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Photos reveal, recognize black work camps during Depression

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By JEFF KAROUB, 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.”

[post_ads]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.

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U.S. - U.S. Daily News: Photos reveal, recognize black work camps during Depression
Photos reveal, recognize black work camps during Depression
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