Firefly Project and the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion (“Smoke Jumpers”)

Today’s post was written by Dr. Greg Bradsher and Dr. Sylvia Naylor, archivists at the National Archives in College Park.

In April 1945 the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion received orders to move to the West Coast for a special assignment.  Members of this all African American unit hoped to finally see combat during World War II in the Pacific Theater of Operations.

The battalion had its origins in a recommendation made in December 1942 by the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies, chaired by the Assistant Secretary of War, John J. McCloy. Chief of Staff General George C. Marshall approved the committee’s recommendation for a black parachute battalion.  He decided to start with a company, which resulted in the constitution of the 555th Parachute Infantry Company on February 25, 1943.  Headquarters, Army Ground Forces authorized the activation of the company as an all-black unit with black officers as well as black enlisted men on December 19, 1943. All unit members were to be volunteers from other organizations, with an enlisted cadre to be selected from personnel of the African American 92nd Infantry Division (the Buffalo Division which went on to serve with distinction in Italy in 1944 and 1945) at Fort Huachuca, Arizona. The company was officially activated on December 30, 1943 at Fort Benning, Georgia. In mid-July 1944, after several months of training, the company departed for Camp Mackall, North Carolina (south of the town of Southern Pines).  It was reorganized and redesignated on November 25, 1944 as Company A of the newly-activated 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion. This battalion, under the command of Capt. James H. Porter, consisted of ten officers and 155 enlisted men.

16 Soldiers who recently became paratroopers at Ft Benning

16 Soldiers who recently became paratroopers of the 555th at Ft Benning (NAID 535719)

In December 1944, the organization was instructed to detail to the Parachute School, Fort Benning, Georgia, for parachutist qualification training.  Training took place during December and the early months of 1945.

While battalion members were undergoing training at Fort Benning during the winter of 1944-1945, the War Department was facing a new Japanese threat to the West Coast.  The Japanese military had begun launching incendiary-bearing balloons from Japan, which were carried eastward by high-altitude air currents.  By early December 1944, there had been several discoveries of balloons on American soil, including:

  • the recovery of a rubberized-silk balloon from the ocean near the coast of California on November 4
  • the recovery of a paper balloon from the water near Hawaii on November 14
  • the report of a mysterious bomb explosion in Wyoming on December 6
  • and the finding of a second paper balloon in Montana on December 11

Officials of the U.S. Army, U.S. Navy, and the Federal Bureau of Investigation began an investigation of the source and purpose of the free balloons, which determined that the balloons had come from Japan and carried bombs and incendiaries.  On January 29, 1945, the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-2 issued “General Report No. 1 on Free Balloons and Related Incidents,” in which it was noted that there had been found in the United States, Canada, Alaska, and Hawaii ten balloons believed to be of Japanese origin and that a number of other incidents and sightings possibly related, had been reported.

While the military authorities were trying to figure out how to deal with the balloon threat, the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion received orders in March from higher headquarters to have some of the personnel undertake eight weeks of training for a probable combat mission.

By the spring of 1945, there was growing concern regarding the Japanese balloon threat in the American West.  The Military Intelligence Service reported 17 balloon incidents in March and another ten in April.  On April 7, the Commanding General, Army Service Forces (ASF) wrote the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3 (Operations Division) with proposals for combating forest incendiaries caused by Japanese balloons in the United States.  The Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3 wrote the Commanding General, ASF on April 21 that the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion would be assigned to fire-fighting duty.  Thus, after four weeks of a scheduled eight-week combat training program, the battalion was notified that it was being given “a security mission in the western portion of the United States.”  They were not informed of the nature of the mission.

On May 2 the Assistant Chief of Staff, G-3 informed the Commanding General, ASF that the request of the Department of Agriculture’s Forest Service for the use of military personnel for the purpose of combating forest fires from on or about June 1 to October 30 had been approved.  The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion would be utilized in accordance with certain instructions, including continuing combat training when not engaged in fire-fighting.  In May the War Department designated “Firefly Project” as the short title for the military assistance to Federal and State Forest Fire Protective Agencies in the control of forest and grass fires in accordance with current Service Commands Fire Fighting Plans and the Western Defense Command-Fourth Air Force-Ninth Service Command, “Joint Air and Ground Assistance Forest Fire Fighting Plan.”

The 555th was scheduled to leave Camp Mackall for the Pendleton Army Air Field, Oregon, on May 5.  That same day around 5:20pm, ten miles northwest of Bly, Oregon, on Wooded Ridge (in the Quartz Pass area) Mrs. Elaine Mitchell, her husband, five children and two employees came across a balloon while on their way to Fishing Stream.  The bomb attached to the balloon exploded when one person unwittingly kicked or dropped it.  The explosion killed Mrs. Mitchell and the five children.  An investigation determined that the balloon was grounded approximately one month before recovery.

On May 5 the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion departed for Pendleton.  The battalion was assigned the mission of the recovery and destruction of Japanese balloon bombs, with the added mission of the suppression of forest fires started by the bombs, as part of the “Firefly Project.”

Parachuting civilian personnel into areas to fight forest fires was a relatively new fire-suppression technique.  “Smoke jumping” had been first proposed in 1934 by a Forest Service Intermountain Regional Forester, as a means to quickly provide initial attack on forest fires. By parachuting in, self-sufficient firefighters could arrive fresh and ready for the strenuous work of fighting fires in rugged terrain. The smoke jumper program began in 1939 as an experiment in the Pacific Northwest Region, and the first fire jump was made in 1940 on Idaho’s Nez Perce National Forest.

On May 7 the Secretary of War wrote the commanding generals of all the major American Commands, the commanding officers of all appropriate posts, camps and stations within the Seventh and Ninth Service Commands, and the Provost Marshal Generals that:

Japanese balloons have been appearing over the western part of the continental United States during the last several months. It is probable that these mechanisms will drop quantities of incendiary bombs in the great forest regions and the watershed areas of Alaska and western Canada and the United States. Unless controlled, the resulting fires will cause great damage to vital natural resources and impede seriously the war effort of the nation.

The Secretary of War reported that the Forest Service was fully aware of the hazardous potentialities of the balloon-dropped incendiaries and that it had informed the War Department that the most critical season for forest, brush, and grassland fires could be expected to extend from May 15 to October 30.  Additionally, the various Federal, State and local forest fire protection agencies were normally prepared to cope with such fires, but during the coming fire season of 1945 these agencies would not be able to adequately discharge their responsibility, “particularly in the face of the increased hazard resulting from Japanese incendiaries.”  This was due to several reasons, including the loss of personnel to the war effort and below normal precipitation in the threatened areas, which resulted in an extremely flammable condition.  Thus, the Secretary of War laid out the policies and procedures for the U.S. Army to work with the Forest Service during the forthcoming fire seasons.

The 555th arrived at the Pendleton Army Air Field on May 12 and was assigned to Headquarters Ninth Service Command, Fort Douglas, Utah.  From May 12 to May 22, the battalion was engaged in a minimum of military training, as the battalion’s freight arrived at Pendleton some two weeks later.  In anticipation of carrying out its mission assignment, the battalion placed renewed emphasis on physical conditioning, leadership, first aid, and map reading.

