Thursday, July 7, 2011

Beyond the Battlefield: A Simple Matchbook and a Rabbit Hole

A couple months ago, at the annual spring Gettysburg antique show, I found a small display of Civilian Conservation Corps items. Pennants and coins, matchbook covers and pins all displayed on a piece of foam-core. One caught my eye. For $10, I became the proud owner of a matchbook cover, never used, from a CCC Camp in Gettysburg. Company 1355 was stationed at Camp NP - 2 - Pa., now known as the Boy Scout / youth camping area at McMillan woods. I was thrilled.

The piece is an interesting artifact, but nothing too curious. There are artifacts from the CCC across America, from roads and public works projects to family photo albums and mementos ferreted away in attics as reminders of America's last great economic troubles. This matchbook is not necessarily odd.

Until you realize a key fact about Company 1355: the men were members of one of the Civilian Conservation Corp's all black units. These men were stationed at Gettysburg, Lincoln's home of a, "new birth of freedom."

Baltimore Afro-American - 10 February 1934
The decision seems not to have been made lightly. Its meanings were readily apparent to the region's African-American community. When a previous CCC company was stationed at Gettysburg, the Baltimore Afro-American was keen to point out that CCC men were now working, "where Abraham Lincoln delivered his famous Gettysburg address."

The men of camp 1355 were part of the work crew which reset, "several thousand headstones," in the National Cemetery in 1935. The Afro-American declared the soldiers who rested there as, "Civil War heroes." Working in the cemetery, undoubtedly, in between good-natured jests which workers trade on long days, the men of 1935 must have thought about those men of 1863 who were buried there, Lincoln's, "honored dead." They must have thought about their lives as black men in an America whose future was uncertain.

Did they gain strength to journey on from the soldiers' willingness to die for the future of a race of men? Can we still gain that strength for our lives today?

Baltimore Afro-American - 9 November 1935

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