Illiteracy in the CCC
A Guest Post by Robert W. Audretsch
Throughout the over nine year life of the CCC illiteracy was always a national and local concern. In the final report of the CCC published in 1942 Director J. J. McEntee stated that the average enrollee “had completed approximately 8 grades of school but it had taken from 10 to 11 years instead of the customary 8….” However a significant number of enrollees were illiterate. The CCC, always the pragmatic agency, defined literacy as “the ability to write an ordinary letter and read a newspaper with comprehension.”
Perry Merrill’s Roosevelt’s Forest Army; A History of the Civilian Conservation Corps states “…40,000 illiterates learned to read and write.” (page vii) This number seems to have been accepted today but it is my contention that this number is far too low. Happy Days, the unofficial CCC weekly newspaper, stated in its September 5, 1936 issue (page 8) that 40,000 enrollees had attained literacy by mid-year 1936. Not all of the Annual Reports of the CCC Director stated the literacy numbers but the reports of June 30, 1939, 1940 and 1941 listed literacy attained as, respectively: 8,936, 9,000 and 11,697. So one might not be blamed for being skeptical of the 40,000 number listed in the Merrill book. What was the final number of men attaining literacy by the program’s end on June 30, 1942? McEntee’s mimeographed Federal Security Agency Final Report of the Director of the Civilian Conservation Corps (page 112) has a very clear answer: “approximately 110,000 enrollees.”
From the very beginning in 1933 illiterate enrollees were tutored, sometimes in class but sometimes individually, to be able to master basic reading and writing. In one company men who could not sign their name were individually tutored to learn their signature. They could not get paid until they could sign their name! According to the November 27, 1937 issue of Happy Days (page 4) enrollee Carter Lane of Company 5476 (Litchfield, CA) learned to read and write in 14 days! What an astounding fact. But no less wonderful than those over one hundred thousand men who also attained literacy while in the CCC!
The photos in this post were taken from the 1940 Pictorial Review of CCC Company 1130, Camden, Maine, in the First Corps Area.