Friday, February 26, 2021

PA Parks & Forests Foundation: African-Americans In The Civilian Conservation Corps In PA

By Paul T. Fagley, Environmental Education Specialist,
Greenwood Furnace State Park

The following article first appeared in the PA Parks & Forests Foundation Spring newsletter--

The decade of the 1930s was one of hard economic times, and even more so for minority communities. One of the many New Deal programs was a way to ease some of this for young men. 
Unemployment for minority youth was among the worst, and there were few prospects for work.

At the same time, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, a conservationist, was concerned about the degradation of the environment from years of use and misuse. 

Roosevelt saw a solution in marrying these issues into what arguably became the most popular of the New Deal programs – the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). The idea - take unemployed youth and put them to work restoring the environment. 

Roosevelt announced his bold idea in his inaugural address in March of 1933.

It would take a massive effort to get the idea to fruition, let alone run it. In what is likely an unprecedented cooperation among government and private agencies, these competing interests came together, and from the announcement to when the first camp opened was a mere 40 DAYS!

The legislation creating the CCC forbid the discrimination of anyone based on “race, color or creed,” as argued by Congressman Oscar DePriest, an Illinois representative and the only Black member of Congress. 

However, this was in an era when discrimination in society in general was commonplace and, sadly, the CCC never fully lived up to that ideal.

For instance, enrollment of Black youth into the CCC capped at 10 percent, roughly equal to the Black population’s national percentage at the time. This was only minimally adjusted for population differences at the state level. 

Segregation was legal in the form of “separate but equal,” as defined in the Plessy vs. Ferguson Supreme Court decision of 1896. 

Though segregation was not policy initially, within two years political pressure forced the CCC to officially segregate enrollees. 

Many states placed additional roadblocks but, when looking at Pennsylvania, something interesting emerges. Our Commonwealth seemed to buck the trend, and worked to help Black enrollees as best they could, within the confines of both society and regulation.

Pennsylvania hit the ground running with the CCC program, thanks to then Governor Gifford Pinchot. 

As America’s first trained forester, he helped establish the U.S. Forest Service, and twice served as governor of Pennsylvania. 

Prepared, Pennsylvania had some of the first camps in the nation. Over the eight years of the CCC, Pennsylvania ranked second only to California in the number of camps, at 153. 

So, how many of these were Black camps? Traditionally, many sources cite the number of Afriacan American camps, at 12. This number seems very low based on the overall Black population of the state at the time. 

Further, this author and fellow CCC historian John Eastlake found well over 12 Black camps first Black supervisory officers and integrated units in the military during World War II.

What was the source of “12”? Most accounts simply stated this as fact. It turns out a letter dated in June of 1934, near the one-year anniversary of the program, included the number 12. 

This then represents only the camps formed in the first year of the CCC, not the total number of Black camps in the entire eight years of the program. 

(Crosschecking this number with research, I can only confirm 11 of the 12 camps. It would be interesting to examine this letter to see if it lists the camps. However, since it is housed in the State Archives, satisfaction of curiosity regarding this point must wait until COVID restrictions are lifted.)

As the CCC program got underway, dozens of camps were organized and opened within the first three months of the program. 

By the end of June 1933, there were eight Black camps. By the end of the year, another three were added for a total of 11 camps--two in the Allegheny National Forest, two at Gettysburg battlefield, one was an Army camp, and six were PA State Forest camps. As noted above, there is still one camp to be identified.

By the end of 1935, newspaper articles stated that Pennsylvania had the most number of Black camps, at 17, out of 250 nationwide. 

However, only one new camp would be established after 1935, in the fall of 1941, due to new regulations imposed on the CCC program. 

During 1935, reacting to political pressure, CCC director Robert Fetchner enforced several new regulations. One was that Black CCC members could only serve in their home state. 

Those enrollees that were out of state were ordered to return home and, depending on the state, were placed in existing units or summarily discharged. 

To compound this, no new units of Black enrollees were allowed.  New enrollees were only allowed to fill vacancies. 

After the rules changes in 1935, Pennsylvania took a different approach and attempted to place as many returning Black enrollees as possible. Three existing Black units were split in half, creating another three new companies, which were then filled to the full complement of 200 enrollees. 

Nationwide, no additional units were created after 1935, in part due to Congress continually decreasing the CCC’s budget and an overall contraction of the program. 

Over time, the number of companies dropped and by 1942, the final year of the CCC, it was a mere shadow of its beginnings. However, three Black units remained active until the very end of the CCC in Pennsylvania.

In total, there were 30 documented African American camps, a ratio of about 1 in 5, or 20 percent. These were occupied by 20 different companies, out of a total of 158, a 1 in 8 ratio. 

Pennsylvania’s total Black CCC enrollment was slightly higher than the state’s percentage of the Black population at the time, and exceeded 9 percent before the 1935 restrictions. (Pennsylvania’s “quota” would have been 8 percent.) 

While a larger percentage of Black men were under or unemployed, the caps left them unable to join the CCC.

The CCC, never intended to be a laboratory of social experimentation, in many ways laid the groundwork for integration. The CCC had integrated units before the U.S. military, and showed the latter that it could be accepted.

These integrated units were not by design, but a necessity due to enrollee numbers.

While a step, it is not to say that Black enrollees didn’t face racism and challenges that other recruits did not.

Similarly, in the beginning, all Black units had white officers, a rule imposed by the Army.

But over time, junior officers, education advisors, medical officers, and supervisors would be Black.

 In November of 1939, the first CCC company in America had all Black officers and supervisors. It was here in Pennsylvania, at one of the Gettysburg units.

Soon, a second company followed suit. Both proved successful, and paved the way for the first Black supervisory officers and integrated units in the military during World War II.

In the end, though gains were made for African-American youth, the CCC never fully lived up to its potential. It was, though, a pioneer in advancing civil rights, and helped lay the groundwork for that movement in the 1960s.

Click Here for a list of African American CCC camps in Pennsylvania (page 6).

[For more on the history of the CCC in Pennsylvania, visit DCNR’s Civilian Conservation Corps and the PA Conservation Heritage CCC webpages.]

For additional reading--

-- The Living New Deal: African Americans And The CCC

-- Forest Army - Blacks In The CCC

-- At Work in Penn’s Woods (The Civilian Conservation Corps in Pennsylvania) by Joseph M. Speakman

Points for Discussion--

1. The article provides an overview of one aspect of the Civilian Conservation Corps program and encourages deeper conversation.  Questions to explore include: What prejudices did the corps members encounter? How did this hinder their success? Why did Pennsylvania lead the nation in the number of camps? What might have been the emotional toll for those working at the Gettysburg Battlefield and other locations that interpreted the history of the Civil War or slavery?

2. If you or a member of your family served in the Civilian Conservation Corps in any of the camps listed on the following pages, we would welcome your stories and images to help tell the story of the Corps.

3. We welcome other ideas for untold stories. Please email us at

For more information on programs, initiatives, special events and how you can get involved, visit the PA Parks & Forests Foundation website.  Click Here to sign up for regular updates from the Foundation,  Like them on Facebook or Follow them on Twitter or tune in to their YouTube ChannelClick Here to become a member of the Foundation.

The Foundation and their 46 chapters mobilize 65,000 volunteers annually to steward YOUR state parks and forests.

(Photo: Penn-Roosevelt Camp, work crew. Photo by Greenwood Furnace State Park, Huntingdon County.)

(Reprinted from the Spring newsletter, PA Parks & Forests Foundation.  Click Here to sign up for your own copy.)

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[Posted: February 26, 2021]  PA Environment Digest

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