The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942:
A New Deal Case Study

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Chapter 5
The Selection of Negroes, 1933-1937

The act of March 31, 1933, which gave the CCC legal existence, contained the clause: "That in employing citizens for the purpose of this Act, no discrimination shall be made on account of race, color, and creed." [1] The intention was clearly to protect the rights of Negro citizens within the CCC organization, but these mere words did not insure them full benefits from the newly created agency.

Certainly the plight of the American Negroes was desperate. The depression had added further misery to their normal condition of chronic poverty. In 1933 Negro unemployment rates were double the national average, and more than two million Negroes were on relief, twice as many as there should have been in terms of national population figures. In Northern states Negro laborers found that the adage "first fired, last hired" rang bitterly true, while in the South the depression had erased even the structure of traditionally "Negro" jobs. White men now cleaned the streets in Atlanta or collected garbage in Memphis, and Negro deprivation was compounded. Federal relief schemes like the CCC were almost all that was left for them. [2]

Scarcely had selection begun, however, when reports from the South indicated that in that desperately poor region local selection agents were deliberately excluding Negroes from all CCC activities. Particularly deplorable were events in Georgia, which had a Negro population of 1,071,125 in 1930, or 36 per cent of the total state population. [3] On May 2, 1933, an Atlanta resident, W. H. Harris, protested to the secretary of labor that in Clarke County, Georgia, with a 60 per cent Negro population, no non-whites had yet been selected for CCC work. [4] Persons, director of CCC selection, immediately demanded an explanation from the Georgia state director of selection, John de la Perriere. The Georgia director blandly replied that all applications for CCC enrolment in Clarke County were "classed A, B and C. All colored applications fell into the classes B and C. The A class being the most needy, the selections were made from same." [5] Persons continued to insist that selections be made regardless of race, but reports trickling in from other Georgia counties indicated that de la Perriere was ignoring his orders. Jessie O. Thomas, secretary of the Atlanta branch of the National Urban League, complained on May 9 that in Washington County, Georgia, no Negroes were included in the first fifty men selected, although in that county too the population was more than 60 per cent Negro. [6] Persons was reluctant to take stronger measures at this time, however, stressing to Fechner the importance to the success of the CCC in the South of adjusting the matter locally "without any apparent intervention from Washington." [7] The extent of his action, then, was merely to write to de la Perriere and other Georgia officials demanding that they treat Negro applicants fairly.

On May 19 a long telegram from the widely respected Southern liberal, Will Alexander, director of the Committee on Interracial Co-operation in Atlanta and later head of the Farm Security Administration, spurred Persons into a more positive approach. Alexander claimed that local committees in Georgia were not registering Negroes, nor did they believe that the federal government was serious in directing them to do so. He contended that the men in charge of Georgia's relief measures were "rural politicians," devout adherents to the dogma of white supremacy, and as a result of their discrimination the Communists had been given a strong opportunity "for further agitation" in their drive for Negro support. Alexander pleaded for more decisive federal action. [8]

Upon receipt of the telegram, Persons immediately telephoned de la Perriere, who admitted that Negroes were not being selected, but denied that this was due to racial discrimination. Rather, he insisted that "at this time of the farming period in the State, it is vitally important that negroes remain in the counties for chopping cotton and for planting other produce. The negroes in this way are able to obtain work on the farms throughout the state." [9] Since this optimistic picture of full Negro employment did not coincide with figures on the state of Negro joblessness in Georgia, Persons asked de la Perriere for a definite commitment to increasing Negro enrolment. When this was not forthcoming, he called Governor Eugene Talmadge. At first Talmadge showed few signs of co-operating, but when Persons threatened to withhold Georgia quotas entirely unless Negroes were selected, the governor reluctantly agreed to "instruct Mr. de la Perriere" to proceed with their enrolment. [10]

The Selection Division had won its first battle, though not without further tribulations. Indeed, de la Perriere protested to Persons on June 1 that county committees believed that "there are few negro families who . . . need an income as great as $25 a month in cash," [11] hence their reluctance to enrol them. Nevertheless, Fechner was able to report to the President that Negroes were at last being enrolled in Georgia, though "not as many as the Department of Labor would like." [12] Persons, however, realized the basic weakness of his position. He knew that the attitudes of local communities in Georgia could not be revolutionized "by means of our own transitory contacts with the race problem in that state," and he was satisfied with what small gains he had made. [13]

