By Lily McCormick
Alabama’s state parks are a large sense of pride for many residents of the state. Their beauty and conservation of nature bring visitors to the parks year after year. However, their history includes a forgotten narrative of African American members of the Civilian Conservation Corps who helped build twelve parks in the state.
The CCC created roads, pavilions and cabins for park-goers to enjoy. While the CCC’s history is well documented, the seventeen African American camps in Alabama are often forgotten.
Brittany Muncher, a UM alum, felt inspired by the lack of records and information for the African American corpsmen. “There just aren’t that many gaps in history anymore and people have gotten really good at going through primary sources to fill them,” she said. For Muncher, the choice to write her Master’s thesis on these men just made sense.
Muncher is a native of Alabama and spent her childhood going to state parks in the area. “As I grew up I developed a curiosity for all the pavilions and trails built by the CCC,” Muncher said. Her plan to expand the narrative of African Americans in the CCC is simple. “I think the most important thing is to do is to have transparency when discussing their efforts,” Muncher said.
She goes on to explain how their accomplishments should not be outshined by the adversity they faced. “They’ve had a huge impact on the infrastructure and conservation of Alabama and we should honor them,” she said.
During the early 1930s, the National Park Service acquired 8,000 acres to establish a national park in the Birmingham area. By 1934, the CCC company 487 began building roads to access what would become Oak Mountain State Park from Montgomery Highway.
The CCC ultimately helped build parts of twelve state parks in Alabama. Some of these parks include Oak Mountain, Cheaha and Desota state park.
The Exploring Alabama Organization describes the CCC as “young unmarried men, most of whose families were already on government assistance.” The corps gave the men a sense of stability in an uncertain time, and many experienced “heightened morale and increased employability” from the program, according to the website.
African American members of the corps had a different experience than their white counterparts.
“Federally, the CCC was supposed to be racially integrated,” said Dr. Scott Turner, a political science professor at UM and teacher for the National Parks and Public Lands class.
Turner explained the backlash this policy caused stating that “When they started opening camps down south in places like Alabama, there was a lot of resistance.”
The CCC was nationally integrated, but camps in the south were segregated due to white resistance. Several segregated African-American companies found their way to Cheaha Mountain.
“The company built a road to Cheaha Mountain as well as other facilities to establish Cheaha State Park”, Dr. Turner said. The 2420 company’s sites are still standing for visitors at the park. The Cheaha park’s website describes the sites as “the site where our last Civilian Conservation Corps Co 2420 camped as they built the park.”
The CCC Legacy Organization’s website confirms the CCC’s work in 12 parks in Alabama. “A lot of their works were meeting spaces, like pavilions and cabins,” said Maggie Wade Johnston. Johnston is executive director of “Wild Alabama Organization,” a conservation group that works with the national forests in Alabama.
Johnston goes on to explain how those spaces are used today. “People use them for meetings and gatherings with friends. It is so sad they came from a place of separation and hardship.”
Lauren Massey, the naturalist at Oak Moutain State Park, has a similar outlook on how the CCC’s impact is still seen. “These parks and facilities are often a big part of people’s lives and memories and they don’t really know the history behind them.” For state parks trying to educate people on the lesser-known history, it is a challenge worth the struggles.
“Right now, we’re just in the process of collecting a lot of records and piecing together their history,” Massey said when discussing the African American camps that helped build Oak Mountain State Park. But, she is hopeful that the new narrative will bring more people to enjoy the outdoors. She said: “The outdoors is for everyone, I think that’s us living out the CCC’s vision for the parks. They wanted everyone to use them regardless of race, gender or social class.”
For more information on the CCC’s influence in Alabama, visit the CCC Legacy Organization’s website or visit the CCC museum located in Cheaha State Park.