ANN ARBOR—The University of Michigan Bentley Historical Library has recently acquired 30 rare photos from two African-American Civilian Conservation Corps camps in West Michigan during the Great Depression: the Bitely and Free Soil camps.
The 30 photos include an unidentified man holding a shovel, two men standing in a field dressed for work, a portrait of a young man in his CCC uniform, and many more. Some photos have dates associated with them ranging from 1933 to 1939; others have snippets of names such as "Big Jim" and possibly a scrawl that could read "Garfield." But who these men are and what, specifically, their work was at camp largely remains a mystery.
"This history has been overlooked, and I immediately understood this collection was significant," said Mike Smith, the Johanna Meijer Magoon Principal Archivist at the Bentley, who acquired the collection on behalf of the library. "These are the only known photos of all-African-American CCC camps in Michigan, but we need help filling in the details."
African-American men were some of the most adversely affected workers during the Depression. Discriminatory hiring was common, and demand for African-American labor plummeted in the tight job market, according to a 2009 Congressional report.
To cope with massive unemployment, President Franklin Roosevelt launched New Deal initiatives in 1933, creating the Civilian Conservation Corps, which gave jobs to men ages 18 to 25 whose families were in need. This included African-American men, whose membership was capped at 10 percent of overall CCC membership. Of the 2.5 million men who enrolled in the CCC, almost 200,000 were African-American.
Initially, CCC camps were integrated, but by 1935, CCC Director Robert Fechner had segregated them. In Michigan, for example, out of more than 150 camps, about 16 were designated C or "Colored."
Little is known about the men who served in these Michigan camps—including most of their names, or how the camp leadership, which was likely white, treated them.