The battalion was located on an army air base, and there was a severe lack of training facilities for any type of ground-troop training, such as firing ranges, training areas, and parade grounds.  During this period, the 555th coordinated with other “Firefly Project” agencies, including the U.S. Forest Service, Ninth Service Command, and Fourth Air Force, in an effort to establish procedures regarding the use of the battalion in fighting fires.

From May 22 to June 6, personnel were introduced by the Forest Service to the scope of the technique of foreign fire suppression and the use of Forest Service maps.  From June 8 to June 15, bomb disposal personnel from the Ninth Service Command conducted a “bomb disposal school.”  From June 18 onwards the battalion took part in jumps, some of which were in heavy timber.  Emphasis was put on training of six officers and ninety-four enlisted men to be placed on detached service at Chico Army Air Field in California.  This was accomplished and the detachment departed Pendleton via military aircraft, and arrived at Chico on July 7.  The Chico Detachment (as the detachment was designated) was assigned the mission of covering California, western portions of Nevada, Arizona, and the southern portion of Oregon.

“Smoke Jump” training for the remainder of the battalion continued through July 14, by which time, the majority of the battalion was qualified as “Smoke Jumpers.”  This training continued, with improvements made in “Smoke Jumping techniques.”  When eighty percent of the personnel had been thoroughly trained, the members of the 555th working out of Pendleton battalion were assigned the mission of covering Montana, Idaho, Oregon, and Washington.

The first fire call for the Pendleton group came on June 21, 1945.  Fifty men were sent to Deschutes National Forest and they remained there until June 25.  Fifty men were sent to Wenatchee National Forest on July 3 and another fifty to Chelan National Forest on July 8. On July 13, 100 men were sent to Wenatchee National Forest and on July 20 another fifty-five men were sent to Meadow Lake National Forest.  Two days later fifty-four men were sent to Colville National Forest and on July 28, 104 men were sent to Chelan National Forest.  The battalion would respond during August and September to twelve more calls for help, including Bitter Root, Cabinet, Salmon, Fayette, Siskiyou, Whitman, Mt. Baker, Chelan, and Wallowa National Forests.

Reports from two August operations should give the reader a sense of the battalion’s activities.  At 5pm on August 21 the battalion received a call for help with a fire at Mt. Baker National Forest.  The next morning, thirty-four enlisted men and two officers, under the command of 2nd Lt. Walter Morris, dropped into a meadow, 1,000 yards from the fire.  Three men were injured.  After evacuating the injured men, one officer and twenty-five men departed for the fire line at noon on August 24, and returned to camp at 5:30pm.  Rations arrived by pack train from the meadows.  Rain that night and the next day was enough to cool the fire down.  A fire line was completed on August 25 and the next day at 6pm they were relieved from their assignment.  At 6:30am on August 27 the group marched out of camp.  By 4pm they had marched twenty-three miles to the end of the trail, where they got on a bus that took them to Paine Field, Everett, Washington, arriving there just before 8pm.  They were assigned quarters and given rations at Paine Field.  They departed via a C-47 from Paine Field the next morning at 9am and arrived back at the Pendleton Army Air Field at 11am.

While the above operation was underway, another began.  At 9pm on August 22, the battalion was alerted about a fire at Chelan National Forest (which then also included the Okanogan National Forest).  At 3pm the next day one officer (2nd Lt. William F. Buford) and twenty-one enlisted men dropped in a drop zone some eight-hours march from the fire.  Several of the men were injured in the drop.  At 6am on the following morning the group marched eight hours up “impossible mountainous terrain” before arriving at a camp site.  They left behind two men injured on the jump and one man suffering from acute indigestion, who were picked up two days later by a pack train.

Upon arrival, the men discovered that there was no food or bed rolls waiting for them.  This food and equipment was supposed to have been dropped the morning of August 24.  The men were deployed in two groups and immediately set out to curb the fire.  Breakfast and supper were served in the fire camp, once food was brought up by pack train.  For two nights the men were forced to sleep in the driving rain without cover.  Two men were injured the evening of their arrival at the fire camp, and were sent out the following morning by pack train.  The majority of the men were fighting the fire in Canada in an effort to prevent the fire from coming into U.S. territory. The fire was actually under control two days prior to their departure. However, the men were sent out every day in mopping up operations and on August 28 three men were selected to go deep into Canada along some ridges to make a ground reconnaissance of the fire. “This was an extremely hazardous and fatiguing operation.”  At 8:15 on August 29, the men proceeded 15 miles on foot, accompanied by three horses, to Pasayten airport.  They arrived back at Pendleton Army Air Field at 6pm that day.

The Chico Detachment answered its first fire call at Klamath National Forest on July 14 with fifty-four enlisted men and two officers.  This detachment covered seventeen fire calls from July 14 to October 10 in the Klamath (July, August), Trinity (August, September, October), Modoc (August, October), and Mendocino (August, September) National Forests.  Its largest operation was at Trinity National Forest from October 6 to 10, when 75 men participated.

In all the battalion completed 36 missions involving 1,255 jumps. An accident resulted in the death of one of the men, a medic, who died on August 9, while attempting a let-down from a tree at Siskiyou National Forest near Roseburg, Oregon.  More than thirty suffered injuries.

Click here to view a video of the 555th Training Exercises. National Archives Identifier 14605, RG 111

On September 2, 1945, the Western Defense Command notified the War Department that it was curtailing defensive operations against the Japanese balloons.  Two weeks later, the War Department informed the Western Defense Command that activities against Japanese free balloons in areas of Seventh, Eight, and Ninth Service Commands would be limited.  Future actions would involve the recovery of all balloons or parts thereof which were discovered and the disposal by qualified bomb disposal personnel of Japanese bombs and other explosive elements which had been dropped from, or landed with, the balloons.

The Forest Service greatly appreciated the help of the military in fighting fires during the summer of 1945.  In his fiscal year 1946 annual report, the Chief of Forest Service noted that his agency had been severely handicapped by the fact that national forest-fire organizations were seriously weakened by the shortage of trained men and fire-fighting labor and by deterioration of equipment kept in operation during the war years beyond its normal life.  He added that

Generous assistance from military forces helped to offset some of these difficulties. The ‘firefly’ project, in which the Army cooperated with Forest Service and State protection forces by assignment of parachute troops, was a valuable aid.  The project was set up on the west coast to meet the threat of Japanese incendiary balloons.  The Japanese abandoned their balloon barrage before the season of greatest fire danger, but the ‘firefly’ project proved invaluable in strengthening the fire-fighting forces of the west coast when fire conditions became critical.  The project was disbanded late in the fall of 1945.

In his fiscal year 1945 report, he stated that the Japanese incendiary bombs had “caused no fires of consequence.”  In a press release prepared early in 1946, the Army’s Bureau of Public Relations noted that of some 9,000 balloons had been released by the Japanese, the last being on April 20, 1945.  A total of 191 paper balloons and three rubberized-silk balloons, all of Japanese origin, were found in the United States, Canada, Alaska, Mexico, and the Pacific Ocean area during the period from November 1944 to February 1946.  In addition, there were 89 recoveries of small fragments of paper or other balloon parts, too incomplete to be classed as a balloon.  The press release stated that “negligible damage was caused by the incendiaries’ the only fires resulting being one or two small grass fires,” and stressed the following:

The Japanese expected that information on damage caused by the balloons would be available from normal press channels and radio broadcasts. However, after the first mention of the original balloons found, the press and radio of the United States and Canada maintained a very complete voluntary censorship at the request of the Army and navy through the Office of Censorship, and thus denied the Japanese information as to the numbers of balloons arriving and the landing points.

