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By Luther C. Wandall
Crisis 42 (August 1935): 244, 253-254.
During the two years of its previous existence I had heard many conflicting reports concerning the Civilian Conservation Corps, President Roosevelt's pet project. One boy told me that he almost froze to death one night out in Washington. Some said that the colored got all the leftovers. Others said that everything was all right. But my brother, who is a World War veteran, advised me emphatically: "I wouldn't be in anything connected with the Army."
So it was with some apprehension that I surveyed the postal card instructing me to see Miss A. at the Home Relief Bureau the following Friday. At this Bureau I signed a paper, of which I kept two copies, and the Bureau one. This paper asserted that I was "accepted for enrollment," and should report the following Monday "to U. S. Army authorities for further registration."
One thing I saw at the Bureau increased my apprehension. So many of the boys who appeared in answer to cards were excused because they had been "dishonorably discharged" in a previous enlistment. It was impossible to tell whether they were disappointed or not, but they were not always discreditable-looking persons.
According to instructions, I went Monday morning at 8 o'clock to Pier I, North River. There were, I suppose, more than 1,000 boys standing about the pier. And here I got another shock. Many of the boys carried suitcases. I had not been instructed that we would leave that day. But still, I reasoned, we would be given time to go home and tell our folks goodbye.
The colored boys were a goodly sprinkling of the whole. A few middle-aged men were in evidence. These, it turned out, were going as cooks. A good many Spaniards and Italians were about. A good-natured, lively, crowd, typical of New York.
At eight o'clock we were rapidly admitted to the pier, given papers and herded into the warehouse, out on the water. And here the "fun" began. A few boys were being admitted from time to time to a lower platform through a small gate in the center. And of course, everyone in that mob was anxious to get there.
At first there was a semblance of order. The men in charge of us formed us into companies of fifty as we came up. But suddenly a U. S. Army officer in full uniform entered the door. A mighty roar went tip from the boys, who surged forward, evidently thinking that they could follow him. But the officer, a tall handsome fellow, moving with easy grace, completely ignored them, and passed on through.
There were no seats where we were. So I stood about until two o'clock before I finally got through that little gate. We answered questions, and signed papers, and then a group of us marched over to U. S. Army headquarters on Whitehall Street in charge of an Army officer.
Here we stripped for a complete physical examination. Then we were grouped into busloads. Each busload of 35 ate a meal at South Ferry before boarding the bus. This meal consisted of beans, pickles, bread, coffee and butter, and was eaten out of Army mess-kits.
Jim Crow at Camp Dix
We reached Camp Dix about 7:30 that evening. As we rolled up in front of headquarters an officer came out to the bus and told us: "You will double-time as you leave this bus, remove your hat when you hit the door, and when you are asked questions, answer 'Yes, sir,' and 'No, sir.'"
And here it was that Mr. James Crow first definitely put in his appearance. When my record was taken at Pier I, a "C" was placed on it. When the busloads were made up at Whitehall street an officer reported as follows: "35, 8 colored." But until now there had been no distinction made.
But before we left the bus the officer shouted emphatically: "Colored boys fall out in the rear. The colored from several buses were herded together, and stood in line until after the white boys had been registered and taken to their tents. This seemed to be the established order of procedure at Camp Dix.
This separation of the colored from the whites was completely and rigidly maintained at this camp. One Puerto Rican, who was darker than I, and who preferred to be with the colored, was regarded as pitifully uninformed by the officers.
While we stood in line there, as well as afterwards, I was interested to observe these officers. They were contradictory, and by no means simple or uniform in type. Many of them were southerners, how many I could not tell. Out of their official character they were usually courteous, kindly, refined, and even intimate. They offered extra money to any of us who could sing or dance. On the other hand, some were vicious and ill-tempered, and apparently restrained only by fear.
We were finally led away to our tents. And such tents! They were the worst in Camp Dix. Old, patched, without floors or electric lights. It was dark already, so we went to bed immediately, by candlelight. And since it was cold, we slept in most, and in some cases all, of our clothes.
Next day we rose at 6:15; There was roll call and "mess." A few minutes later we were shocked to see snow falling, on April 16! The boys built a fire, so we were able to keep somewhat warm. Then there was another questionnaire, and more papers to sign.
By now only one thought occupied my mind: When do I leave this place? I understood that Camp Dix was only a replacement camp, and that we would be leaving, probably within a week. So you can imagine my feelings when an officer, a small quiet fellow, obviously a southerner, asked me how I would like to stay in Camp Dix permanently as his clerk! This officer was very courteous, and seemed to be used to colored people, and liked them. I declined his offer.
We slept six in a tent. And right here I might attempt to describe the class of young men I found myself with. Two things surprised me: that out of the whole crowd, I had known not one in New York, and that almost without exception they were of a very low order of culture. Such low ideals. Of course many were plainly ignorant and underprivileged, while others were really criminal. They cursed with every breath, stole everything they could lay hands on, and fought over their food, or over nothing at all.
The following day, which was a Wednesday, we got our first clothes, a complete outfit. They were Army clothes, and fitted as well as could be expected. That afternoon we worked. I was on a truck hauling lumber. The next two days we sampled several different kinds of work, none of it very hard. We also heard a very edifying health lecture, chiefly on venereal diseases.
Food at Camp Dix was poor in quality and variety, and barely sufficient in quantity. A typical breakfast: boiled eggs, corn flakes, milk, bread, coffee, butter. Lunch: frankfurters, sauerkraut, potatoes, gravy, bread, apple-butter, coffee. Dinner: bologna, applesauce, potato salad, bread, coffee, cake.
We were taken to permanent camp on a site rich in Colonial and Revolutionary history, in the upper South. This camp was a dream compared with Camp Dix. There plenty to eat, and we slept in barracks instead of tents. An excellent recreation hall, playground, and other facilities.
I am still in this camp. At the "rec" we have a radio, a piano, a store called a "canteen," a rack of the leading New York papers, white and colored, as well as some from elsewhere. There is a little library with a variety of books and magazines. All sports are encouraged. We have a baseball team, boxing squad etc. An orchestra has been formed, and classes in various arts and crafts.
Colored People Unfriendly
During the first week we did no work outside camp, but only hiked, drilled, and exercised. Since then we have worked five days a week, eight hours a day. Our bosses are local men, southerners, but on the whole I have found nothing to complain of. The work varies, but is always healthy, outdoor labor. As the saying goes, it's a great life, if only you don't weaken!
There are colored people living on farms on all sides of this camp. But they are not very friendly toward CCC boys in general, and toward the northerners in particular. (There are four companies here: two of southerners, one of veterans, and our own.) So that, socially, the place is "beat."
Our officers, who, of course, are white, are a captain, a first lieutenant, a doctor, and several sergeants. Our athletic director is colored, as is our vocational teacher. Discipline is maintained by imposing extra duty and fines on offenders. The fines are taken only from the $5 a month which the men receive directly.
On the whole, I was gratified rather than disappointed with the CCC. I had expected the worst. Of course it reflects, to some extent, all the practices and prejudices of the U. S. Army. But as a job and an experience, for a man who has no work, I can heartily recommend it.
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