The Emergency Conservation Work Act of 1933 mandated that the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) recruit unemployed young men from urban areas to perform conservation work throughout the nation’s forests, parks, and fields.  One of several prongs in the New Deal’s attack on economic stagnation, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “Tree Army”  developed park lands and reduced fire risk in forests across the United States.   Working for the CCC typically brought urban enrollees into sparsely populated areas of stunning natural beauty. 

The CCC unleashed the talents of landscape architects to establish the infrastructure of the state and national park systems.  These designers used native materials in natural settings to create the “park rustic” style that continues to define today’s park landscapes.  As federal and state parks carved out a cherished role in American life during the second half of the 20th century, the CCC became increasingly associated with the jewels they shaped and the style they forged. 

Often lost in the story of the CCC’s architectural legacy, however, is the societal context that shaped and defined the nature of public relief programs and the public’s perception of those programs..  This section features two articles that help place one of the New Deal’s more enduring initiatives in context.  In the 1930s, America was a segregated society, and the CCC reflected that unfortunate state. 

Olen Cole, Jr. explores the CCC’s uneven record on race and the experience of young African-American enrollees in the segregated CCC camps of California in “African-American Youth in the Program of the Civilian Conservation Corps in California, 1933-1942: An Ambivalent Legacy.” Cole highlights the diversity of work assigned to African-American companies .  Often relegated to routine labor tasks, the companies were also associated with several large scale fire repression projects, creating telephone links, and building recreation facilities across California.  Lastly, Cole’s interviews with former African-American enrollees reveal the often mixed regard enrollees held for the long-term value of the training they were provided in the CCC.  But just as their white counterparts in the CCC tend to confirm, the experience proved life-changing as well.  Many former enrollees describe how they matured by working with different kinds of people across a diverse landscape.

Neil M. Maher’sA New Deal Body Politic: Landscape, Labor, and the Civilian Conservation Corps” traces the unique connection between a changing landscape, the transforming bodies and minds of urban young men, and the politics of the New Deal.  Like Cole’s work, Maher emphasizes the maturation of enrollees, both literally as their malnourished bodies transformed, and mentally as the young men celebrated a renewed sense of “masculinity.”  Most interesting perhaps are Maher’s conclusions about the long-term political consequences of the program.  Before the CCC the progressive ideals that lay at the heart of the New deal, and the conservation ethic that came to define the environmental movement in the United States, were limited to the educated and elite.  Maher asserts that the CCC was instrumental in the transfer of those ideals to the uneducated, the immigrant, and the jobless, forever changing not just how the landscape was preserved, but who preserved the landscape.

Article Title: “African-American Youth in the Program of the Civilian Conservation Corps in California, 1933-42: An Ambivalent Legacy,” by Olen Cole, Jr. Author has provided permission to use this article. Download Article PDF

Olen Cole, Jr. is Professor of History and Chairperson of the History Department at North Carolina A&T State University and is the author of The African-American Experience in the Civilian Conservation Corps (Gainesville: University Press Florida, 1999).
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Article Title: “A New Deal Body Politic: Landscape, Labor, and the Civilian Conservation Corps,” by Neil M. Maher. Author has provided permission to use this article.  Download Article PDF

Neil M. Maher is an Associate Professor of History, New Jersey Institute of Technology and is the author of Nature’s New Deal: The Civilian Conservation Corps and the Roots of the American Environmental Movement  (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007)
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