The press blackout regarding the balloons also had the effect of diminishing the news about the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion’s mission and activities.  Nevertheless, the battalion was proud of its accomplishments on the west coast.  “We didn’t win any wars, but we did contribute,” Former 1st Sergeant Walter Morris recalled in 2000. “What we proved was that the color of a man had nothing to do with his ability.”

In October 1945, the battalion returned to Camp Mackall, and was assigned to the 27th Headquarters and Headquarters Special Troops, First U. S. Army, Fort Bragg, North Carolina.  In December the battalion moved to Fort Bragg and was assigned to the 13th Airborne Division.  The division was inactivated on February 26, 1946.  The combat personnel, including the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, were transferred to the command of the elite 82nd Airborne Division, under Maj. Gen. James M. Gavin, who one former member of the battalion described as “perhaps the most ‘color-blind’ Army officer in the entire service.”

On the morning of December 15, 1947 the battalion was ordered to march to an area designated for the 82nd Airborne Division. There, according to Charles Stevens, a former member of the battalion, they were to participate in one of the most significant milestones in military history. In battalion formation they were informed that they were being inactivated and that most of its personnel would be assigned to the 82nd Airborne Division’s 3rd Battalion, 505th Airborne Infantry Regiment.  “Everybody was crying,” Stevens said. “I think we were crying for two different reasons. We were glad that segregation was leaving the Army and we were sad we were losing our Triple Nickle colors” [“Triple Nickles” was the nickname given the battalion].  It was not until seven months later that President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981 (NAID 300009), establishing equality of treatment and opportunity in the Armed Services for people of all races, religions, or national origins.

The efforts of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion have been recognized by various means over the past two decades.  In 1994, several surviving members of the battalion were honored as guests on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. during a celebration for Smokey Bear’s 50th birthday.  In June 2000, at Redding, California, surviving members took part in the 60th anniversary commemoration of the establishment of the Smoke Jumpers.  In 2005, when General David Petreaus became commander of the Combined Arms Center and Fort Leavenworth, he proposed a tribute to the battalion.  The result was a monument dedicated to the battalion, located by the Buffalo Soldier Monument.  In the dedication ceremony on September 7, 2006, General Petreaus said “These great paratroopers walked point for their race and for our country, facing down discrimination by standing in the door as one and jumping into our nation’s history.”  Along the sculpture’s base is that statement, along with the 17 original members’ names.  In February 2013, the Forest Service honored the 555th by naming a conference room after the Triple Nickles in its newly renovated Yates Building, the agency’s national headquarters office in Washington, D.C.

The 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion personnel, like most African American soldiers during World War II, faced various forms of prejudice and discrimination.  The unit personnel overcame these hurdles and proved themselves to be excellent paratroopers and soldiers.  This story is covered on numerous websites, including the Center of Military History; the official website of the 555th Parachute Infantry Battalion; and “How Black Smokejumpers Helped Save the American West,” a National Public Radio blog published January 22, 2015.  An article by Don Thompson in The Seattle Times on June 25, 2000 entitled “First black paratroopers fought racism, fires” and the article “Jumping into History: The Army’s First African American Paratroopers,” in the February 3, 2014, issue of Soldiers: The Official U.S. Army Magazine.


File: Japanese Free Balloons, Subject Correspondence File 1942-1945, G-2, Section, General Staff, Records of Army Ground Forces, Record Group 337

File: INBN-555-03, Narrative, Unit Data-555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, 25 November 1944-November 1947, World War II Operations Reports, 1941-1948 (Entry 427), Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1917-, Record Group 407

File: INBN-555-(1), General Orders-555th Parachute Infantry Battalion, 1944-1947, World War II Operations Reports, 1941-1948 (Entry 427), Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1917-, Record Group 407.

Various files filed under the decimal AG 452.4 in the Classified Decimal File 1943-1945, Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1917-, Record Group 407.

“A Report on Japanese Free Balloons,” Joint Army-Navy Release, For Release on February 9, 1946, Press Branch, Bureau of Public Relations, War Department, File: 000.7 Press Releases, Newspaper Clippings, and Releases, Vol. II, Central Correspondence, 1942-1946, Wartime Civil Control Administration and Civil Affairs Division, Western Defense Command and Fourth Army, Records of U.S. Army Defense Commands (World War II), Record Group 499.

Report of the Chief of the Forest Service 1945 (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture, 1945)

Report of the Chief of the Forest Service 1946 (Washington, D.C.: United States Department of Agriculture, 1946)

Posted in Military, RG 111 Records of the Office of the Chief Signal Officer, World War II | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Record of the Week: The Book of Negroes

This February, the Rediscovering Black History blog is kicking off a new feature – the Record of the Week. Every Thursday during Black History Month there will be a post highlighting one of the records from the National Archives’ vast holdings.

The Inspection Roll of Negroes (NAID 5890797), more commonly referred to as the Book of Negroes, is a record that is not widely known, but will soon become more prominent and recognized for its value to the history of American slavery, the Revolutionary War, and Canadian history. In the middle of Black History Month, Black Entertainment Television (BET) will air a three-part miniseries based on the novel The Book of Negroes (or Someone Knows My Name) by Lawrence Hill. The novel and miniseries tells the story of Aminata Diallo, a protagonist whose life is forever changed because of this real-life historical document.

The Book of Negroes is actually a set of two ledgers that lists the names, ages, and descriptive information of about 3,000 enslaved African Americans, indentured servants, and freedmen that were evacuated from the United States along with British soldiers at the conclusion of the American Revolution. Over the extent of about 200 pages, this record captures what is now invaluable genealogical information such as where a person was held in slavery, their owner’s name, and when and how the person obtained freedom.

Why was the list generated in the first place? At the suggestion of Sir Guy Carleton (commander of British forces during the War), the list was effectively an IOU to the United States. Per the terms of the Treaty of Paris (NAID 299805), the United Kingdom was supposed to return all property that was seized during the War, including slaves. Sir Carleton took exception with that component; for he intended to keep the promise of freedom that was made to African Americans who joined and fought for the British in the course of the Revolution (declarations such as Lord Dunmore’s Proclamation were made as early as 1775). Instead of giving in to the terms, Carleton negotiated that this Book of Negroes be made, as a way to tally the loss of ‘property’ to the US, of which the British government would compensate for at a later date. A record of that check has not been found.

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The 3,000 people that were listed in the Book of Negroes were evacuated by ship to the colony of Nova Scotia. From there many of the new African Canadians continued on and settled back on the continent of Africa, establishing the city of Freetown, Sierra Leone. During that voyage, in a bit of great irony, the ships that carried about 1,000 freed persons to a new home passed many ships that would bring thousands more enslaved peoples to the United States.

The National Archives in Kew, London holds the British version of the record. The Book of Negroes will air on BET February 16, 17, and 18 at 8 p.m.

