I recently read “The 1930s” a book that gave an insightful look at the country during The Great Depression. Many books I have read about the 1930s get bogged down in the politics of the time. I wanted to find out more about the decade after watching a documentary on “Riding the Rails”. These two combinations of information provoked a deeper interest in wondering what people were doing who weren’t sharecropping across the country.
Statistically farmlands were hit with disasters by the dust bowls that started and ranged through the 1929- 1939 period. So many people took to the railways across country looking for work, and food.
I was surprised to find out that over 500,000 youth were riding the rails during the 1930s. Many of the white youth left home due to the fact that their families could not take care of them. Many of them gave accounts of terrible abuse at home with their families. There is a book that costs about $243 on Amazon that gives a detailed account of the youth who left home, “Boys and Girl Tramps of American” published in 1934 by Thomas Minehan. It is no longer in publication, so it’s very pricey. He disguised himself as a hobo and traveled across the country. I didn’t know there were even such situations as boxcar prostitutes. But apparently there were. He interviewed many youth and told their stories in the book. It’s a must read.
Roosevelt in his efforts to help with the loss of work, food, and life during this time set up the CCC – Civilian Conservation Corps. The CCC was a work program with work camps for young men between the ages of 17-28. The camps ran from 1933 – 1942 with over three million men passing through.
My husband Ramon, however worked on a modern-day version of the CCC in 1982 in DC. He shared his experience with me of working on landscapes in Rock Creek Park. He said he really enjoyed his experience. I worked in the CETA program in 1979. More another day about that experience. I played in the CETA jazz band.
The young men in the CCC worked throughout the country. Many of the parks, recreation facilities, landscapes, bridges, and major outdoor monuments were built by them. Till this day those projects are still major staples in America’s outdoor parks across the country. The camps were run by the military for a short time. The CCC was funded by the government to give work to young men and relief to their families. The young men earned about $30 a month. $25 was sent back home to their families. The camps were successful in giving youth an alternative to life on the rails and roads. The young men contributed to the protection, conservation and development of the environment and its resources. They built monuments, planted trees, worked on dams, helped fight forest fires, and developed new parks. They built and improved parks and recreation areas, picnic areas, constructed roads, built towers, and strung telephone and electric wires.
Traveling on the rails was a hard life. For Blacks it was even worse, and dangerous. The Scottsboro Boys is a good example of that. Nine young Black men were riding the rails looking for work. Two white females claimed they gang-raped them. The young men faced many years of prison, suicide, and poverty trying to fight the case. It all began with the rails. Their account is one of greatest trials in history revealing the injustice of America.
My curiosity peaked even more. So did Black men have the option of going to the CCC Camps? The answer is yes. They were segregated. In America’s hardest hit decade, racism still took charge. Many of the programs set up excluded or segregated Blacks from the main sources. The Black young men who did not ride the rails did find relief at the CCC camps for them. There were about 502,000 young men in the CCC in 2,514 camps. The bulk of the CCC were 250,000 Blacks in 150 camps. Native Americas served in camps run by their tribal councils. The treatment for Blacks was worse than it was for Whites. Especially down South. The mob mentality raised up against Blacks who worked in predominantly White areas. Jim Crow laws again sanctioned the mistreatment of Blacks in the CCC. Protests from the NAACP were not heard due to the fact that Roosevelt’s New Deal did nothing to end the racist policies institutionalized in the American framework.
The CCC did a lot for putting to work young men in America during its hardest times. You have probably driven by a park, bridges, or road that has lasted, since it was built by those young hands in the 1930’s. It is programs like the CCC that did not necessarily do away with The Great Depression, but that lifted the spirits of those who were struggling to survive. Below is a letter I copied on file with NDN by Luther Wandall. He was a Black man who worked on the CCC. It was published in August 1935. I will keep researching to find out more about the CCC and African Americans!
- A Negro in the CCC
- By Luther C. Wandall
- 42 (August 1935): 244, 253-254.