Georgia was not the only Southern state to balk at the selection of Negroes on the same basis as white enrollees. The state director of Florida, John C. Huskisson, reported: "on the basis of merit, no negroes have yet been selected for the CCC." After Persons had applied pressure, Huskisson agreed to "lower his standards" enough to accommodate two hundred Negroes, though he refused to select them at the same depots as whites. [14] Similarly, after investigating an NAACP complaint of discrimination in Arkansas, Persons again threatened to withhold quotas. The state's indignant relief director, William A. Rooksbery, unequivocally denied the charge that no Negroes had been selected. No less than three had in fact been enrolled, he protested, but Persons was unimpressed, and told him so. The chastened state official promised to induct more within the following few weeks. [15] In Alabama, on the other hand, Persons won the co-operation of the state director of relief, Thad Holt, who was willing to select Negroes but found that some local councils were "trying to force" them not to enrol. Persons once more threatened to withhold quotas pending compliance with the law. [16]

Gradually, therefore, by combining pressure and persuasion, Persons was able to insist that Southern state directors enrol at least a token number of Negroes in their CCC quotas. By June 12, Georgia had selected 178 and Alabama 776. Mississippi, with a Negro population of more than 50 per cent, had the poorest record with forty-six, or only 1.7 per cent of the total enrolment; South Carolina, also with a Negro population of more than 50 per cent, had the best record of Negro enrolment with 36 per cent of the state's total. [17] The effort expended in effecting these modest returns, however, was an ominous preview of what was to follow throughout the country as the CCC tried to place its Negro enrollees in work camps.

It was never the policy of CCC officials to attempt to create a nationwide system of integrated camps. Given the custom of the era, to do so would have invited trouble. From the first, the mixing of the races was usually permitted only in those regions where Negro enrolment was so slight that no Negro company could be formed. Elsewhere, Negroes were usually assigned to all-Negro camps.

It was soon obvious that the success of Negro camps was conditional on winning the acquiescence of the local communities in their establishment. This was no easy task. No sooner had such camps been occupied than angry complaints began to flood Fechner's office insisting that they be filled with white enrollees or be removed. [18] In an effort to relieve local tension, Fechner quickly ruled that no Negro was to be transported outside his own state, and that all Negro campsites were to be selected by the state's governor, but even these moves had little effect in quelling local apprehension. [19]

The South was not alone in such agitation; rather, as Fechner once bitterly attested, "there was far less protest" on this matter from Southern communities than from other regions. [20] The director complained that "there is hardly a locality in this country that looks favorably, or even with indifference, on the location of a Negro CCC camp in their vicinity." [21] The reasons for the disinclination to accept Negro camps varied in detail from locality to locality but were similar in general trend. Residents feared the effect of a large body of Negroes on the social stability of their community. They anticipated great increases in drunkenness and other social vices, and, in particular, they feared for the safety of white women and children. The citizens of Thornhurst, in Lackawanna County, Pennsylvania, for example, hearing a rumor that a Negro CCC camp would be established in their area, petitioned Fechner "righteously and vigorously" for its removal. While "truly disavowing any prejudice against those people on account of race and color," the petition drew attention to the social danger of "isolating so great a number of unattached Negro males" in an area occupied "permanently and exclusively by white people." The petition added:

Many of these, especially unescorted women of various ages, are obliged . . . to travel by the site of these camps and along the highways thereabouts at all hours of the day and night. Among the families who live . . . at Thornhurst . . . are to be found scores of boys and girls just attaining youth and early womanhood who should not be exposed to dangers that are possible, if not indeed, probable. [22]

Similar protests came from most parts of the country. Residents of Washington, D.C., protested the establishment of a Negro camp near a residential area where "women are left alone." [23] In Ligonia, Indiana, according to a petitioner, "women were afraid to venture on the streets after nightfall," so frightened were they of the enrollees from a nearby Negro camp. These youths, he alleged, periodically "go on a rampage and they do not appear to be responsible to any of the officers of the camp on such occasions." [24] Citizens of Contra Costa County, California, noted that members of a Negro company there were frequently "in an intoxicated condition" and that the camp was "a menace to the peace and quiet of the community." [25] Fechner vainly insisted that there had not been "one single case where the conduct of Negro enrollees in the CCC camps had disturbed the peace and quiet of any community." [26] Negro camps were simply not welcome in most localities.