Posted in Emancipation, Freedmen, Record of the Week, RG 11 General Records of the United States | Tagged , , , , , | 8 Comments

Part I: How to use Panama Canal Personnel Records at the National Archives: My Grandfather worked on the Panama Canal

Written by

Patrice Brown, Archivist (Special Assistant) in the Evaluation and Special Projects Division, National Declassification Center at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland


There has been increased interest in the employees of the Panama Canal since I posted several blogs in celebration of the 100th anniversary of the construction of the canal. Many researchers are interested in tracing their ancestors who might have worked on the canal. To assist these researchers, I will be offering several “how to blogs” on records in NARA’s custody that concern Panama Canal employees. The blogs will discuss such records as personnel, marriage, birth, and death, where they are located, and how to search and request information from these records.

Working with dynamite was one of the most dangerous jobs in the Canal Zone. Deaths and severe injuries to these laborers were not uncommon. In this February 1912 photograph several “powder men” are shown loading shot holes with dynamite to blast a slide of rock in the west bank of the Culebra Cut.  (National Archives Local Identifier 185-G-154)

Working with dynamite was one of the most dangerous jobs in the Canal Zone. Deaths and severe injuries to these laborers were not uncommon. In this February 1912 photograph several “powder men” are shown loading shot holes with dynamite to blast a slide of rock in the west bank of the Culebra Cut.
(National Archives Local Identifier 185-G-154)

The first “how to blog” exams personnel records in NARA’s custody. The records may provide a lot of genealogical information such as the age, place of birth, parent’s names, occupation, and whether the employee was single or married. All personnel records for the Panama Canal are a part of RG 185 Records of the Panama Canal, and are located at the National Archives at St. Louis, Missouri.

  1. Panama Canal Railroad, 1896-1920
  2. American Citizen Official Personnel Files, 1904-1920
  3. Panama Canal Official Personnel Files, 1903-1920
  4. Panama Canal: Sailing Lists of Contract Laborers, 1905-1910 [available online at]
  5. Panama Canal: Requests for Metal Check Issue Cards, 1930-1937 [available online at]
  6. Panama Canal: Applications for Photo Metal Checks, 1918-1919 [available online at]
  7. Panama Canal: Labor Service Contracts, 1905-1913
  8. Panama Canal: Service Record Cards, 1904-1920  [available online at]
  9. Records Concerning Individuals (“99 Files”), 1907-1960


The records containing the most substantive information are to be found in series 1, 2, 3, 7, and 8. The records most often include employees from the United States as well as Europe (series 1, 2, 3, and 8). All of these series are arranged alphabetically by last name of the employee that served between 1896 and 1920. So if you know the name of the employee and when they worked on the Canal you should have enough information to request copies of records that are not available online. The documents may contain a wealth of information on the individual as well as their family members such as place of birth, age, mother’s name, father’s name, etc. However, not all personnel files are created equal. Some personnel files may be filled with information while others contain only the bare bones information on the employee. So do not be surprised if a particular employee’s file that you are interested in contains next to no information or incomplete information. The Service Cards are available online at


Employees from the West Indians are most often found in series 4, 5, 6, and 7. The Sailing Lists of Contract Laborers, 1905-1910 list the names of the men from other countries hired to work on the Canal. The workers came from such countries as Barbados, Jamaica, and Spain. The lists are arranged alphabetically in part by name of ship and thereunder by date of arrival on the Canal Zone and place of departure. These records document the arrival of workers only. They do not give much information on their background. The Sailing Lists are available online at


 application for photo-metal check-employees

Requests for Metal Check Issue Cards, 1930-1937 and Applications for Photo Metal Checks, 1918-1919 are arranged by assigned numerical numbers. The Metal Checks can provide the employee’s name, their age, and their job, and their wages. These series are available online at

 request for metal check issue

Labor Service Contracts, 1905-1913 are agreements between an individual and the hiring officials on the canal. The records are arranged alphabetically by the last name of the individual. It contains a description of the individual, their age, and their place of birth. Knowing the name of the individual and when he was hired on will allow for a detailed search of these records.

Records Concerning Individuals (“99 Files”), 1907-1960 are arranged by year and thereunder alphabetically by the last name of the individual. In this case you would have to know the name of the individual and the years that he worked on the canal. The value of this series of records has proven to be questionable given their nature. The records deal more so with incidents than with individuals. I have not found these records valuable in providing information on canal employees.


Placing granite in the hollow quoin. Dry Dock No. 1, Balboa, June 21, 1915.  (National Archives Local Identifier 185-HR-4-26J164)

Placing granite in the hollow quoin. Dry Dock No. 1, Balboa, June 21, 1915.
(National Archives Local Identifier 185-HR-4-26J164)

Researchers should realize that not all personnel records are still in existence. Therefore, we may not be able to document the service of many former Panama Canal employees. Inquiries concerning the series discussed in this blog that are not online, as well as for official personnel folders (OPFs) of Panama Canal employees should be directed to the following address: National Archives at St. Louis, Attention: Archival Programs, P.O. Box 38757, St. Louis, MO 63138-10002. When you write in please provide as much information about the employee as possible in order to facilitate a proper search of the records.

Posted in RG 185 Records of the Panama Canal | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments

William H. Hunt, American Pioneer

Today’s blog was written by David Langbart, Archivist at the National Archives in College Park.

At the outbreak of World War I, William H. Hunt was serving as the U.S. Consul in St. Etienne, France. In addition to his official duties, Hunt was also a true American pioneer. In 1914, he was one of the very few African Americans serving in the Department of State, the Diplomatic Service, or the Consular Service in a professional capacity. Even more notable, he was not serving at a post in the Caribbean or in Africa.

William H. Hunt, 1911

William H. Hunt, 1911

[Source: William H. Hunt, Official Personnel Folders-Department of State (NAID 3752654); Record Group 146: Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission; National Archives, St. Louis, MO]

William Henry Hunt was born near Nashville, Tennessee on June 28, 1864, even as the American Civil War still raged. He received his education in the public schools of Nashville, at the Lawrence Academy in Groton, Massachusetts, and spent one year at Williams College before entering the business world as a clerk for Price, McCormick Co. in New York City. In 1898, he became a clerk in the U.S. consulate in Tamatave, Madagascar. His professional career began with appointment as a vice consul at Tamatave in May 1899. When the Consul Mifflin W. Gibbs resigned, he urged President McKinley to appoint Hunt in his stead. The President and Department of State took that advice and Hunt was appointed consul at Tamatave in August 1901. Hunt married Gibbs’s daughter Ida in 1904.

In 1904, Hunt sought transfer to a less remote post with a better climate and greater level of work. Hunt was appointed as consul in St. Etienne and entered into service there in November 1906. He remained in that city for over 20 years, until the U.S. closed the office in 1927. In last six years of his career, Hunt held the following postings:
●Consul at Guadeloupe May 1927
●Consul at St. Michaels, Azores September 1929
●Consul and Second Secretary of Legation at Monrovia, Liberia January 1931
●Detailed to the Department August 1932

Hunt retired on December 31, 1932, and died on December 20, 1951.

