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Photos reveal, recognize black work camps during Depression

Jeff Karoub, Associated Press | 4/9/2018, 6:46 a.m.
A striking, sepia-toned picture recently acquired by the University of Michigan jumps out from the past and begs to tell ...
Cooks of Free Soil Civilian Conservation Corps are photographed in 1935 in Michigan. The university has acquired a trove of photos capturing a place and time largely overlooked by history: black CCC camps during the Great Depression. The photos are the only known images of the state's segregated, all-black camps. (Bentley Historical Library via AP)

DETROIT — A striking, sepia-toned picture recently acquired by the University of Michigan jumps out from the past and begs to tell a story: A man dressed in a heavy coat and hat is as big as the cabin door whose knob he is reaching to turn and enter.

The picture is labeled simply, "Big Jim."

James "Big Jim" Richardson, left, is photographed at Free Soil Camp in 1936 in Michigan. The university has acquired a trove of photos capturing a place and time largely overlooked by history: black Civilian Conservation Corps camps during the Great Depression. The photos are the only known images of the state's segregated, all-black camps. President Franklin Roosevelt established the corps in the early 1930s to employ a "vast army" of unemployed men and restore national resources. (Bentley Historical Library via AP)

James "Big Jim" Richardson, left, is photographed at Free Soil Camp in 1936 in Michigan. The university has acquired a trove of photos capturing a place and time largely overlooked by history: black Civilian Conservation Corps camps during the Great Depression. The photos are the only known images of the state's segregated, all-black camps. President Franklin Roosevelt established the corps in the early 1930s to employ a "vast army" of unemployed men and restore national resources. (Bentley Historical Library via AP)

The rare photo is among 30 acquired by the Bentley Historical Library last year from a private donor that capture a place and time often overlooked by history: black Civilian Conservation Corps camps in Michigan and elsewhere during the Great Depression. The photos are the only known images of the state's segregated, all-black camps. President Franklin Roosevelt established the corps in the early 1930s, offering shelter, clothing, food and wages to a "vast army" of unemployed men who worked to conserve and restore national resources.

As the people and stories behind the pictures are increasingly lost to time, the university posted them online and launched a public call for information. So far, Big Jim's story is the only one that's been filled in, thanks to people who knew him and responded: He was James Richardson, a quiet, strong, hard-working rural Michigan farmer who served in World War I and went on to join the CCC.

For the archivists, it represents delayed but welcome recognition for the contributions of workers who faced discrimination and marginalization during a dark economic era.

"What I liked about the photographs is they show that these young guys were doing work on parks, trails, out in the woods — way away from their homes," said Morris Thomas, who as a child knew Richardson and identified him for Michigan researchers after seeing his image in a state history magazine. "It is something unique; there aren't that many photos available."

Eighty-five years after the Civilian Conservation Corps' creation, any cache of this kind is a boon to historians. Photographs from designated black camps are far less common than from white camps. Thomas, now 75, says his family also had photos of an uncle who worked in a black camp but laments, "Now we can't find them."

Despite the legacy of segregation, the photos and stories they conjure reveal elements of unexpected egalitarianism and advancement.

"That was a tremendous thing for black people," said Thomas' cousin Frank Thomas, who as a boy often spent time with Richardson and neighborhood friends. "There were really no jobs for black people at that time, only menial jobs. All those guys got a chance to ... show people they can work and can do anything anybody else can do."

CCC camps initially were integrated, according to the university, but became segregated by 1935 amid community protests. Out of Michigan's roughly 150 camps, some 16 were designated for black men. Black membership was capped at 10 percent of the overall corps, which numbered around 3 million over the course of the program.

The Michigan History Center says the state's black camps helped build a ski area and contributed to efforts to plant millions of trees, fight forest fires, construct bridges and buildings, and establish public campgrounds.