Jerry MacLaughlin knew that the Civilian Conservation Corps developed some of the parks in the National Parks System. He also knew that that many of the Corps’ camps were segregated.
“I didn’t realize it was segregated here, too,” said MacLaughlin of the C&O Canal.
MacLaughlin is one of many visitors to the park to see a display in the Great Falls Tavern about the role of African-Americans in developing the canal as a national park.
“It’s really interesting,” said Elizabeth Silberholz, a park volunteer and a junior at Richard Montgomery High School. “They have a lot of primary source data.”
The exhibit was nominated for the Freeman Tilden award, the highest award for interpretive exhibits given by the National Park Service, said Park Ranger Kathleen Kelly.
The stretch of the C&O Canal which borders Potomac was built by American-Americans living in one of two camps maintained by the Corps. The camps were active from 1938-1942.
“The two camps here were built essentially as the government purchased the canal,” said Park Ranger Rod Sauter, who developed the exhibit.
The camps were built near what is now the picnic pavilion at Carderock. Sauter has photographs showing that the current parking lot was probably built for one of the camps. “The footprint of that camp is still somewhat there,” Sauter said.
When it was acquired by the government in 1938, the canal had been out of use since 1924. Multiple floods and a general lack of maintenance had contributed to deterioration of the canal and towpath.
The Civilian Conservation Corps, a depression-era program which put men to work, was enlisted to restore the first 22 miles of the Canal. “The key was to restore this section of the canal,” Sauter said.
The first twenty-two miles ends near Violette’s Lock in Potomac, and people who have walked upstream from there can notice a marked difference in the state of the canal. Sauter believes that this may be a lingering result of the intense work done by the men of the Corps up to that point. “They were the first in a line of maintenance of the canal for a park,” Sauter said.
“You’d imagine it was back-breaking work,” said MacLaughlin.
The records from the camps were not kept to a level of detail which would allow Sauter to determine how many men came through the two camps, but he estimates that it could have been more than one thousand.
Each camp was designed to accommodate 200 men. “They were rarely at full strength,” Sauter said. Enlistments were for six months, and could be renewed.
The Corps, like America at the time, was segregated. Photos from the camps show teams of African-American men who were being supervised by white men. “The camps were administered by Army reserve officers,” Sauter said. “The men were issued uniforms similar to the U.S. Army uniforms. … Essentially, their life was fashioned by the U.S. Army.”
Their work with picks and shovels earned them $30 per month, $25 of which had to be sent back home, which was typically somewhere in the mid-Atlantic region.
While they were working on the Canal, the men also had the opportunity to learn a trade like carpentry or stonework and other basic skills like reading and math.
But even these benefits came under a cloud.
Sauter pointed out that although these men were providing a service to the nation, when they went into Washington or surrounding communities on a day off, they would still only be seen as a “colored” person and would still face segregation in places they visited.
“Certainly opportunities were being provided for these young men, but it was under segregation,” Sauter said.