Department of State to U.S. Embassy, Paris January 15, 1927

[Source: Department of State to U.S. embassy Paris, January 15, 1927, file: 123 H 911/42a, 1910-29 Central Decimal File, RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives, College Park, MD]

The fact of Hunt’s background was ever present in his personnel file. The summary sheet of his service is headed “WILLIAM H. HUNT, of New York. (Colored).” There are also the following comments over time:

●1913: Mr. Hunt is a well educated colored man.
●1915: The only possible objection to him and the only obstacle in the way of his promotion to a more important post is the fact that he has negro blood.
●1921: The only possible objection to him is the fact that he has negro blood. . . . Good personality for a colored man.
●1921: Seems a very creditable member of his race.
●1923: For a colored man, Mr. Hunt’s personality in all respects deserves to be rated as excellent . . . were it not that his colored blood restricts his usefulness to certain posts and countries where no prejudice against such blood exists. . . . He should not be sent to a country where any race prejudice exists.
●1925: The fact that he has negro blood in his veins cannot but detract, however, from cultural standing; . . . . standing is greatly handicapped by the fact of his wife’s racial extraction which is more evident than in his own case.
●1926: The fact that he has negro blood in his veins cannot but detract, however, from cultural standing; . . . . standing is greatly handicapped by the fact of his wife’s racial extraction which is more evident than in his own case.
●1926: The Board will remember that Mr. Hunt is colored. [In reference to a new assignment.]
●1927: As the officer and his wife are colored, he is not very mobile and must be rated low as to post utility. . . . it is possible to assign him to only a limited number of posts.

When he went to Madagascar, Hunt already read, spoke, and wrote French. After working in the French colony and in France for an extended period of time, Hunt became quite fluent with the language. Indeed, he was so immersed that when he visited the Department of State on his first return visit to the United States in 17 years in November 1921, one official noted “that he has some difficulty expressing his thoughts in English.”

Hunt was not a standout performer. His ratings varied over the years, generally in the fair/good range, but he sometimes came in for severe criticism for the small number of reports the lack of comprehensiveness in those he did submit, and a lack of initiative. It was also noted that his reports were not very well written. On the other hand, he was considered tactful, courteous, prompt, accurate, industrious, and generally made a favorable impression on the local population wherever he served. He was quite prominent and popular in St. Etienne.

Sources: William H. Hunt, Official Personnel Folders-Department of State (NAID 3752654); Record Group 146: Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission; National Archives, St. Louis, MO; Appointment Cards, file “2313” in the 1906-1910 Numerical File (NAID 654171), and file “123 H 911” in the 1910-29 and 1930-39 segments of the Central Decimal File (NAID 302021), all part of RG 59: General Records of the Department of State, National Archives.

I greatly appreciate the assistance of my colleagues Ashley Mattingly and Tina Ligon.

Posted in RG 146 Records of the U.S. Civil Service Commission, RG 59 General Records of the Department of State | Tagged , , , | 1 Comment

Soul City, North Carolina!

Written by Dr. Tina L. Ligon, Archivist at the National Archives at College Park, Maryland

As a part of the Great Society, President Lyndon B. Johnson created the model cities program in 1966. This program provided federal funding to community leaders in urban areas with the intent on developing affordable housing, establishing alternative forms of municipal government, and creating antipoverty programs. Some of the areas that were selected to establish model cities were Detroit, Michigan; Oakland, California; Newark and Camden, New Jersey; Smithville, Tennessee; and Chicago, Illinois. The model cities program ended in the mid-1970s, due to conservative backlash from urban protest that occurred in the late 1960s and widespread accusations of mismanagement of government funds.

Civil Rights Activist Floyd B. McKissick was the driving force behind the Soul City project, which was to be built in Warren County, North Carolina. This model city was designed to be the residence for 50,000 people of all races and the home to businesses that would provide employment. McKissick planned for Soul City to have schools, factories, medical facilities, a man-made lake, and retail shopping by the 21st century.

Floyd B. McKissick (L) and Kimp Talley stand in front of huge 20 ft. steel and concrete sculpture which graces the entrance to Soul City at the intersection of U.S. Highway 1 and Soul City Blvd. (NAID 12584354)

Floyd B. McKissick (L) and Kimp Talley stand in front of huge 20 ft. steel and concrete sculpture which graces the entrance to Soul City at the intersection of U.S. Highway 1 and Soul City Blvd. (NAID 12584354)

The series Program Records Relating to Soul City, 1974–1979 (NAID 12584354) contains contracts, newspaper clippings, and photographs on the Soul City project. The bulk of the series consists of letters dealing with the progress of the Soul City project. Although the letters focus on the later years of the project, they give some insight into the challenges and misconceptions of building of Soul City. The following letter is from Mrs. Richard S. Bear to Secretary of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) Patricia Roberts Harris (June 14, 1979) showing support for McKissick and Soul City:

In 1975, the Raleigh News & Observer wrote an article criticizing McKissick’s motives and accused him of corruption, nepotism, and mismanagement of government funds. Several members of Congress, including Senator Jesse Helms, political leaders in North Carolina, and citizens from across the country expressed concerned over the progress of Soul City. Many felt that taxpayers’ money should not be wasted on the project. The article prompted a federal investigation into the Soul City project. Even though the investigation found no wrong doing, businesses refused to invest in the project and people chose not to relocate to Soul City. Below is a letter from North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms to Harris (July 13, 1979) about concerns over HUD’s involvement with Soul City:

Despite the continuing efforts of Floyd McKissick and his supporters, Soul City failed. The Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) withdrew its funding in 1979, due to the lack of progress in creating Soul City. Despite the government foreclosure, McKissick continued to work towards his vision of a black utopia. Today, there are a few hundred people living in Soul City and a couple of buildings. The following is from McKissick to Harris (July 6, 1979) detailing his accomplishments towards Soul City:

Posted in Black Power, RG 207 General Records of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

Captain Frederick C. Branch: The First African American Commissioned Officer in the USMC

Written by Kevin L. Bradley, Archives Technician in the Motion Picture, Sound, and Video Division at the National Archives in College Park, Maryland

The National Archives holds thousands of photographs illustrating the various activities of servicemen and women in all branches of the Armed Forces. The photographs are able to give visuals of the bravery and sacrifice that men and women in the military made during their service.

In several of the series, there are images of lesser known military heroes whose stories deserved to be acknowledged. One such person is Frederick C. Branch, the first African American commissioned officer in the United States Marine Corps (USMC).

After receiving a draft notice in May 1943, Branch reported to Fort Bragg in North Carolina, where he was inducted into the Marines. He was one of the first African Americans selected into the USMC after President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, which allowed black men to join the corps. Branch’s service and commitment during World War II, earned him at place in the officer’s training program. On November 10, 1945, Branch was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant. Branch would later achieve the rank of Captain in 1952.

The image below is from the General Photograph File of the U. S. Marine Corps, 1927-1981 (NAID 532396) series. This series was created by the USMC to capture the history of the Corps’ activities from early campaigns during World War II to battles in the Vietnam Conflict. It also contains images of African American Marines in wartime activities. The selected photograph shows Branch’s wife, Camilla, admiring his second lieutenant’s bars in 1945.

“The first Negro to be commissioned in the Marine Corps has his second lieutenant’s bars pinned on by his wife. He is Frederick C. Branch of Charlotte, NC.”, 11/1945 NAID 532577

Over the years, Branch has received numerous awards and honors. In 1995, the Senate passed a resolution to honor his contribution to the integration of the USMC. Additionally, an officer candidate training school in Virginia, and several scholarships were named after him.

