that no Black enrollees could serve outside their home state and that any currently doing so be promptly sent back for reassignment, an order that likely triggered the return of the Black enrollees at Millersylvania and Rainbow Falls. He then mandated a formal policy of segregation.

The newly formed all-Black companies were sent to remote locations far from urban centers, many of them in remote Forest Service lands or national parks like Glacier and Mammoth Caves. None appear to have been sent to Washington.

These measures drew vocal condemnation from civil rights organizations, who pointed to the language prohibiting discrimination in the legislation that established the CCC. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People complained directly to Roosevelt, and Fechner was instructed to respond.

In a letter to the organization’s president, Fechner replied that “segregation is not discrimination” and further that “enrollees themselves prefer to be in companies composed exclusively of their own race.” He did not mention the fact that the decision had been a capitulation to the prejudices of local communities, and Roosevelt declined to intervene. Approximately 250,000 African Americans ultimately served in the CCC.

Off the record

In the mid-1980s, Washington State Parks interpretive staff began an effort to capture the stories and ephemera of aging CCC members who had served in Washington’s state parks and other sites across the state and nation. It was a tremendous undertaking that yielded a vast collection of photographs, documents and artifacts donated by ex-enrollees and CCC alumni organizations across America. At least 35 interviews with CCC participants were recorded, resulting in more than 100 hours of tape.

The culmination of this work was the 1989 grand opening of the Civilian Conservation Corps Interpretive Center at Deception Pass State Park, timed to coincide with the Washington State Centennial. A handful of enthusiastic ex-enrollees, then in their 70s and 80s, assisted with the construction work needed to convert a CCC-built bathhouse at Bowman Bay into a museum that tells the story of the CCC’s accomplishments in Washington and across the United States.

The State Parks staff who conducted the interviews were aware that Black enrollees had served at Millersylvania and Rainbow Falls, but had little documentation to go on. They asked about the subject when interviewing enrollees and supervisors from those camps.

Aside from Mackovich, the supervisor at Rainbow Falls, the only other participant with direct knowledge of the integrated camps was Art Roundtree, who had been an educational adviser at Millersylvania and another camp nearby in Elma.

Roundtree, only 29 when he took on the role, taught the vocational classes that were common to all CCC camps and maintained a library of donated books for enrollees to check out. Some of them were only then learning to read and write. During the taping, when the topic of African American enrollees comes up, Roundtree starts to respond before catching himself. “Our company commander, well, this isn’t – you got the tape on?”

“Yeah,” the interviewer replies. “You want me to turn the tape off?”

“Yeah.”

When the tape resumes, the conversation has turned to something else.

Crosscut is a service of Cascade Public Media, a nonprofit, public media organization. Visit crosscut.com/donate to support nonprofit, freely distributed, local journalism.
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