Almost all of the glimpses of moderation on the issue came, perhaps paradoxically, from some Southern communities, particularly in Alabama, where a well-rounded Negro CCC program developed by Governor Bibb Graves performed much useful work. [27] Arkansas citizens, too, accepted with equanimity many Negro camps. Residents of Laurens County, Georgia, considering themselves "above prejudice" in racial matters, successfully petitioned Fechner for the establishment of a Negro soil erosion camp in their vicinity. White citizens of Morton, Mississippi, declared that they had had no trouble with the two Negro camps in their district and predicted that if only the protesting communities could see the high standard of the work accomplished, they "would be glad to get them instead of some white camps." [28] But such isolated gestures could not balance the widespread hostility to Negro camps. Fechner himself never attempted to force communities to accept them. If protests showed no signs of abating, he usually removed the camps and either cancelled them or placed them on an Army reservation. He was "a Southerner by birth and raising," he said frequently, and "clearly understood the Negro problem." [29] He was reluctant, therefore, to force the issue.

At the same time that Fechner was being petitioned to remove Negro camps, other sources pressed for expanded Negro participation. The NAACP and similar Negro action groups were constantly complaining about discrimination in CCC selection, and, although not all their assertions were well founded, it was clear that Persons had not convinced most selection agents that Negroes should be given an equal chance to enrol. [30] Some appealed directly to the President. Alton Wright, superintendent of the Colored Rescue Mission, Inc., of Kansas City, protested to Roosevelt that "Negroes can't get into the CCC" and that "no-one seems to care." [31] In Delaware, where the state's potential Negro enrolment was insufficient to justify a separate Negro company, yet where racial feeling did not permit of integrated camps, no Negroes at all could be enrolled. When that state's outraged relief director sought redress, Fechner told her that the non-existence of CCC opportunity for Delaware's Negroes was a fact "she would have to accept." [32] "Just a Colored Mother" wondered "if war was declared, would they pick all the white boys first and leave the negro boys as the last called for service? This is what they do in the CCC." [33] An investigation by the Julius Rosenwald Fund brought the whole question of discrimination squarely to the director's attention. The fund found that "Negroes have not been placed in CCC jobs at anything like their proportion of the population, to say nothing of their greater need of employment as indicated by relief statistics." The fund's report asked Persons if he "could select 863 white juniors in the State of Florida, and only 18 Negro juniors without discrimination against Negroes." [34]

Negro complaints were not confined solely to matters of enrolment policy. The Administration had decided that Negroes would not be widely employed in Negro camps in any position of authority other than that of educational adviser, [35] a ruling predictably opposed by the leading Negro spokesmen. Fechner justified the policy on the grounds that the only way to get communities to accept Negro companies "was on the assurance that white supervisors would be in charge of the camps. Because of the practical difficulties of the situation it had not been felt desirable to extend the appointment of Negroes to include any large responsibilities." [36] Negro pressure groups carried their protests to the President, who decided in 1936 that a few Negro officers and supervisory personnel should be used in the camps. Some white groups, of course, bitterly opposed the extension of any responsibility in the camps to Negroes as "detrimental to the best interests" of the Corps and the country. [37]

In 1934 Fechner, in an attempt to unravel the tangled threads of the Negro problem, asked the War Department to undertake a full investigation of Negro enrolment and placement. The Army reported varying practices in each Corps area. In the New England states, for example, there were about 250 Negroes as signed to sixty-eight mainly white companies, and similar conditions prevailed in most other areas. Strict segregation was maintained in the South, but in all other regions, though segregated camps predominated, Negroes were attached to many white companies. Some had even been sent out of their home state, strictly contrary to Fechner's ruling. The Army realized that such a situation was not satisfactory, but recommended against change because the maintenance of strictly segregated camps in all Corps areas would only increase the number of Negro units and compound the problem of their placement. [38]

Fechner's response, however, was unequivocal. He ordered that all Negroes in camps outside their home states were to be repatriated as soon as possible, that they be replaced by white enrollees, and that strict segregation was to be maintained in all Corps areas. There was to be absolutely no latitude allowed. He claimed that only by maintaining rigid segregation would he check racial violence within the camps. Such violence, however, had been a negligible factor in the context of the whole problem. [39] What Fechner had done, in fact, was to exacerbate greatly his own difficulties by increasing the need for Negro campsites without doing anything to lessen the prejudice in local areas against their establishment. His policy on placement would therefore have to be firmer or else Negro enrolment would surely have to be curtailed. It is hard to understand why he made this decision, so contrary to Army advice, unless he was strongly influenced by personal beliefs and prejudices. A Southerner himself, his absorption of the social mores of that region may have been so complete that he preferred not to act as head of an organization which permitted even the smallest amount of racial intermingling.