The series Combined Military Service Digital Photographic Files, 1982-2007 (NAID 6274097), created by the Defense Visual Information Center to collect a visual record of military activities for publicity purposes, contains photographs of servicemen and women at various functions representing the Armed Forces. The photograph below shows Branch and his wife, at the dedication ceremony for Branch Hall at the Officers Candidates School, Marine Corps Combat Development Command in 1997.

Mr. Frederick Clinton Branch cuts the ribbon and officially dedicates Branch Hall at the Officers Candidates School, Marine Corps Combat Development Command. Mr. Branch is now a retired educator living in Philadelphia. Assisting Mr. Branch are his wife; Brig. GEN. E. C. Kelly, Commanding General (left); LT. GEN. P. K. Van Riper, Commanding General Marine Corps Combat Development Command; and COL. A. Davis, Commanding Officer of the Officers Candidate School, 07/09/1997 NAID 6501401

Posted in Military, Photographs, RG 330 Records of the Office of the Secretary of Defense, World War II | Tagged , | 1 Comment

The Chaos of Emancipation

Written by Linda Barnickel, independent archivist and freelance writer

It’s easy for us today to think that enslaved people during the Civil War era were held in bondage, and then all of a sudden, were not. Whether they ran away or remained on the plantation until Union troops invaded the area, it’s easy to think of emancipation as a single event. Presto, change-o – unfree to free. Perhaps in a single hour or day. Their status had changed.

The reality is much more complicated. The case of northeast Louisiana in the spring and summer of 1863 proves that the emancipation of southern slaves was complex. There were three different issues in play: former enslaved as “contrabands;” freed people as laborers on U.S.-operated plantations; and the recruitment of black men as soldiers into the Union army.

To Colored Men! (NAID 1497351)

To Colored Men! (NAID 1497351)

During the early part of 1863, the Union Army of the Tennessee, under the command of Major General Ulysses S. Grant, gathered along the west bank of the Mississippi River in Louisiana. Their presence had a destabilizing effect on the nearby plantations, which were still mostly populated by their owners and their human chattel. By March of 1863, a number of planters had fled to the center part of the state, near Monroe, Louisiana, or farther west to Shreveport, or even Texas. The planters often forced their enslaved men and women to accompany them, but some bondsmen took the opportunity to run away to the East, toward Union lines. Other planters removed most of their slaves, but left their homes and plantations in charge of a few trusted servants. Sometimes, these were elderly slaves, whom planters thought not only more loyal, but were also less likely to run away due to their age and health. Other times, they may have been house servants, whom the planters thought would be able to maintain their home, perhaps preventing its destruction by Yankee marauders. But the departure of white slaveholders, coupled with the proximity of the Union Army, meant that it was not long before the former bondsmen claimed their own freedom and left the plantations for Union lines. At first in small groups, then by the hundreds, freed people headed east and flooded the Union Army camps. This quickly overwhelmed the army’s ability to provide even basic necessities, such as food and sanitation. In an effort to make the situation more manageable, the army established “contraband camps,” – or what became essentially refugee camps for former enslaved men and women.

The contraband camps in northeastern Louisiana continued to be a problem for Union authorities. First, so many freed people were in these camps that they created a significant drain on Federal resources. Not only did the Union Army have to feed and clothe its own, but now it had thousands of contrabands to provide for as well. And this, just when the army was about to move out of the region, to begin the final campaign to capture the Confederate fortress at Vicksburg, Mississippi. In an attempt to alleviate this situation, many freed people were returned to area plantations – this time, laboring for wages and under the supervision of white plantation operators from the North. These men leased the plantations from the U.S. government. Their task, and that of their black laborers, was to grow crops to provide for the freed people, help feed the army, and grow cotton to send north and sell for a profit.

This circular, issued by Col. Isaac F. Shepard in May 1863, reveals some of the chaos in northeastern Louisiana. Shepard found it necessary to explicitly prohibit “punishment by the lash” on government plantations, and had to sternly remind people that the U.S. government’s entire mission in the area was to “recognize...the rights of personal liberty” and “ensure...kindness and protection” to former slaves. Because many officers were forcing men into the military involuntarily, Shepard also had to provide concrete recruiting procedures, in an effort to maintain peace and order between the Army and plantation operators, and to respect the personal liberty of the former slaves.

This circular, issued by Col. Isaac F. Shepard in May 1863, reveals some of the chaos in northeastern Louisiana. Shepard found it necessary to explicitly prohibit “punishment by the lash” on government plantations, and had to sternly remind people that the U.S. government’s entire mission in the area was to “recognize…the rights of personal liberty” and “ensure…kindness and protection” to former slaves. Because many officers were forcing men into the military involuntarily, Shepard also had to provide concrete recruiting procedures, in an effort to maintain peace and order between the Army and plantation operators, and to respect the personal liberty of the former slaves. (NAID 593342)

Although the contraband camps and plantation leasing system probably affected the majority of freed people in the region of northeast Louisiana, the most important outcome of the Union presence in the spring of 1863, was the enlistment of black men into the Federal Army. In April, Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas came from Washington to the Mississippi Valley, seeking experienced white soldiers from Grant’s army to serve as officers in what would become known as the U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). These white officers were responsible for doing their own recruiting among African Americans in the region. Anxious to get their increased rank and pay, many of these officers simply went out to the plantations and pressed black men into the service. Many regiments formed at the same time and competed for the same men. Some officers were true abolitionists and felt honored to serve in this capacity. Others were opportunists, seeking rapid promotion with its increased pay and prestige, and cared little for the welfare of the enlisted black men under their command.

The first test for these soldiers came at Milliken’s Bend, Louisiana on June 7, 1863. To nearly everyone’s surprise, the barely-trained African American soldiers fought valiantly in hand-to-hand combat, despite being overwhelmed by a Confederate attack. Afterwards, word spread about their impressive behavior under fire. Even the Confederate General, Henry McCulloch, admitted that the black troops fought with “considerably obstinacy.” The men of the African Brigade proved themselves, in the words of one observer, “worthy of the name of soldiers.”[1]

George Field provided this report on conditions at Lake Providence, La. in February 1863. Among the subjects mentioned: conditions of the “contrabands”; eagerness of black men to enlist in the Union army (despite Jefferson Davis’ threat of execution if captured); one black man who is waging his own private guerrilla war; and the aid former slaves provide to Union troops in regards to supplies, local roads and geography, and Confederate activities. A second report, dated March 20, 1863, provides additional details, including the sympathies and activities of Confederate civilians in the region; the desire of black men to enlist and the speculation that a force of eight thousand could be raised quickly; the variety of opinions of Union officers about the enlistment of black troops; and a proposal to have former slaves labor for wages on abandoned plantations. RG 94 Letters Received, 1863-1888 (NAID 593342)

Due to overlapping administrative channels, a variety of resources document the transition from slavery to freedom in the Mississippi Valley during the summer of 1863. Information about contraband camps, Federal plantations, and the organization of African-American regiments can be found in the following sources:

RG 393 Records of US Army Continental Commands, 1821–1920

The related series were created in the 8th Louisiana Regiment Infantry (African Descent) during the American Civil War: Letters Sent, 05/1863–02/1864 (NAID 5488006); General Orders, 05/1863–07/1865 (NAID 5489965); and Special Orders, 05/1863–02/1865 (NAID 5490140).

