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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.