The Army report also confirmed what reports from the field had long indicated: in defiance of the provisions of the CCC Act and Persons' repeated instructions, local authorities were using a definite quota system in the selection of Negro enrollees. Negroes were chosen in most areas only as vacancies occurred in Negro camps. Furthermore, this quota system had been established with the direct cognizance and encouragement of area and district military authorities. Several state selection agents reported to Persons that Army authorities had refused to accept Negro selectees because they had "no vacancies for colored men," [40] and actually had notified selection agents how many, if any, Negro enrollees were required from each particular district. [41]

To Persons, such policies blatantly contravened both the spirit and letter of the CCC legislation. He strongly emphasized to the Advisory Council that "the Department of Labor is responsible for the enforcement and observance of the law. The law definitely states that there must be no discrimination, and it [the Department] cannot be put in the position of discriminating against the negro race. We have been placed in an intolerable position." [42] In his dealings with state directors, Persons was insistent that they adhere rigidly to the Labor Department's position. To the Missouri state director, Wallace Crossley, he wrote: "Arbitrary colored quotas are not to be established by the selecting agencies, nor are limitations amounting to discrimination to be placed in the way of qualified applicants voluntarily desiring the privilege of enrollment." [43] To a New Jersey official, he demanded that all Negro eligibles be accommodated, even if it meant camp reorganization. [44]

The basic fault lay not entirely in the local area, however, as the Missouri selection director recognized when he retorted to Persons that he would enrol more Negroes when his state got more Negro camps. [45] By insisting on the dual policy of rigid segregation and confinement to the home state, Fechner had closed the two safety valves selection agents could use, while his reluctance to override local protests in placing Negro camps put definite limits on their expansion. Given these restrictions, state directors were forced to use a quota system, in spite of Persons' strong protests. Fechner himself was leaning more and more toward authorizing a definite restriction of Negro enrolment as the easiest solution to the problem. He told the Advisory Council: "I think we can easily defend and justify a policy of making replacements in accordance with the color of the vacancy existing. The practical thing is to maintain the organization we've got. Every time we make a change, it constantly brings up more friction." [46] Against such a tendency, Persons' fight to uphold the intent of the original act was of little consequence. Fechner now needed only an incident of sufficient importance to enable him to establish his policy of curtailing Negro enrolment on a national basis.

The chance came in July, 1935, when there was serious unrest among white communities in California, Arkansas, and especially Texas at the proposed establishment of new Negro camps as part of the general plan of CCC expansion. To Senator Joseph Robinson, Fechner admitted that he was "completely at a loss to know what I can do in handling these protests. The local welfare boards select the Negroes, and under the law we are compelled to take them. Something should be done to regulate the number of Negroes who are selected." [47] "Something should be done," he had written, and immediately he resolved to do it. He accordingly instructed Persons to stop all colored enrolment in Texas on the grounds that there were no more camps for Negroes there. Incensed, Persons refused to do so. He considered the director's request to be "a direct violation of the law," especially because

the CCC has never adequately fulfilled its opportunities for the selection of colored enrollees. For us now to expressly deny the right of selection to such men when there are eligible and qualified applications available and when state quotas cannot be filled would be an indefensible procedure. [48]

Fechner was not at all swayed by these protests. After Persons' refusal to order the curtailment of Negro enrolment, he put the whole position before the President. Roosevelt termed the situation "political dynamite" and decided to approve Fechner's policy, though he asked that his name "be not drawn into the discussion." [49] Since Persons still refused to issue the required instructions, however, Fechner was forced to do so himself. [50] In his announcement that henceforth Negroes would be selected only as vacancies became available in already established Negro companies, he indicated that the policy had the President's approval. The order applied not only to Texas but to the entire country. [51]