RG 94 Records of the Adjutant General’s Office, 1780’s–1917

The Colored Troops Division was established by General Order 143 on May 22, 1863. It administered matters pertaining to recruitment, organization, and service of the US Colored Troops. Related series include Register of Letters Received by Adjutant General Lorenzo Thomas, 04/1863–04/1865 (NAID 601776); Record of Regiments, 1863–1865 (NAID 602258); Applications for Appointment, 1863–1865 (NAID 602238); and Report Entitled “The Negro in the Military Service of the United States,” 1888 (NAID 602300).

Linda Barnickel’s prize-winning book, Milliken’s Bend: A Civil War Battle in History and Memory (LSU Press, 2013) further details the story of an important, but long-forgotten battle in which former-slaves-turned-soldiers played a prominent role. Click here to learn more about Milliken’s Bend.

[1] War Department, The War of the Rebellion: A Compilation of the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, (Washington, DC: GPO, 1889), series 1, vol. 24, pt. 2, p. 467; Frank Ross McGregor, Dearest Susie: A Civil War Infantryman’s Letters to His Sweetheart, ed. Carl E. Hatch (New York: Exposition Press, [1971]), p. 55.

Posted in American Civil War, RG 393 Records of the US Army Continental Commands, RG 94 Records of the Adjutant General's Office, USCT | Tagged , , | 2 Comments

Mayor for Life

Written by Netisha Currie and Tina Ligon, National Archives at College Park

“My greatest work comes in the community” ~ Marion Barry

Today is the annual Turkey Giveaway – a local tradition of Southeast Washington, DC in which former mayor Marion Barry would give out turkeys and vegetables to less fortunate residents so that they might have a happy Thanksgiving. In spite of his recent death, the event goes on as scheduled because planners say, “that’s what he would have wanted.”

Marion S. Barry

Marion S. Barry, Jr. was born into a sharecropping family on March 6, 1936 in Itta Bena, Mississippi. Growing up in the South, Barry noticed at an early age the disparities between blacks and whites in education and employment. He fought for equal rights as an Eagle Scout and as a student member of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). Barry earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from LeMoyne College in Memphis, Tennessee (1958) and then began a master’s program at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee. While at Fisk, Barry participated in the student sit-ins that were spreading across the South. In April 1960, Barry, along with John Lewis, Diane Nash, and James Bevel, traveled to Raleigh, North Carolina to answer the call for organized student protest. Barry was one of the founding members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and was the first national chairman of the student group that would work towards desegregation in the South.

In June 1965, Barry relocated to Washington, DC where he began his political career. Armed with passion and a desire for equality for African Americans, he soon became a favorite of Washingtonians. Barry was first elected to the newly minted city council after Home Rule was established in 1974. He went on to serve four terms as Mayor of Washington, DC in 1978, 1982, 1986, and 1994, and was serving as council member for Ward 8 when he passed away. He dealt with several issues that included city administration, public housing, violent crime, unemployment, and DC statehood.

Marion S. Barry

There are a number of records in the holdings of the National Archives that document Marion Barry’s personal life and public career. The records relating to Barry’s famous drug bust, investigation, and trial are permanent government record, as well as records relating to public programs and works he implemented as mayor. In his first term as mayor, Marion Barry instituted the Summer Youth Employment Program. Aimed at providing opportunity for under-served low-income young people of the District, the program continues today (entirely on District funding) and is credited as one of the factors in expanding the Black middle class of the Washington, DC area. On July 20, 1983, at the occasion of $800,000 of additional federal funds being allocated to DC, President Ronald Reagan spoke in the Rose Garden before presenting Mayor Barry with a check:

When Secretary Ray Donovan learned that my adopted hometown here was running out of money for its summer jobs program, he called Mayor and offered to help. The result is today’s check drawn from available funds at the Department of Labor. These funds will be added to the $8.2 million already transferred to the city and should provide 2,200 more summer jobs for unemployed young people in our Nation’s Capital, a city that is very special to all of us as Americans.

This money is part of over $800 million that is being distributed nationally to enable State and local governments, and this will provide an estimated 800,000 summer jobs for young people throughout the United States. Our goal is to offer disadvantaged young people valuable work experience and at the same time provide the community with their services, which, I might add, will be more than welcome by cities and nonprofit agencies which will be receiving their help.

-“Remarks on Providing Additional Federal Funds for the Washington, DC Summer Youth Employment Program July 20, 1983.” Public Papers of President Ronald W. Reagan. Ronald Reagan Presidential Library

Another item of note is the motion picture from the Office of Economic Opportunity’s Police Program. This series of film documents the early years of an experiment on police-community relations. In the film CG 8225: The People and the Police, 1971 (NAID 73174) Marion Barry is shown as one of the community representatives charged with deciding on where a pilot precinct should be established, and ways to improve relations with the police force. Marion Barry, in his ‘activist phase’, brings up the issue of community distrust in the police force, and urges that citizens should be in control of the precinct. The film clearly displays Barry’s charisma, passion for the people he represented, and leadership that he would carry throughout his storied career in public office. Click here for the full film in YouTube.

Mural in Petworth, Washington, DC


Posted in Civil Rights, Motion Pictures | Tagged , , , | 7 Comments

A Callin’ from Colón: Photographs of Black Employees Working on the Panama Canal

Written by

Barbara Lewis Burger, a retired National Archives Still Picture Senior Archivist

 We hea’ a callin’ from Colon

We hea’ a callin’ from Limon

Let’s quit de t’ankless toil an’ fret

Fe where the better pay we’ll get

~Claude McKay, Peasants’ Way O’ Thinkin’

According to La Autoridad del Canal de Panamá (Panama Canal Authority) almost 57,000 workers were employed during the construction of the Panama Canal. Of that figure, the overwhelming number was people of African descent. Some of the employees were black Americans from the United States (see “The Panama Canal: The African American Experience” by Patrice C. Brown in Prologue, Summer 1997). The majority of personnel, however, were Afro-Caribbeans from the Antilles islands commonly referred to as the West Indies. The largest number of those workers—roughly 20,000—was from Barbados. Included among those seeking jobs in the Canal Zone were many West Indian women, some of whom followed their husbands, while others journeyed to Panama often for the same reasons as men—jobs and better pay, freedom, or adventure.

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In his lengthy 1912 poem, “Peasants’ Way O’ Thinkin’,” Jamaican-American writer and poet Claude McKay suggested some of the reasons islanders left their homes in droves (see William J. Maxwell, ed., Complete Poems/Claude McKay, 2004). The applicants were not unaware of the racism practiced by Canal officials, the physically demanding and dangerous jobs, the deadly diseases, the deplorable living conditions, nor of the high death rates among laborers. Individuals returning home or sending news to relatives and friends certainly relayed information about the situation. Then again, life on the islands for the unskilled and mostly illiterate was little better. Sugar prices had been depressed for many years, and sugar cane cultivation was in decline, frequent floods and droughts and even a 1907 earthquake wrought havoc, and landlessness, overpopulation, and severe unemployment made for a bleak existence. A construction job paying ten cents an hour was for many West Indians double what could be expected from working in sugar cane fields. Understandably, the opportunity to escape the dire conditions on their home islands for a chance at better pay was a strong lure that so many could not ignore.

