Burning of CCC Camp Adams

Segregation & Sabotage in Ohio's Shawnee State Forest

In June of 1936, Robert Fechner, the Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps addressed a letter to two Ohio senators, Robert J. Bulkley and Vic Donahey, regarding complaints he had received from Nimrod B. Allen, Secretary of the Columbus Urban League. Allen claimed that CCC officials had discriminated against black Ohioans in violation of the non-discrimination clause that had been included in the federal legislation which created the jobs program. Fechner defended the CCC and claimed that the law had required that black enrollments be no less than the percentage of African Americans in the general population. According to Fechner, segregation by itself was not considered to be discriminatory, following the general principals of “separate, but equal,” as laid down by the US Supreme Court in their infamous Plessy vs. Ferguson decision in 1896.

“Whether we like it or not,” explained Fechner, “we cannot close our eyes to the fact that there are communities … that do not want and will not accept a Negro Civilian Conservation Corps company. This is particularly true in localities that have a negligible Negro population.” In hopes of over-coming what Fechner described as “vigorous” local opposition, he directed that black CCC units be only assigned to camps located within their home states. Fechner explained that even this proved to be insufficient as evidenced by an incident in Ohio, wherein a “camp had been assigned to a work project near one of your smaller cities. We went ahead and built and equipped the camp. When a company was selected to occupy the camp it was found that the only company available was one composed of Ohio Negro enrollees.” The end result, “when the citizens of the community learned that a Negro company was to be sent to the camp,” wrote Fechner, “they absolutely refused to permit the company to occupy the camp and we were forced to completely abandon the project.” The CCC Director provided no further specifics in his letter to the senators, never mentioning which Ohio community and which camp had been so vigorously resisted.

Local opposition to the New Deal jobs and conservation program was not unusual, but the introduction of segregated black companies of CCC enrollees into predominantly white communities did prove, in some instances, to be particularly volatile, as racial tensions did on occasion flare up. One such incident, which may or may not have been the case mentioned by Director Fechner, occurred in the Appalachian foothills of Ohio.

On December 6th, 1934, a suspicious mid-day fire destroyed the barracks and camp of a segregated, black company of CCC enrollees. Co. 584 had first arrived at Camp Adams in the Shawnee State Forest nine months earlier. One of seven camps in the state forest (four of which that were African-American), Camp Adams was the most remote, located deep in the forest, near the Scioto and Adams County line.

With unemployment rates as high as 25% nationally, and perhaps as high as 50% for African Americans, the Great Depression provided the impetus for the creation of a major national jobs program that was directed at reforestation and soil conservation, but also came to include the construction of over 800 state parks. In Ohio, the State Relief Commission worked with county commissioners and their relief agents to “select single men between the ages of 18 and 25, primarily from families on the relief rolls.” Enrollees agreed to a six-month enlistment and, in turn, would receive $30 a month, $25 of which had to be sent back home to family dependents. They got to keep $5 a month for their personal use. Thus, the CCC enrollees became known as the “Dollar-a-Day Boys.”

The role of African-American enrollees in the construction of Shawnee State Park and Forest has long been forgotten and conflicts between the segregated camps and members of the local community have been essentially lost to time. In total, while the camps were occupied, some 800 African-Americans were at work in Shawnee.

Records of the fire that destroyed Camp Adams proved be easy to locate, but frustratingly few in number. A photographic record of the camp and its African American enrollees surfaced in the records kept by the Ohio Division of Forestry. There we find pictures of the burnt barracks and other buildings of Camp Adams, recorded soon after the blaze in December 1934. Reports showed up in regional newspapers, including the most detailed account of the conflagration and its immediate aftermath, which was published by the Portsmouth Times.

On December 7th, the Daily Times reported that a special army board of inquiry had been launched by Major Robert Barrett of Ft. Hayes in Columbus and Captain Elmer J. Armstrong, the District Commander of CCC units in the southern Ohio. Initial reports indicated that “more than 180 men of the company were working in Shawnee forest and only 18 were on camp duty when the blaze was discovered.” The Daily Times noted that “the camp is in Churn creek valley and a strong wind was sweeping between the hills. …. The four barracks, kitchen, mess hall, recreation building, power house and supply building were destroyed.”

Captain Armstrong, the district commander, who happened to be visiting a nearby sister camp — CCC Camp Gordon on Turkey Creek — arrived on the scene of the fire just in time to see all but the Administration building go up in smoke. Before the fire had subsided Armstrong had already submitted a request up the chain of command for an immediate transfer of Co. 584 to Fort Knox in Kentucky. Within seven hours of the fire, nearly 200 African American enrollees had been sent by truck to the Norfolk & Western railway station in Portsmouth, where a special train would carry them west to Ft. Knox. The Daily Times reported that the “enrollees will either be assigned to work on the reservation at Fort Knox or will be distributed to other CCC camps to complete their term of enlistment.”

