Building Fort Bragg: The Migrant Workers of 1940-41

Near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. These construction workers were living in a trailer that they had bought from a fortune teller at a circus. They came from West Virginia to work at Ft. Bragg. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. This Fort Bragg construction worker and his buddy were living in a trailer that they had bought from a fortune teller at a circus. They had come from West Virginia. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

This week I’ve been looking at another remarkable collection of historical photographs. Now preserved at the Library of Congress, they were taken by a documentary photographer named Jack Delano in the camps of the migrant construction workers that built Fort Bragg, N.C., one of the largest military installations in the world.

When he took these photographs during the Second World War, Delano worked for the Farm Security Administration (FSA), one of the “New Deal” programs that the administration of Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt created in order to address rural poverty during the Great Depression.

Near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. A family of four had converted this tobacco barn's loft into a home. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. A family of four had converted this tobacco barn’s loft into a home. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Migrant camp for Fort Bragg construction workers, near Fayetteville, N.C., March 1941. This gentleman was living in his truck while working as a carpenter at the base. He was from Hickory, N.C., 200 miles away. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Near Fayetteville, N.C., March 1941. This gentleman was living in his truck while doing construction work at Fort Bragg. He was from Hickory, N.C., 140 miles away. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

When the FSA was established in 1937, its small cadre of photographers focused on documenting the hardships of rural people during the Great Depression. FSA leaders hoped the photographs would build support for the Roosevelt Administration’s efforts to fight rural poverty.

A migrant camp of Ft. Bragg construction workers next to a general store in Manchester, N.C, 12 miles from Fayetteville, Mar. 1941. The workers and sometimes their families lived largely in little trailers, trucks, tiny bunkhouses & even an old trolley car. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

A migrant camp of Fort Bragg construction workers next to a general store in Manchester, N.C, 12 miles from Fayetteville, Mar. 1941. The workers and sometimes their families lived in tiny trailers, trucks, a bunkhouse and makeshift shacks. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

The mission of the FSA photographers began to change in 1940 and ’41, however. During those years, at least some of the FSA photographers began to document a new moment in America’s history.

As U.S. leaders geared up for World War II, the federal government began to acquire hundreds of thousands of acres of land in order to build new military installations and to expand existing bases. Soon the War Department was investing untold millions in the construction of military bases, shipyards, air fields, ammunition depots and defense plants.

Other construction workers commuted long distances to Ft. Bragg. Shown hear getting gas at a country store in Manchester, these men commuted daily from Greensboro, 90 miles away. Their truck holds 20 or more men. Note they include white and black workers: racial mixing that would have caused riots in Greensboro was standard stuff in the great maelstrom that was World War II in eastern N.C. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Other construction workers commuted to Fort Bragg. Shown here getting gas at a country store, these men drove every morning from Greensboro, N.C., 90 miles away.  Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

After living through the hardships of the Great Depression for so long, hundreds of thousands of unemployed and underemployed American workers swarmed to those military construction sites.

Family at a migrant camp of Ft. Bragg construction workers at a tent camp near Fayetteville, 1941. They rented tent space for $1.00 a week. Photo by Jack Delaney. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Family of a Fort Bragg construction worker at a tent camp near Fayetteville, 1941. They rented tent space for $1.00 a week. Photo by Jack Delaney. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Another migrant camp near Fayetteville, N.C, 1941. The nearest shack was an abandoned school bus. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Another camp of migrant construction workers near Fayetteville, N.C, 1941. The nearest shack was a converted school bus. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. A family of four was living in this old streetcar. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. A family of four was living in this old streetcar. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

In March of 1941, Jack Delano documented that moment in our history in one part of eastern North Carolina– the area around what had been a rather obscure, World War I-era army base, Fort Bragg.

Many of Ft. Bragg's construction workers lived in tobacco barns and sheds that farmers turned into bunkhouses. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. Many of Fort Bragg’s construction workers without families lived in hastily built bunkhouses. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress.

Migrant construction workers eating supper at a trailer camp near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Construction workers eating supper at a trailer camp near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Today I want to share a group of Delano’s photographs with you. As you can see, they feature scenes from the camps of migrant construction workers that sprung up around Fort Bragg in 1940 and ’41.

Those construction workers transformed Fort Bragg. Sprawling across 250 square miles in Hoke and Cumberland counties, the army base has been one of the largest military installations in the world from the time of the Second World War to the present day.

Near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. This young girl's family rented this little shack for $5 a week while her father worked at Fort Bragg. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. The young girl’s family rented this little place for $5 a week so that her father could do construction work at Fort Bragg. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Migrant camp near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. This family traveled all the way from South Texas so that this woman's husband could get work at Ft. Bragg. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Migrant camp near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. This family traveled all the way from South Texas so that this woman’s husband could get work at Fort Bragg. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Prior to 1940 however, Fort Bragg was a relatively small artillery training camp with only a few thousand soldiers. That changed quickly. As America prepared for war, people in every corner of eastern North Carolina and from every state in the Union  headed to new construction projects at Fort Bragg.

Migrant camp near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. This is one of a group of men that came all the way from Idaho to get construction work at Ft. Bragg. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Migrant camp near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. This is one of a group of men that came all the way from Idaho to get construction work at Fort Bragg. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

As those construction workers arrived at Fort Bragg’s gates, the local people could not possibly find housing for them. The construction workers outnumbered the total population of the nearest town, Fayetteville, and most of the surrounding countryside was farmland, rich in fields of tobacco and truck crops.

