Race Relations as described in the Civilian Public Service Program Camp Summaries
The CPS experience brought together a broad range of young men from different races, classes and religious groups. Race relations became a significant issue for many Civilian Public Service workers, particularly for those who served in communities where racial discrimination and race-based violence were supported by local white power structures. The following excerpts from camp descriptions provide a window into how CPS workers and camp administrators struggled with race relations in the context of the 1940’s.
For more background on the camp life of each camp, click on the CPS camp number.
In July 1942 the men at CPS Camp No. 21 at Cascade Locks protested the order to have George Kiyoshi Yamada discharged from CPS so that he might be assigned to a Japanese internment camp. Selective Service and the War Relocation Authority agreed to allow Yamada to transfer to an inland camp and in late July 1942 he moved to CPS Camp No. 5 in Colorado Springs where he worked on the dishwashing crew. In his three years at Colorado Springs, he participated in a Congress of Racial Equality civil rights project to racially integrate the theaters in town. Yamada spent eight days in the El Paso County jail.
Magnolia campers knew that not all in the area surrounding this camp in the South appreciated having COs in their midst. They had experienced unfavorable reactions while working in the fields or when in town. The project superintendent also cautioned the men about customs of address in the South. Particularly, he advised that men would not be appreciated for addressing Blacks as Mr. or Mrs.
Forest Service Camp
The diversity of the COs at Kane created opportunities to learn from fellow campers and their experiences. The men held different views about government, religion, social and economic issues, so that both the formal and informal educational programs encouraged growth in social awareness and increased sensitivity to the views of others.
One Brethren CPS educational publication cited Kane as a camp providing examples of informal opportunities for growth in social awareness and increased understanding of social and economic issues.
There was a ripple of excitement when we first received Negro enrollees. But the fact that these Negroes have won their way into the hearts of all is worth more than hours and hours of formal discussion and bull sessions about how to overcome the evils of race discrimination.
Similarly with the presence of parolees in the camp. In this case there were different convictions from the rank and file of the camp; had different views about government, religion and the like. Living together has been of great educational value. (Bulletin on Non-Formal Education from May 25, 1943 in Eisan p. 162)
Living and working in Mulberry introduced the majority of men to what they termed as “the race problem”, and on the whole the camp community sought “a Christian solution”. Articles in the camp newspaper, exchanges between African-American educators and preachers and CPS assignees, set the stage for a conference on interracial cooperation, held May 19-20, 1945.
In February 1946, a group from the Mulberry unit visited the historically black Bethune-Cookman College where nearly twenty CPS men met with faculty and engaged in a full range of activities including a baseball game with students, attendance at African-American Sunday-school classes, preaching services, and a communion service. At an interracial vesper service, the college president explained the CPS program and a camper addressed the gathering.
Edwin Alderfer faced racial prejudice in the unit. “Volleyball was a large part of the unit’s recreation and we played teams from ‘citrus worker patches’ where we were placing privies. We were advised by the Health Department officials that we should discontinue this play. I did not make any protest or say anything about justice but agreed we would not continue to play teams made up of Afro-Americans.” (“Detour . . . Main Highway”: Our CPS Stories pp. 79-80)
Public Health Unit
Committed to racial equality, the Orlando men occasionally ran into conflict with local norms of white supremacy as they tested Jim Crow laws. In May 1944, Orlando men gave a party honoring the graduating class of an African-American high school, and within two weeks, county commissioners asked for withdrawal of the unit. The officials of the public health project prevailed on the commissioners to allow the work to continue; the commissioners agreed as long as those who remained would refrain from all future “interference in the racial issue”. (Sibley and Jacob p. 159)
While five men asked for a transfer after this incident, the rest of the men also very concerned about segregation in the South, were convinced that effective action to address inequality could be taken only by those acquainted with both the experience and perspective of Southern whites and African-Americans. They realized that would require the gradual process of education. This would mean observing the color line when working with white southerners to advance the physical welfare of African-Americans and offering encouragement to self-help enterprises such as co-operative stores and credit unions.
Some of the group felt that the continuation of the public health project would benefit the African-Americans more than would the withdrawal of the unit since staying afforded the opportunity for action without strong emotional community reactions. The Assistant Executive Director of Friends CPS, Louis Schneider, interpreted to the State Health Department and local government officials the religious belief in “the brotherhood of mankind to overcome prejudices and antagonisms”.
Finally officials agreed to “reaffirm their confidence in the good judgment of the unit concerning inter-racial activities and relationships”. They required no rigid agreement for the men to refrain from interracial action. They also intended to cancel requests for transfer by four men. The four persisted to leave, however, but the rest stayed on to exercise their commitment to racial equality through a gradualist approach.
Even so, the continued local hostility did contribute to the move of the unit to Gainesville, Florida. (Goossen).
The August 5, 1944 issue of The Cultural Rag included an invitation from the Race Study Group to join them on a trip to Griffin Park, Negro USHA public housing project. Director James R. Walker would be giving a tour and holding a round table discussion. Griffin Park, designed for low income families would ask families earning over $1600 with three minor children to leave. (p. 1)
Philadelphia State Hospital
Some COs at Byberry helped form a CPS union. They addressed a number of issues, including employment of African Americans as attendants. Superintendant Zeller was favorable toward introducing “colored employees into the wards” as part of a CPS unit, but not as regular attendants due to prevailing attitudes among regular employees. COs anticipated the kinds of issues they would need to address should an African American be assigned to the unit, in their commitment to help that person do a good job as attendant. CO Warren Sawyer wrote that the first black CO arrived at the mental hospital in February 1945. When interviewed in 2007, he did not recall any problems or incidents. (Taylor p. 100-01)
Powellville community leaders, at the time the camp was opening, learned that the men from Patapsco included a black CO, and warned CPS officials not to transfer the man. The rest of the men told the American Friends Service Committee that they would not go to Powellville on those conditions. At the request of the black CO, the AFSC transferred him to a detached service training school unit Cheltenham, Maryland before the camp made the move. (Goossen p. 40).
