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A Black New Yorker Describes Life in a CCC Camp

Luther C. Wandall, an African American from New York City, wrote the following account of life in a segregated Civilian Conservation Corps camp for Crisis, the magazine of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Wandall tells about his first encounter with "Mr. James Crow" (Jim Crow) and offers a candid report of his experiences as an enrollee. While the legislation that established the CCC required that the corps accept men regardless of race, the program was administered at the state level, resulting in widespread segregation. African-American corpsmen confronted racial prejudice and hostility both within the CCC camps and from nearby white communities.

During the two years of its previous existence I had heard many conflicting reports concerning the Civilian Conservation Corps, President Roosevelt's pet project....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 was "accepted for enrollment," and should report the following Monday "to U. S. Army authorities for further registration".... 

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.

We reached Camp Dix about 7:30 that evening....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....

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.... 

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....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. 

...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....

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.

Source | Luther C. Wandall, "A Negro in the CCC," Crisis 42 (August 1935): 244, 253-54; from the New Deal Network, "African Americans in the Civilian Conservation Corps," http://newdeal.feri.org/aaccc/index.htm.
Creator | Luther C. Wandall
Item Type | Article/Essay
Cite This document | Luther C. Wandall, “A Black New Yorker Describes Life in a CCC Camp,” HERB: Resources for Teachers, accessed November 20, 2019, https://herb.ashp.cuny.edu/items/show/520.

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