- The author is a New Yorker and gives here a first hand picture of CCC life
During the two years of its previous existence I had heard many conflicting reports concerning the Civilian Conservation Corps, President Roosevelt’s pet project. One boy told me that he almost froze to death one night out in Washington. Some said that the colored got all the leftovers. Others said that everything was all right. But my brother, who is a World War veteran, advised me emphatically: “I wouldn’t be in anything connected with the Army.”
So it was with some apprehension that I surveyed the postal card instructing me to see Miss A. at the Home Relief Bureau the following Friday. At this Bureau I signed a paper, of which I kept two copies, and the Bureau one. This paper asserted that I was “accepted for enrollment,” and should report the following Monday “to U. S. Army authorities for further registration.”
One thing I saw at the Bureau increased my apprehension. So many of the boys who appeared in answer to cards were excused because they had been “dishonorably discharged” in a previous enlistment. It was impossible to tell whether they were disappointed or not, but they were not always discreditable-looking persons.
According to instructions, I went Monday morning at 8 o’clock to Pier I, North River. There were, I suppose, more than 1,000 boys standing about the pier. And here I got another shock. Many of the boys carried suitcases. I had not been instructed that we would leave that day. But still, I reasoned, we would be given time to go home and tell our folks goodbye.
The colored boys were a goodly sprinkling of the whole. A few middle-aged men were in evidence. These, it turned out, were going as cooks. A good many Spaniards and Italians were about. A good-natured, lively, crowd, typical of New York.
At eight o’clock we were rapidly admitted to the pier, given papers and herded into the warehouse, out on the water. And here the “fun” began. A few boys were being admitted from time to time to a lower platform through a small gate in the center. And of course, everyone in that mob was anxious to get there.
At first there was a semblance of order. The men in charge of us formed us into companies of fifty as we came up. But suddenly a U. S. Army officer in full uniform entered the door. A mighty roar went tip from the boys, who surged forward, evidently thinking that they could follow him. But the officer, a tall handsome fellow, moving with easy grace, completely ignored them, and passed on through.
With some effort we were finally forced back into a so-called line. But a newspaper photographer appeared. The line broke again, and after that confusion reigned for the most part.
There were no seats where we were. So I stood about until two o’clock before I finally got through that little gate. We answered questions, and signed papers, and then a group of us marched over to U. S. Army headquarters on Whitehall Street in charge of an Army officer.
Here we stripped for a complete physical examination. Then we were grouped into busloads. Each busload of 35 ate a meal at South Ferry before boarding the bus. This meal consisted of beans, pickles, bread, coffee and butter, and was eaten out of Army mess-kits.
So there I was, on a bus bound for Camp Dix, New Jersey, without having prepared or told anyone goodbye. Our bus was comfortable, and equipped with a radio, so the ride was a very enjoyable one.
Jim Crow at Camp Dix
We reached Camp Dix about 7:30 that evening. As we rolled up in front of headquarters an officer came out to the bus and told us: “You will double-time as you leave this bus, remove your hat when you hit the door, and when you are asked questions, answer ‘Yes, sir,’ and ‘No, sir.'”
And here it was that Mr. James Crow first definitely put in his appearance. When my record was taken at Pier I, a “C” was placed on it. When the busloads were made up at Whitehall street an officer reported as follows: “35, 8 colored.” But until now there had been no distinction made.
But before we left the bus the officer shouted emphatically: “Colored boys fall out in the rear. The colored from several buses were herded together, and stood in line until after the white boys had been registered and taken to their tents. This seemed to be the established order of procedure at Camp Dix.
This separation of the colored from the whites was completely and rigidly maintained at this camp. One Puerto Rican, who was darker than I, and who preferred to be with the colored, was regarded as pitifully uninformed by the officers.
While we stood in line there, as well as afterwards, I was interested to observe these officers. They were contradictory, and by no means simple or uniform in type. Many of them were southerners, how many I could not tell. Out of their official character they were usually courteous, kindly, refined, and even intimate. They offered extra money to any of us who could sing or dance. On the other hand, some were vicious and ill-tempered, and apparently restrained only by fear.
Southerners at West Point! Emotional, aristocratic, with refined features and soft blue eyes. And paradoxically they choose the Army for a career. Slaves to traditions and fetishes….
