African History

Photos Resurrect Story Of Black Work Camps During the Great Depression

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DETROIT (AP) — A striking, sepia-toned picture recently acquired by the University of Michigan jumps out from the past. It begs to inform a story: a person wearing a necessary coat and hat is as significant because the cabin door whose knob he’s getting to turn and enter.

The picture is labeled “Big Jim.”

The rare photo is among 30 acquired by the Bentley Historical Library last year from a personal donor that capture an area and time often overlooked by history: black Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Michigan et al. during the good Depression. The photos are the sole known images of the state’s segregated, all-black camps. President Roosevelt established the corps within the early 1930s, offering shelter, clothing, food, and wages to a “vast army” of unemployed men who worked to conserve and restore national resources.

As the people and stories behind the photographs are increasingly lost to time, the university posted them online and launched a public involve information. So far, Big Jim’s story is that the just one that’s been filled in, because of people that knew him and responded: He was James Richardson, a quiet, healthy, hard-working rural Michigan farmer who served in war I and went on to hitch the CCC.

For the archivists, it represents delayed but welcome recognition for the contributions of workers who faced discrimination and marginalization during a dark economic era.

“What I liked about the images is that they show that these young guys were doing work on parks, trails, call at the woods — way faraway from their homes,” said Morris Thomas, who as a toddler knew Richardson and identified him for Michigan researchers after seeing his image during a state history magazine. “It is some things unique; there aren’t that a lot of photos available.”

Eighty-five years after the Civilian Conservation Corps’ creation, any cache of this type may be a boon to historians. Photographs from designated black camps are far less common than from white fields. Thomas, now 75, says his family also had photos of an uncle who worked during a black camp but laments, “Now we can’t find them.”

Despite the legacy of segregation, the photos and stories they conjure reveal elements of unexpected egalitarianism and advancement.



“That was an incredible thing for black people,” said Thomas’ cousin Frank Thomas, who as a boy often hung out with Richardson and neighborhood friends. “There were no jobs for black people at that point, only menial jobs. All those guys got an opportunity to … show people, they will work and may do anything anybody else can do.”

CCC camps initially were integrated, consistent with the university, but became segregated by 1935 amid community protests. Out of Michigan’s roughly 150 fields, some 16 were designated for black men. Black membership was capped at 10 percent of the general corps, which numbered around 3 million throughout the program.

The Michigan History Center says the state’s black camps helped build a ski area and contributed to efforts to plant many trees, fight forest fires, construct bridges and buildings, and establish public campgrounds.

“The CCC camps did tremendous things to raised the community for both black and white race ,” Frank Thomas said. “Put in playgrounds, all that stuff.”

Joan Sharpe, president of the Civilian Conservation Corps Legacy, said the segregation within the camps reflected U.S. society at the time. Still, she added, that doesn’t erase the opportunities it provided for people of all races.

“The guys I’ve talked to that were within the CCC camps that were black were very grateful … to possess access to education, access to vocational education, find out how to get stone, build roads — things they might not have had before,” said Sharpe, whose group serves and supports CCC alumni.

“I need to check out it from their perspective,” she added. “Their story and station in life would be very different than us looking back thereon and saying, ‘Oh, how awful.'”

After leaving the CCC, Richardson continued his hard-working ways, consistent with Thomas and his cousin. He attended his 40-acre (16-hectare) farm in Manistee County and did odd jobs like cutting logs and hauling pulpwood to a factory. Local legend has it that he once lifted a Model A for somebody with a flat and once attached a plow to himself to require over for a stubborn horse. He died in 1959 at age 65.

Frank Thomas, 79, believes “Big Jim” served “as an enormous ambassador for black people,” and may still be for people that see his picture and listen to his story.

“You’d consider a person that size he would be aggressive, but I never heard tell or saw any indication of that,” he said. “That goes a great distance in race relations and community relations.”


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