Cheltenham School for Boys,
The majority of the CPS men served as cottage masters while others served as cook, accountant, psychologist, intake workers, case workers, social workers, recreation worker, night hospital attendant, and a night watchman.
The staff had been mostly white until Superintendent Thomas arrived. He was able to change the mix to sixty percent African American. He had promoted racial equality within the activities of the school board, which included both black and white members who had been segregated previously for dining, meetings and other board activities.
While there, the CPS men integrated the dining room for black staff and one CPS man lived with several black staff.
Men in the unit took courses at Howard University in the social work department. Faculty taught Case Work and Juvenile Delinquency at Cheltenham.
While the unit men believed in racial integration, they recognized the power of entrenched history, mores and culture. They discussed the effects of their withdrawing from the unit as a statement of opposition to segregation. In the end, they decided to remain and work from the inside using a Gandhi-like approach to begin to change practices.
Superintendent Thomas supported the goal of racial equality, and had been able to make some changes during his tenure. On occasion, however, a man would find that he could not live within the system. After two weeks in the unit, one man left in opposition to the racial segregation within the staff on November 26, 1942.
Warren State Hospital
During June 1944, Cecil Thomas, co-director of the School of Race Relations at CPS Camp No. 16, Kane, Pennsylvania, spoke at Warren. He urged inter-visitation between the men at Warren and those at Kane. Thomas suggested in particular, that “two Negro campers” from Kane, could help in discussion of race at Warren. (Planning Committee Minutes, June 7, 1944)
In March 1944, the unit invited Perry Siato of the Fellowship of Reconciliation to speak. He met with twelve members of the unit in a building housing the COs. One of the hospital board members heard about the meeting and visited the hospital to investigate, requesting a written report on the incident. A newspaper picked up the story on March 22, 1944, referring to the speaker as an “American-born Japanese and racial secretary of the fellowship of reconciliation”. The acting superintendent, Dr. A. D. Hutton, was quoted as saying a meeting like this “would never occur again” and that he had no idea such a meeting had taken place. Hutton went on to say that the assistant director, D. K. Christiansberry, had expressed regret that he had not consulted with Hutton prior to the meeting. (Taylor p. 189)
National Park Service
For the most part, CPS operated as an interracial community accepting men without concern for ethnicity or national origin. The program assumed operation without discrimination in any aspect of camp work and life. That said, camps operating below the Mason-Dixon Line faced conflicts between CPS views on interracial association and local norms coupled with written or “unwritten” laws.
A crisis occurred at Gatlinburg when an African-American professor from Fisk University classified as IV-E deliberately requested assignment to the camp, knowing the existence of the “unwritten law” banning blacks in the county overnight. The camp vigorously debated its response, with a strong majority taking the position that the camp should be closed if the man was denied acceptance while some of the men, for a variety of reasons, felt he should be assigned to a camp above the Mason-Dixon Line. The Friends C.P.S. Committee took up the issue, and decided to assign him to Gatlinburg without making any note of his race. Selective Service refused, finally sending him to Big Flats.
The results led to the Friends C.P.S. Committee debating the introduction of a policy that all camps would be operated on the basis of racial equality and where the standard could not be met, the camp or unit withdrawn. While the matter was studied, no action was taken, with the end result that the Friends did not consider opening any unit which could not be interracial.
Public Health Service
As word of the new Gulfport unit spread throughout existing locations, controversy arose, especially in some of the camps administered by the American Friends Service Committee and the Brethren Service Committee. In particular, CPS assignees wanted to know if the new unit would be “freely interracial or Jim Crow”.
Seventy-one men from CPS Unit No. 80 in Lyons, New Jersey, a Brethren mental hospital unit, wrote NSBRO objecting to Shotts’s statement that, “As far as I know there has been no CPS project either in the south or the north where there had been advance agreement that men will be received without race distinction. It is exceedingly unfortunate that we cannot carry out religious ideals on race along with our religious convictions about war.”
The Lyons men feel strongly that by failure to address “the race question the NSB is not accurately representing the concerns of the historic peace churches. They also feel that to live consistently we can tolerate no condition short of equality for all, and that if we do accept such conditions we are making a deal with the race-baiters and are denying the basic Christian principle of Fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of men.” (Box 96, [March, 1945] p. 2 in Gingerich p. 259)
The writer of the above article, from the public health camp at Mulberry, Florida, argued that the Gulfport unit should be opened regardless of racial politics, since “We do not agree that if we cannot have an ideal arrangement-- in this case racial equality—at the outset, we should stay out. We do not agree that more good can be done by refusing to go into such a situation than by going in and trying to improve conditions by working on the local scene.” His conclusion was that by carrying out a health program serving both races equally while demonstrating with small acts belief in the brotherhood of man, more could be accomplished toward addressing the problem than not opening a camp in the South. (Gingerich p. 259)…
When MCC began the camp at a time the war was nearing the end in Europe, they considered that Gulfport might be a site for continued service to the community and society in partnership with churches. The VS Summer Service units tested the model of serving poor blacks and whites in the South. By February 15, 1947, MCC acted to recognize the Gulfport Unit as an official Voluntary Service Unit that would continue after the close of CPS into the 1960s. In this way, the Gulfport unit served as an early model for other Mennonite voluntary service units that opened in both rural and urban areas in the two decades following the Second World War.