At Fort Knox, Army officials completely exchanged the roster of Co. 584. The unit kept their original number, Co. 584, but they were reconstituted as an all white company of newly minted enrollees and within five months — by the end of April, 1935 — Co. 584 was back on Churn Creek in Shawnee Forest. This time, however, they were white dollar-a-day boys, not black. The company, in another unusual move, was soon switched out four months later in August, and replaced with a new segregated black unit, Co. 3506.

Two questions we may never know the answer to are as follows:

1.  Was the decision to remove the unit and exchange the company’s roster done to resolve a situation that had already proven to have a tendency towards violence and property destruction? In other words, did the CCC and Army suspect racially motivated sabotage and arson and then act accordingly?

2.  Was the decision to station another black unit at Camp Adams a deliberate political move on the part of state and/or federal officials. In other words, is this evidence that CCC and state officials ultimately decided not to cower in the face of local opposition.

The case for arson and sabotage — the case for a hate crime — is circumstantial. Camp inspection reports and other race-related controversies did end up in the local courts and press, and they do suggest the possibility of racially fueled foul play.

The initial official explanation of the fire was based upon the conclusions of W. G. McGrew, the company commander, and Major Elmer J. Armstrong. They concluded the fire had resulted from the carelessness of an enrollee who “failed to close the draft” on the wood stove in his barracks. The stove’s fire, it was said, had been rekindled at the noon hour (as usual) by one of the eighteen men who were on camp duty for the day. His error, according to this explanation, caused the barrack to burn and its flames and embers were then blown by the wind so that the fire spread to other nearby structures. The timing of the blaze is also notable, as it came in the early afternoon when the vast majority of the men were at work in the forest.

Most significantly, however, the fire occurred in the months following a violent incident that had led to the arrest of the company’s baseball team and arguably contributed to local opposition to the enrollees in the community. On Sunday, May 27th, 1934, while traveling to play a game in the nearby town of Manchester, the black enrollees of Co. 584 passed a truck carrying another baseball team — a group of white locals — who played in a different league. Whether fighting words were exchanged or not (the record is unclear), the two teams continued on their way without recorded incident. However, in the late afternoon, when both teams were returning home by the same routes, they passed again. This time, one of the CCC men swung a bat and struck one of the white players, hitting him “on the forehead and side of the face, knocking his eye out upon his cheek and causing other injuries” — such was the account recorded in a Congressional Report on the incident.

With the incident occurring just outside the town of West Union, the Adams County Sheriff arrested all of the CCC ballplayers and lodged them in the county jail. At first they refused to identify who amongst them had delivered the brutal blow, but when Captain V. O. Jackson, their commander arrived and personally threatened the men with expulsion from the CCC, explaining that after seven days they would be listed as AWOL and dismissed. Ultimately, Wilkins Green was identified and offered up to the authorities. The other men were released. Then, in an unexpected turn of events, on Thursday, the 31st of May, after four nights in jail, the charges against Green were dismissed. E. B. Edgington, the Mayor of West Union, questioned ten witnesses and concluded that there was “no evidence against [the] accused.” The Prosecuting Attorning E. S. Young, however, “indicated that an additional investigation would be made of the affair with the view of presenting the facts to the grand jury.” Whether Young ever took a case to the grand jury is unclear, but no record of an indictment and trial are known to exist.

Justice (whether deserved or not) for William Graham would not be meted out by the local or state courts. Six months after Camp Adams had burned and soon after the new all white company of enrollees had reopened the camp, William Graham and his family sought financial compensation for the medical bills and permanent injuries he had suffered due to the incident. Their claim would be filed with Congress and its report on the question would be printed in April 1937, nearly three years after the incident. Congress would ultimately authorize a settlement worth $3,500, “for the loss of his right eye and impaired hearing of his right ear, the result of having been struck in the right side of the face with a ball bat on May 27, 1934, in the hands of an enrollee of Camp Adams.”

Much of the details of the incident that can be found in the historical record thus come from the Congressional Report on the damages claim. Here we find the only eyewitness accounts of the incident, all of which come from the perspective of area white residents. The voices of the black CCC enrollees remain frustratingly silent in the congressional and larger historical record.

Even before the baseball team incident, local opposition to the camp had been noted in an inspection report filed by William P. Hannon on January 31st, 1934. The standard inspection form asked whether there had “been any trouble of any nature since camp was installed?” After consulting with the company officers, Hannon reported that one local resident had written “a letter complaining against Colored men being located here.” Otherwise, Hannon noted that there were “no complaints” about “the conduct of the men.” Additionally, the report noted that the “barracks are very clean and neat appearing - Fire extinguishers in all buildings and fire barrels and buckets inside and outside of all buildings.”