The construction workers found a way though. They moved into local people’s pantries and hallways, sometimes renting cots by the shift and sharing the space with one or two other men that worked other shifts.

As you can see in Delano’s photographs, the construction workers also moved into tobacco barns, old warehouses and supply tents. Many lived in their cars and trucks, often renting space in local people’s front yards. Some stayed in cardboard shacks or built little huts in the forest.

View of camp of Ft. Bragg construction workers and their families on the Fayetteville-Ft. Bragg road, 1941. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

View of camp of Ft. Bragg construction workers and their families on the Fayetteville-Fort Bragg Road, 1941. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Others commuted daily to Fort Bragg from distant parts of eastern North Carolina, in many cases driving hours to get there. They’d leave home long before first light, arrive at Fort Bragg by dawn, work a 10 or 12 hour shift and then drive back home, often in a farm truck full of 15 or 20 men.  They’d get a few hours sleep, wake up and do it again the next day, seven days a week.

If you expect that they complained, you may not fully appreciate how bad things still were in eastern North Carolina and much of the rest of the U.S. even a decade into the Great Depression.

When I was younger, I interviewed many men who did construction work at Fort Bragg and other military construction projects in eastern North Carolina during or just before the Second World War.

Their message to me was clear: at that time, any job was a godsend. Anything that made it possible to keep their children from going hungry was a blessing. Any sacrifice that could make for a better future was worth making.

A baby in its stroller in a settlement of shacks built to house Fort Bragg construction workers, near Manchester, 1941. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

A baby in its stroller in a settlement of shacks built to house Fort Bragg construction workers, near Manchester, 1941. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

The "Crime Museum" was one of the traveling tent shows that followed the construction workers to the Fayetteville area. Jack Delano, the photographer, described the tent show's owner as "an old shell-shocked World War veteran." Courtesy, Library of Congress

The “Crime Museum” was a traveling tent show that followed the construction workers to the Fort Bragg area. Jack Delano described the show’s owner as “an old shell-shocked World War veteran.” The owner included the boxer Joe Louis and George Washington in his museum to show visitors the good things that could happen to them “if they went straight.” Courtesy, Library of Congress

In only a few months, those Fort Bragg construction workers built hundreds upon hundreds of buildings as well as roads, an airfield, an electric power plant, a water and sewage system, railroad lines, recreational and training facilities and more– a complex  far larger than any city in eastern North Carolina at that time.

Near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. The photographer, Jack Delano, described this woman as a "former circus performer." She was traveling with her husband, a construction worker at Ft. Bragg. Their trailer's license plate is from Mississippi. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Near Fayetteville, N.C., 1941. Jack Delano described this woman as a “former circus performer.” She was traveling with her husband, a construction worker at Fort Bragg. They had come a long way: they have a Mississippi license plate on their trailer. Courtesy, Library of Congress

The FSA photographer, Jack Delano, by the way, was a Russian Jewish immigrant who had come to the U.S. with his family when he was nine years old.

A supremely gifted photographer and also a noted composer of music, he only worked for the FSA in 1940 and 1941. (He later became a war photographer.) However, he left us with some of the most indelible images of what life was like in eastern North Carolina during the war.

Near Fayetteville, 1941. Children sitting on the stairs of their home on the 2nd story of a tobacco barn. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Near Fayetteville, 1941. Children sitting on the stairs of their home on the 2nd story of a tobacco barn. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

You can find all of Delano’s portraits of Fort Bragg construction workers on the web site for the  Library of Congress. They’re in a collection called the Farm Security Administration/Office of War Information Negatives.

Near Fayetteville, N.C. A woman peering out a tent in a migrant camp, 1941. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Near Fayetteville, N.C. A woman peering out a tent in a migrant camp, 1941. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

When they finished building Fort Bragg, most of the construction workers vanished. Some returned to their homes, whether that was a remote hollow in the Appalachian mountains or a ranch bunkhouse in Idaho.

Some had fallen in love with local women and stayed in the Fort Bragg area or moved back later. Far more soon found themselves on the battlefields of North Africa, Europe, Asia and the Pacific.

Fort Bragg construction workers at a country store, probably in Manchester, N.C., 1941. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Fort Bragg construction workers at a country store, probably in Manchester, N.C., 1941. Photo by Jack Delano. Courtesy, Library of Congress

Many did other military construction work. As soon as their job was done at Fort Bragg, they picked up and hit the road again.

Some traveled to military construction sites in other parts of eastern North Carolina, and many headed to distant parts of the U.S. They cleared land and built shipyards and ships. They constructed military camps, manufactured ammunition and built tanks and airplanes.

A great transformation had begun. In 1939, eastern North Carolina was still mired in the Great Depression. Unemployment was suffocating. The worst kinds of poverty were everywhere.

Only a few years later, in 1942, the War Department’s leaders declared the region “a labor shortage zone” and forbid the construction of any major new defense facilities in eastern North Carolina because they doubted that they could find enough workers to build or man them.

War, of all things, had been the region’s way out of the Great Depression, a bitter and troubling irony to some, but one that few had time to dwell on.

The war seemed to change everything. People were on the move, and they would stay on the move, trying, wherever they went, to put the Great Depression behind them and not to think too much about the scars it had left on them.

3 thoughts on “Building Fort Bragg: The Migrant Workers of 1940-41

  1. Pingback: Building Fort Bragg II: The Puerto Rican Migrant Workers of 1918 | David Cecelski

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.