We were finally led away to our tents. And such tents! They were the worst in Camp Dix. Old, patched, without floors or electric lights. It was dark already, so we went to bed immediately, by candlelight. And since it was cold, we slept in most, and in some cases all, of our clothes.
The bedding was quite ample: four blankets, two sheets, and a pillowcase. But Camp Dix is a cold place, and the condition of our tents didn’t help. Then, too, it was raining.
Next day we rose at 6:15; There was roll call and “mess.” A few minutes later we were shocked to see snow falling, on April 16! The boys built a fire, so we were able to keep somewhat warm. Then there was another questionnaire, and more papers to sign.
By now only one thought occupied my mind: When do I leave this place? I understood that Camp Dix was only a replacement camp, and that we would be leaving, probably within a week. So you can imagine my feelings when an officer, a small quiet fellow, obviously a southerner, asked me how I would like to stay in Camp Dix permanently as his clerk! This officer was very courteous, and seemed to be used to colored people, and liked them. I declined his offer.
We slept six in a tent. And right here I might attempt to describe the class of young men I found myself with. Two things surprised me: that out of the whole crowd, I had known not one in New York, and that almost without exception they were of a very low order of culture. Such low ideals. Of course 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.
That same day we got another complete physical examination, two vaccinations and one “shot.” They were for typhoid fever, parathyroid and smallpox.
The following day, which was a Wednesday, we got our first clothes, a complete outfit. They were Army clothes, and fitted as well as could be expected. That afternoon we worked. I was on a truck hauling lumber. The next two days we sampled several different kinds of work, none of it very hard. We also heard a very edifying health lecture, chiefly on venereal diseases.
Food at Camp Dix was poor in quality and variety, and barely sufficient in quantity. A typical breakfast: boiled eggs, corn flakes, milk, bread, coffee, butter. Lunch: frankfurters, sauerkraut, potatoes, gravy, bread, apple-butter, coffee. Dinner: bologna, applesauce, potato salad, bread, coffee, cake.
We stayed at Camp Dix eight days. We were never told officially where we were going. Just before we boarded the train we were split into two companies. I was placed in Company Y.
The Ride was quite enjoyable. On through Jersey, with the sun setting like a ball of fire on golden Delaware. Maryland, with night falling like a shroud.
We were taken to permanent camp on a site rich in Colonial and Revolutionary history, in the upper South. This camp was a dream compared with Camp Dix. There plenty to eat, and we slept in barracks instead of tents. An excellent recreation hall, playground, and other facilities.
I am still in this camp. At the “rec” we have a radio, a piano, a store called a “canteen,” a rack of the leading New York papers, white and colored, as well as some from elsewhere. There is a little library with a variety of books and magazines. All sports are encouraged. We have a baseball team, boxing squad etc. An orchestra has been formed, and classes in various arts and crafts.
Colored People Unfriendly
In fact, the setup is quite ideal. The rest is left with the officers and the men. But the final result leaves much to be desired. Things are not always run efficiently, food is often poorly cooked.
During the first week we did no work outside camp, but only hiked, drilled, and exercised. Since then we have worked five days a week, eight hours a day. Our bosses are local men, southerners, but on the whole I have found nothing to complain of. The work varies, but is always healthy, outdoor labor. As the saying goes, it’s a great life, if only you don’t weaken!
There are colored people living on farms on all sides of this camp. But they are not very friendly toward CCC boys in general, and toward the northerners in particular. (There are four companies here: two of southerners, one of veterans, and our own.) So that, socially, the place is “beat.”
Our officers, who, of course, are white, are a captain, a first lieutenant, a doctor, and several sergeants. Our athletic director is colored, as is our vocational teacher. Discipline is maintained by imposing extra duty and fines on offenders. The fines are taken only from the $5 a month which the men receive directly.
On the whole, I was gratified rather than disappointed with the CCC. I had expected the worst. Of course it reflects, to some extent, all the practices and prejudices of the U. S. Army. But as a job and an experience, for a man who has no work, I can heartily recommend it.