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No matter their motivation, a seemingly endless supply of Antillean workers permeated all aspects of life and work on the isthmus. David McCullough noted in his history The Path Between the Seas: The Creation of the Panama Canal 1870-1914 (Simon and Schuster, 1977) that “There were not only thousands of West Indians down amid the turmoil of Culebra Cut or at the lock sites but black waiters in every hotel, black stevedores, teamsters, porters, hospital orderlies, cooks, laundresses, nursemaids, janitors, delivery boys, coachmen, icemen, garbage men, yardmen, mail clerks, police, plumbers, house painters, gravediggers. A black man walking along spraying oil on still water, a metal tank on his back, was one of the most familiar of all sights in the Canal Zone.” McCullough further remarked that despite the essentialness of their labors, little official or national notice or acknowledgement was paid.

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Nevertheless, photographic coverage of their hard work exists in still picture series in the Records of the Panama Canal, Record Group 185 at the National Archives. The photographs featured in this blog document a variety of occupations. The images are from two series: the general still picture series Photographs of the Construction of the Panama Canal, 1887-1940 (NAID 535444) and the series Photographs Related to the Construction of the Panama Canal’s Pacific Terminals, East Breakwater Works, Cristobal Coaling Plant Works, and the Operation of Floating Cranes, ca. 1911-ca. 1916 (NAID 535446).

Posted in Photographs, RG 185 Records of the Panama Canal | Tagged , , | 3 Comments

Striving Towards the Great Society: Remembering LBJ, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and the Momentous Year that Encompassed It

Written by

Dr. Miranda Booker Perry, Archivist at the National Archives at Washington, D. C.

LBJ and Civil Rights

Although I did not have the opportunity to attend the Civil Rights Summit in April of this year, having the event at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library was most fitting. A key component of the Great Society was Johnson’s efforts to end racial injustice. President Johnson was a masterful legislator, clever tactician, and seasoned politician; the qualities needed to get the Civil Rights bill passed in Congress. In his address to a joint session of Congress, five days after Kennedy’s assassination, he asserted,

First, no memorial oration or eulogy could more eloquently honor President Kennedy’s memory than the earliest possible passage of the civil rights bill for which he fought so long. We have talked long enough in this country about equal rights. We have talked for one hundred years or more. It is time now to write the next chapter, and to write it into the books of law. I urge you again, as I did in 1957 and again in 1960, to enact a civil rights law so that we can move forward to eliminate from this Nation every trace of discrimination and oppression that is based upon race and color.

President Johnson firmly believed in the adage, ‘Where there’s a will, there’s a way’ and he was determined to make the Civil Rights Act a reality even in the face of strong opposition.

Plight of African Americans

Although a century had passed since the Civil War drew to a close and the 13th Amendment was secured, African Americans in the South were living without equal protection under the law and were left to fend for themselves against white supremacy. Civil Rights Bills were enacted in the 1860s and 1870s, but they were not enforced or circumvented by the states. The Civil Rights Act of 1875 prohibited discrimination in public accommodations, but was nullified by the Supreme Court Decision known as The Civil Rights Cases (1883). By the 1960s legalized segregation (Jim Crow laws) was entrenched in the South and blacks were treated as second-class citizens. Public accommodations such as restaurants, lunch counters, hotels, beaches, pools, retail stores, and cemeteries were racially segregated. Black people suffered numerous indignities at the hands of segregationists and were subject to brutal beatings, maiming, or murder if they dared to exercise their constitutional rights.

Significant Civil Rights Events that occurred in 1964

  •  “Mississippi Burning, the federal investigation into the the disappearance of civil rights organizers James Chaney, Michael “Mickey” Schwerner, and Andrew Goodman in June 1964
  • Lt. Colonel Lemuel Penn, Army Reserve Officer and educator, was shot and killed by Ku Klux Klan members on his way back to Washington D. C. with two other Army Reserve officers after training exercises in Fort Benning, Georgia
  • Council of Federated Organizations (COFO) Initiatives
  • Freedom Summer (also known as the Mississippi Summer Project)
  • Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) was established
  • Northern urban unrest/discontent (due to police brutality etc)
  • Dr. King was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize
President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson meeting with religious leaders to discuss Civil Rights.

President Lyndon B. Johnson Johnson meeting with religious leaders to discuss Civil Rights.

Supporting the Civil Rights Bill of 1964

Many photographs and documents pertaining to the Civil Rights Act are in our holdings at the Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library in Austin, Texas. During April, May and June of 1964 numerous groups came to the White House to demonstrate or show their support of the passage of the Civil Rights Bill, namely, the NAACP, unions, religious groups and other organizations. The organizations are as follows: National Interreligious Convocation on Civil Rights in April 28, 1964 (groups from various major religious faiths joined together to support the passage of the Civil Rights Bill) meeting with the National Director of the NAACP and board of directors, June 24, 1964; and Civil Rights leaders in January 1964.He met with leaders of major Civil Rights organizations on a number of occasions and they are, notably,: Roy Wilkins who was the executive director of the NAACP, Whitney M. Young, Executive Director of the National Urban League, James L. Farmer, founder of Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., president of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). With pressure applied by various organizations, and especially Civil Rights organizations and their supporters, forward thinking members of Congress and a pro-active President the Civil Rights Bill was enacted and its provisions were enforced by the federal government.

Martin Luther King, Jr. (center), with Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, and Whitney Young, met with President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office on January 18, 1964. (LBJ Library)

Martin Luther King, Jr. (center), with Roy Wilkins, James Farmer, and Whitney Young, met with President Lyndon Johnson in the Oval Office on January 18, 1964. (LBJ Library)

Inner workings of Congress

President Johnson had considerable clout in Congress. His power of persuasion coupled with the “The Johnson Treatment” was especially useful in handling the diehard Southern Bloc in the Senate (18 Democrats and 1 Republican) who was in opposition to the Civil Rights bill. Southern Congressmen and senators used a variety of tactics including the Filibuster that lasted for more than fifty days in attempts to kill the bill. This was anticipated and Senator Hubert H. Humprey (D-MN) and other Senators introduced a substitute bill to end the filibuster and ensure that the act was passed.

The Civil Rights Movement was a grassroots movement. Had it not been for ordinary men and women, unsung heroes, along with Civil Rights leaders, non-violently protesting and demonstrating against racial injustice (and some losing their lives in the process) the acts passed in the 1960s would not have come to fruition. America’s Civil Rights Struggle galvanized Congress to pass and enforce legislation to protect the rights of people of color. It was a tremendous help, of course, that the leader of the free world, LBJ, firmly supported the passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the same year, he also signed the Constitutional Amendment on the Poll Tax. The 24th Amendment, ratified on January 23, 1964, finally outlawed the poll tax which was intentionally designed to disenfranchise Southern blacks. On August 20, 1964, LBJ also signed the Economic Opportunity Act into law which is also known as the Poverty Bill. And this was just in 1964. He went on to sign such transformative legislation as the Voting Rights Act of 1965 and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (officially known as the Civil Rights Act of 1968) among others. Why then, when President Johnson’s name is evoked, does the Vietnam War, started under the Eisenhower Administration, prominently figure in many peoples’ minds instead of the devastating blow he dealt to overt racial discrimination?

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., others look on, 07/02/1964. (The Lyndon Baines Johnson Presidential Library)

President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the 1964 Civil Rights Act as Martin Luther King, Jr., others look on, 07/02/1964. (The LBJ Presidential Library)

Posted in Civil Rights, Civil Rights Act of 1964 | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments