Blog post by Randi Richardson
By the time the Civilian Conservation Corps program ended in 1942, some three million men, including more than 63,000 Hoosiers had worked in more than 2,000 camps throughout the 48 states and the U. S. possessions of Alaska, Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands. There were 56 CCC companies in the State of Indiana. Workers constructed the camps they lived in. Each camp had approximately 200 male workers in racially segregated accommodations. Eight of those 256 camps were for African Americans.
Indiana’s first CCC camp was established in the Morgan-Monroe State Forest in northwest Monroe County about 1933. It was identified as Co. 542 and consisted of young men of color. Despite the fact that racial discrimination in the CCC was initially prohibited, by 1935 people of color lived and worked in segregated camps managed by white leaders. Because space in CCC programs for people of color was limited to ten present of those recruited, those accepted considered themselves especially fortunate. Of the 3,000,000 men enrolled in CCC camps, only about a quarter of a million were African-American.
Members were paid $1/day and sent $25 per month home to support their families. They worked in forests around Bloomington, likely in both the Morgan-Monroe and Yellowwood, reducing fire hazards (most likely clearing brush) on 775 acres, clearing 100 miles of roadsides, fighting forest fires, improving forest stands, building truck trails, erecting dwellings and other structures and clearing a 10-acre campground.
Men in the CCC worked from eight to five, Monday through Friday and were granted six days of leave between enrollment periods. They enrolled for a period of six months and could then choose whether or not to reenlist for another six months eventually serving up to two years. On the weekends, buses took members to Bloomington or Columbus since the nearby village of Nashville did not welcome blacks.
It wasn’t all work for members of the CCC, however. Young men also learned valuable trade skills and attended classes on a variety of topics including mechanical drawing, typing, foreign languages and art. It is estimated that some 57,000 illiterate men learned to read and write in CCC camps.
On June 19, 1935, the Indianapolis (IN) Recorder published news of a baccalaureate service held for members of Company 542 who received certificates for meriting satisfactory grades in academic courses. The event was said to be well attended by visitors. That same article noted that a dance “in the form of a class prom” was held in the camp recreation hall, the company baseball team played its first game with a French Lick independent team, and the “minstrel show and jug band” of Company 542 entertained in Martinsville where they were “heartily received.” On September 28, 1935, the Recorder indicated that Bennie Mason, a middleweight fighter of Co. 542, fought six rounds with “Tiger” Williams of Bloomington, Indiana.
Some 25 or 30 members of Company 542 visited the Silver Slipper Night Club in Terre Haute late on Friday, July 26, 1935. Felton Lyles, Bob Jones, Paul Webb and James Bolton, the only four known members of Company 542, were among the party goers. They arrived on a “great big cattle truck,” “hot, dry and thirsty” to join a big crowd gathered at the nightclub to see female impersonators.”
It seems likely that Company 542 either disbanded or relocated sometime in late summer or early fall 1935. The Ellettsville (IN) Farm on September 19, 1935, reported that unofficial news had been received indicating that the “negro CCC camp north of Dolan” may be moved by October 1, although camp members were heavily engaged in soil erosion work and many farmers had applied for soil erosion aid from the government to be done by CCC members. Online efforts to locate the Company 542 after 1935 have not been successful.
As noted earlier, information about particular CCC companies, including the one in Monroe County, is quite sketchy. Little is available at the Monroe County History Center or the Monroe County Public Library. Much of the information about Company 542 is from The Life and Times of Felrath Hines: From Dark to Light written by Rachel Berenson Perry, former curator of the Indiana State Museum. Hines, a native of Indianapolis and a professional artist, was the first African American man to become a professional conservator for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery in Washington, D. C. Berenson’s book details the life of the artist and his work. Soon after his graduation, Hines was enrolled in Company 542.
For more information about the CCC specific to Indiana, view the library holdings of the Wells Library at IU—Bloomington, the Indiana State Library and the Indiana Historical Society.
- Rachel Berenson Perry, The Life and Art of Felrath Hines: From Dark to Light (Bloomington IN: IU Press, 2019) pp. 41-45.
- James H. Madison and Lee Ann Sandweiss, Hoosiers and the American Story (Indianapolis IN: Indiana Historical Society Press, 2014), p. 242 caption.
- “Just the Way Society Was: Segregation in the CCC,” The Living New Deal, https://livingnewdeal.org/tag/racial-segregation-in-the-ccc/.
- Civilian Conservation Corps, https://www.history.com/topics/great-depression/civilian-conservation-corps
- Indianapolis (IN) Recorder, July 27, 1935, p. 13.