The Fredericksburg & Spotsylvania County Battlefields Memorial National Military Park (FRSP) was created by an act of Congress on February 14, 1927. The park came into being during the time of Jim Crow laws and segregation throughout the south. Although the park was under federal control – initially by the War Department and then transferred in 1933 to the National Park Service (NPS) – it appears to have been the unwritten policy of the federal government to follow local laws with regard to segregation. At FRSP, some of the reminders of segregation still remain.
The majority of development that has occurred within the park took place in the 1930s as part of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. Organizations such as the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) and the Public Works Administration built roads, parking lots, and the Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center. The CCC was most instrumental in the development of the park and established three camps within its boundaries – Camp MP-1 at Spotsylvania Court House Battlefield, Camp MP-3 at Chancellorsville Battlefield, and Camp MP-4 at Wilderness Battlefield. Between 1933 and 1942, at least eleven CCC companies rotated through the three camps. Two of those companies were comprised entirely of African-Americans.
The CCC was racially segregated, and of the 3 million men who served within its ranks, 250,000 were African-American and organized into 150 all-black companies. The two companies that served FRSP – Companies 362c and 333c – were quartered at Camps MP-3 and MP-4. The arrival of Company 362c at Chancellorsville in 1934 created much concern in the local community. According to the local newspaper, the local citizenry was:
“not objecting to the placing of the negroes in the county, but because they were brought here from the North. If the colored World War veterans were Southerners no objections would have been raised. It is the importation of outsiders which does not meet with approval.”
In the end, the federal government threatened to abolish Camp MP-3 and cut off the $10,000 a month spent on its operation, if the local protests continued. The objections stopped and Company 362c moved into Chancellorsville. As it turned out, its members were predominantly native Virginians, if indeed that was the real issue.
Another concern that arose about the African-American companies came from within the NPS. In 1938, the NPS attempted to swap Company 362c with a white company at Fort Hunt, Virginia. Acting Regional Director Herbert Eyison expressed his reasons in a letter to Stanton Smith, CCC Liaison Officer in Baltimore, Maryland:
“This office requested exchange of the white company NP-6 now located at Fort Hunt, Virginia, for the negro company at MP-3, Fredericksburg, Virginia, in order that a very special and pressing need in the Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania County Park – that of contact and guide service – might be met by white enrollees. The unfavorable public reaction to performance or such service by negroes makes it impossible, and that service, so vital to satisfactory operation of the park, is now virtually at a standstill.”
As it turned out, Company 362c remained at Camp MP-3 until December 1940. Aside from the daily routine of landscaping, the members of Company 362c also engaged the historical reconstructions, one of which still stands. The “rebuilt” stone wall, located along Sunken Road and below the Fredericksburg National Cemetery, was the work of Company 362c.
The photo below was taken June 1938 and shows members of Company 362c reconstructing the stone wall.
Roughly 700 feet in length, the wall still stands, although it shrinks with each passing year, as stones are removed or otherwise disappear. By today’s standards, the wall is not the most accurate portrayal of what once stood there, but given the tools and information the CCC had to work with, it’s not that bad. Recent archaeological testing revealed that they were dead on with the wall’s location and alignment.
This photo shows the reconstructed wall today.
Segregation at FRSP extended beyond the CCC camps and included the park’s visitors. In 1924, the Virginia General Assembly passed the Massenburg or Public Assemblages Act, which mandated public segregation at all public assemblies, such as “public halls, theaters, opera houses, motion picture shows and places of public entertainment and public assemblages.” It may well have been interpreted to include picnic facilities and campgrounds.
During the development of FRSP, segregated facilities were envisioned. Plans for “Negro Picnic Areas” exist for the Fredericksburg and Wilderness Battlefields. These are in addition to separate designated picnic areas for white visitors. The facility at the Fredericksburg Battlefield was planned for an area east of Pickett Circle, off the park road Lee Drive. It included a picnic bench and table, a fireplace, and two pit latrines – one for men and one for women.
Here is the plan for the “Negro Picnic Area” on Fredericksburg Battlefield.
The plans for the Wilderness picnic area were similar. It is not known if these plans were ever implemented. An investigation of the picnic area at Fredericksburg fails to reveal any visible evidence of the facility, but an old trail and stone steps leading from Pickett Circle to the proposed site do survive.
Stone steps that remain at Pickett Circle. These steps lead to a small trail that ends in the vicinity of the picnic area.
The Fredericksburg Battlefield Visitor Center (FVC) was completed in 1936. It was designed to contain museum exhibit space, auditorium, park offices and public restrooms. In addition to FVC, a small one-and-a-half story, brick garage and service building was constructed in the parking lot. This structure continued to be used for maintenance activities until 1993, when it was renovated and turned into the museum shop and bookstore operated by Eastern National. Today it also houses the handicap restroom, which is accessible via a ramp and outside door.
When originally designed, the architectural drawings for the garage reveal that it was intended to house the “Colored Women’s Toilet” and the “Colored Men’s Toilet.” The women’s restroom was accessed through a door on the south side of the building, while the door for the men’s restroom was on the front of the building.
In this photo, taken shortly after the completion of the garage, the side door has painted on it “WOMEN – COLORED.”
Today the Colored Women’s Toilet has been converted over to the Eastern National office, while the Colored Men’s Toilet is the handicap restroom.
Little is known about segregation in our national parks, and at FRSP these small bits of information and remnants of its existence are all that we have to go on for understanding its application to the local battlefields. How long did it last? Were there other segregated facilities that were segregated? Were there complaints about the policy?
If any of our readers have stories, memories or information about segregation at FRSP, or these facilities and sites, we’d love to know about them.
Eric J. Mink
Special thanks to Liesbeth Neisingh, who delved into the CCC records at NARA and brought back some great material on its involvement at FRSP.
Note: Susan Shumaker has written a good article about segregation at NPS sites, including a couple in Virginia. It is part of the PBS “Untold Stories from America’s National Parks” series and can be found here.