The Selection Division, though objecting bitterly, was forced to acquiesce in the new policy. Dean Snyder angrily reminded the Advisory Council that the decision was clearly "a violation of the basic Act," but the council, unmoved, upheld the director. [52] Persons made no further attempt to investigate alleged instances of racial discrimination. He had lost his fight, and he now turned all such matters over to Fechner rather than deal with them himself according to a policy personally repugnant to him. Fechner, courteous but definite, had no interest in reopening the question. He insisted that he was sorry that he could not "accept every person who wanted to enroll in a CCC camp," but, he added, this was not possible. [53] That the "degree of impossibility" varied according to the color of the applicant's skin was conveniently overlooked. Though the problem of the Negro enrollee had not been solved and was to return sharply into focus when increasing white reemployment made the arbitrary racial distinction even more inequitable, Fechner had at least secured some respite from the constant irritation of locating Negro camps and dealing with white protests. That, perhaps, he had also shrugged off some of his responsibilities as director seemed to him only a minor quibble.

The outcome of the controversy over Negro enrolment is an obvious blot on the record of the CCC. The Negro never gained the measure of relief from the agency's activities to which his economic privation entitled him. The clause in the basic act prohibiting discrimination was honored far more in the breach than in the observance. Much of the blame for the curtailment of Negro enrolment must, of course, lie firmly with the director. His Southern attitudes influenced his approach to Negro policy. Unwilling to permit integrated camps or to allow the Negro the latitude of interstate travel permitted to white enrollees, and only too ready to heed the demands for removing Negro camps, he made little attempt to extend to Negroes the fullest benefits of CCC life. Further, the ambivalence of the War Department on the issue and the willingness of Army authorities to go along with local protests in order to preserve an organizational equilibrium helped to prompt Fechner into making his decision. Though no one expected the Army to be an active agent in promoting social revolution, its equivocation is nevertheless an additional factor in explaining the shabby side of the CCC's treatment of Negroes. Moreover, to place a quasi-fascist like General Moseley in command of the Fourth Corps Area, which included most of the South, indicated at best a lack of tact, at worst a contempt for Negro sensitivities and aspirations.

Neither Fechner nor the War Department, however, can be held entirely culpable. President Roosevelt himself made no attempt to insure fairer treatment for Negroes, and he acquiesced in the restriction of their enrolment. Much of the responsibility must also lie with the local communities, Northern and Southern, which refused to accept Negro CCC camps. Without community good will, some curtailment of Negro selection was probably inevitable, even if Fechner and the Army had adopted a stronger line. Negroes could be enrolled only to the extent that there were camps in which to place them; therefore, in a sense, by restricting their selection, Fechner was merely reflecting a strong section of prevailing white opinion.

It is true, too, that the director was not running the camps to further the cause of American race relations, but to reduce unemployment and accomplish useful conservation work. However desirable, the fullest employment of Negroes was only a matter of subsidiary concern to him and not worth constant irritation and worry. It should be remembered that only 10 per cent of the United States population was Negro, and though their economic state was indeed parlous, there were plenty of white youths whose position was little better. Fechner owed an obligation to them as well; his main concern was to run the CCC as smoothly as possible. A public outcry every time he tried to place a Negro camp was hardly good for public relations, nor did constant bickering with selection agents make for efficient selection policies. Viewed in this light, his decision appears perhaps more easily understood.

Besides, the CCC in its nine-year life span enrolled about 2,500,000 men. Almost 200,000 of these were Negroes. [54] Though their economic state certainly warranted better treatment, the Corps did provide relief for a considerable number. In so doing, it fed many of them better than ever before, provided them with living conditions far superior to their home environments, and gave them valuable academic and vocational training. About 87 per cent of all Negro enrollees participated in the education program, learning a variety of skills particularly suited to their own job opportunities. Some left the Corps to become gardeners, poultry farmers, or cooks; more were placed by Corps officials as janitors, table waiters, or chauffeurs. "Negro jobs" they may have been, but in an era when any employment was prized, training for such fields represented the best practical approach to the problem. [55]

To look at the place of the Negro in the CCC purely from the viewpoint of opportunities missed, or ideals compromised, is to neglect much of the positive achievement. The CCC opened up new vistas for most Negro enrollees. Certainly, they remained in the Corps far longer than white youths. [56] As one Negro wrote: "as a job and an experience for a man who has no work, I can heartily recommend it." [57] In short, the CCC, despite its obvious failures, did fulfil at least some of its obligations toward unemployed American Negro youth.


The Civilian Conservation Corps, 1933-1942: A New Deal Case Study
salmond/chap5.htm — 03-Jan-2008

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