A second camp inspection report from September 1934 offers additional information, additional pieces to the puzzle. Interestingly Inspector T. J. McVey states that local opinion of the company’s conduct was “favorable.” And, as to whether there had been “any trouble of any nature since the camp was installed,” McVey stated that “2 [men had been] arrested and convicted of drunk and disorderly. One convicted of theft.” No mention was made of the arrest of the baseball team for an assault on a local resident. McVey did, however, note that there was a very high number of men (some seventy-two in total) that been dishonorably discharged since the camp’s inception — thirty-eight of which were due to “elopement” and seventeen for “refusal to work.” McVey noted that the company officers “can give no reason for [the] large number.”

Whether any of the discharges were related to the baseball team’s difficulties is impossible to argue. The camp, according to McVey, had also recently been subjected to an unusual quarantine order, which barred contact between the camp and the local community. The quarantine ran from the 24th of August to the 5th of September 1934, three days before McVey arrived in camp for its inspection, and just a few weeks after the dismissal of the case against Wilkins Green and the failure of the grand jury to issue any indictments against the enrollees of Camp Adams. The quarantine, according to McVey’s report was issued due to the existence of one case of small pox, otherwise the “general health” of the enrollees had been “good,” with the men having gained an average of 12 pounds since their arrival.

Barracks fires were unusual. There is only one other such fire reported in Shawnee Forest during the whole history of the Three-Cs, and it occurred at the camp of another all-black unit, Co. 1520 in January 1934. One of their barracks had burnt, with no reported explanation. Though it is worth noting that the fire occurred relatively soon after what CCC officials termed a “riot.” In June of 1933, soon after their first arrival in the forest, camp official reorganized the company and assigned new squad leaders over the objections of the enrollees. Seventeen men, identified as the ring leaders were arrested at gun point and discharged from the CCC. Co. 1520, as far as the records indicate, never again was the source of controversy. The camp inspection report from September 1934, noted the “riot,” but concluded that the men’s morale was “good” and that there was currently no opposition to the camp in the local vicinity.

General opposition to bringing in outside labor, whether white or black, however was seen soon after the first announcements of the location of CCC camps in the Shawnee Forest region. In nearby Portsmouth, local charitable organizations that helped with county-wide relief efforts recommended that the reforestation and soil conservation projects proceed, but they objected to bringing in men from other regions of the state and paying them only $1 a day. Instead, they recommend that local unemployed men be hired to work in the camps and that they be paid $3 a day. This they said would help the local economy and community by removing residents from the local welfare rolls.

What we end up with then is a fragmentary historical record of newspaper reportage, records in the National Archives, and a Congressional report, all of which provides (in the case of the burning of CCC Camp Adams) a circumstantial case for racially motivated sabotage and arson. It appears that Army officials acted quickly to resolve a racially-charged situation that had tapped into local opposition to the Civilian Conservation Corps, but they did so in ways that may have reinforced racial prejudice in the region. While the quick decision to transfer the company was driven by the necessity of providing food and shelter to the men, the reconstitution of Co. 584 as a white unit, which was then sent back to Camp Adams, does legitimately raise some questions, which perhaps further research can answer.

In the meantime, we are reminded how often the historical record, particularly that regarding African Americans in Appalachia is frustratingly incomplete. However, knowing the racism of the day and age, it is not that far fetched to imagine that fighting words were exchanged between to the two baseball teams on the Sunday morning of May 27th, 1934, when they first passed each other on State Route 41 and that when they chanced to meet each other again that same afternoon, the men on the back of the trucks, white and black, took swings at each other, with only William Graham unfortunately getting hit.

The mayor, without sufficient evidence, then dismissed the case against Wilkins Green, but anger and opposition nevertheless boiled over when the grand jury failed to bring indictments. The camp was then quarantined. Whether done so on purely medical grounds or as a precautionary measure to limit local contact due to heightened racial tensions, the camp and its company of young black men had most definitely become the object of concern for local residents. It doesn’t involve too much imagination to conceive that when the local courts failed them, an area resident or group of residents decided to torch the camp in hopes of running off the unwanted camp of black forestry workers. This act of sabotage was then accomplished in the middle of the day, when only a handful of men were on camp duty, the bulk of the unit having left camp for their day’s work in the forest.

Whether the arsonist or arsonists lit only one barrack (or any at all) will remain conjecture, but the fire does appear to have raged first in one of the barracks, before it spread to the other buildings. Ultimately, whether it jumped from the first barrack by the assistance of the arsonist or arsonists, or by the wind, matters not. The end result was that the black company of CCC enrollees had been burned out.


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