The Forgotten Black Conservationists: Civilian Conservation Corps

Recently the Fam Tribe and I went to Oklahoma for a day trip to Murray Lake State Park. The trip wasn't exactly planned, but we had heard amazing things about the park and became increasingly excited about a future trip after googling images of the park and the spring-fed lake. Upon arrival, we decided to visit the Nature Center and hike up to Tucker Tower. This encounter was the first time I had heard of Tucker Tower and the men that built the remarkable park and its many amenities. A lot of the literature suggests that hundreds of men helped build Murray Lake State Park by carving the rocks of the Murray Lake dam, clearing forests to build roads and trails and picnic tables. However, it wasn't these details that caught my attention. What really caught my attention was an image of the group of young men responsible for the construction of this remarkable landmark. They were known as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and they lived and worked at the park during the great depression. The main goal of the CCC was to restore a sense of purpose and faith in these men by providing work, access to nature, proper diets, and spiritual nourishment. It was evident, that even then, the benefits of nature were eminent, especially during one of our country's greatest economic disasters.

The image below was hung proudly on the second floor of the Tucker Tower. At first glance, I didn't notice the small group of Black men off to the side, segregated from the larger group of their white counterparts. Once I noticed them, I immediately wanted to know their stories. Who were these Black conservationists that the Tucker Tower hardly mentioned aside from this one photo?

Throughout the rest of the Tower, displays were set up accentuating the work that many of these men did, but ALL of these displays showed only white men. No Black men were ever displayed anywhere beyond the picture that hung, now menacingly, on the wall. Where was their glory? Where was their story? Why was there no mention of the racist practices in the museum's displays and pamphlet? It was as if their story had been deleted from Tucker Tower's history and the only bit of evidence that remained was this single image. To make matters worse, due to racial segregation in the 1930s African Americans weren't even allowed to utilize most of the recreational facilities within the park though African Americans helped to build the park. Of the 3 campsites at the park, group site 3 was the only location opened to African Americans, and it was located on the far southeast quadrant of the park, far from the other 2 "white-only" campsites.

After doing some heavy research, I was able to uncover a bit of information related to the CCC's treatment of its minority workers. Though the law made racial discrimination illegal, nearly all of the CCC camps were segregated. Some literature mentioned that African American men were discouraged or "prevented" from enlisting. Many southern states, such as Georgia, failed to recruit any eligible Black workers until they were threatened by the Labor Department to address the issue or face financial withholdings. Despite Georgia finally complying, the cap for enlisting African Americans was set to 10%. Even after serving, Black corpsmen faced several issues finding jobs to accommodate their new skill sets. Public land jobs requiring forestry or conservation skills did not hire Black men, and they were often overlooked during these types of employment opportunities.

Across the country, more than 200,000 African American men were recruited and paid $1 a day for their services. Of these 200,000 corpsmen, aside from the few working at Tucker Tower, many were housed in rural or secluded locations far from the public to avoid "community outcry" or displeasure. These all Black camps had only white supervisors due to growing concerns from communities that felt that housing large groups of Black men might be dangerous. Black corpsmen were rarely given supervisory roles or promoted. There was no room for growth or advancement.

Though the effort was made to ensure that Black corpsmen were placed in different camps, this wasn't always possible. Black corpsmen serving in majority-white camps, such as those I saw in the image at Tucker Tower, were subjected to harsher and more aggressive treatment while serving. They were often forced to the end of the food line, given the worst sleeping quarters and equipment, and called racial slurs and names. Black corpsmen put into integrated camps often served as cooks and weren't given priority jobs or special projects.

Despite the treatment and uncertainty of joining the CCC, African Americans played an essential role in conservation efforts across the country. Their stories are rarely told or shared in museums or books related to the construction of most of the nation's greatest parks. This lack of credit is still prominent in conservation work today. Disparities in access to conservation opportunities amongst Black conservationists is still a pressing issue plaguing the natural world. Though this blog only briefly highlights the CCC's dark and hidden secrets related to the Black conservationists that helped to preserve natural landmarks, I [and many others] refuse to allow their stories to stay buried.

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