Park Development: FRSP’s Segregated Past

From Mink:

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.

11 thoughts on “Park Development: FRSP’s Segregated Past

  1. I was very excited while simultaneously dismayed at the reaches of the segregation doctrines.

    I have heard in the community grapevine in the last couple of years blacks generally did not go to Petersburg National Battlefield (my place of employ) because there was an invisible barrier. How true that is, I’m not sure. However, certainly there was little effort in the Civil War Centennial to include black participation through exhibits, ranger programs, or living history. I can say these things have dramatically changed in the last two decades. Still, acknowledging these moments in the past, acknowledges that we still have much work to do in the present and future to diversify our audience and recognize just how complicit even the NPS was in the Jim Crow era.

  2. Emmanuel,

    I interviewed an African American resident of Petersburg as part of my research on memory and the Crater. He remembered the Crater battlefield as being off limits to blacks. I’ve not been able to confirm this.

  3. Ah that’s where I’ve heard it then.

    My aunt remembers going to the Crater battlefield but I’m not certain exactly when. Something to follow up on.

  4. I think it might be interesting see how many historic sites both at the national and state level dealt with prevalent laws of the land at the time. I know that at one NC historic site, the visitor center was built segregated bathrooms but a decision was made by the divison director not to enforce that rule when the building was opened in 1961.

    • Johnny: The thing about this topic that interests me so is that the historical record (including our files) is virtually silent on the issue. Eric turned up a number of things that are new…but it appears the NPS quietly just went along for many years. Historian Joan Zenzen is now working on an Administrative History of the park, and I am hopeful her work will produce some insights into all of this. Thanks for your comment. – John Hennessy

  5. We had the same issue, the plans didn’t even list which bathroom was white and which was colored. It wasnt’ until an oral history interview of the first manager was it found out that the decision not to enforce the segregation was made at an higher level. I think one thing that may account from the “silence” of the record is that many thought schools would be one of the main sources of visistation and since the schools were segregated then there was no reason to bring up or talk about the segregated parts of the site since it would have been a non issue

  6. Wonderful post! I have a 1935 CCC District Annual for the Fourth Corps area (Louisiana/Mississippi) that is literally segregated by race, too. All of the white CCC companies are in the front portion of the book, then there’s a separate section that has the “colored” CCC companies at the back of the book. I would have to say that the failure to fully integrate was the CCC’s only big failure. There were some integrated companies out here in the west, but local communities still complained when black enrollees were located nearby.

  7. Excellent post Eric. Really thought-provoking and a far too neglected piece of our collective past. As there is a section of the original wall further down the road, I feel this “inaccurate” section as you said, is in itself a piece of history. What surprises me is the fact that they even accounted for African-American visitors at a Civil War Battlefield in the 1930’s.

  8. I’m pretty sure that Sylvia and O’Donnell’s Illustrated History of Civil War Relics, one of my favorite books as a teen, includes another image of the African-American CCC workers at the reconstructed stone wall. If memory serves correctly, they are posing with a shell they unearthed during construction.

    • I came across that same photo in the park’s collection. It shows two of the CCC supervisors or foremen holding a shell that was found during the reconstruction. The photo was taken for a Fredericksburg newspaper article on the new wall. When the NPS rehabbed the Sunken Road a few years back, contractors also unearthed a shell near the base of the wall.

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