With the growth of the civil rights movement, a number of Forest Service employees in the South witnessed several important, and sometimes frightening, incidents relating to the fight for racial justice. James McConnell and his wife were working in Oxford, Mississippi in 1962 when James Meredith attempted to enroll in classes at the University of Mississippi. The city erupted into riots and two people were killed. In his interview, Mr. McConnell noted, “We were right there, we lived through it. It was a battle. We could hear it from our house.” The federal troops that were brought in to take control of the situation were eventually housed on Forest Service land and set up check points throughout the town. The McConnells recalled that the situation in the town was tense and frightening for everyone. Once things settled down, Mrs. McConnell went to work at one of the black schools as the librarian. She commented on the inequality of the educational materials available: “And I went to work in what had been the black school as their librarian, and I threw all their books in the garbage cause they were army manuals. That’s what they gave ‘em.”
When Ray Mason was stationed in Gloster, Mississippi, he also witnessed racial discrimination, which impacted his work with the Forest Service. Mason recalled that when he was working in Mississippi, Forest Service personnel were almost all white. That changed somewhat when he hired a group of ten African Americans to work on a special project. He remembered that “after the first day that they were on, that they were working, that night I had a lot of leaflets thrown on my lawn by the KKK.” Around the same time, a paper company was attempting to unionize and two black labor organizers were murdered. Their bodies were dumped in Mr. Mason’s forest district. He recalled, “that same night there was a huge wooden cross made out of six by eight timbers, about nine feet, ten feet tall supported like a Christmas tree at the bottom that they burned at a major intersection of forest roads in the middle of the forest.” Mr. Mason witnessed other troubling events related to racism in the South, but also enjoyed the opportunity to work with young black school children and teach them about Smokey Bear and forest safety. When asked about the Forest Service’s definitive contribution to the nation, Mr. Mason answered, “I thought about that very thing last night, and in my opinion, it was in the area of Civil Rights, and I felt like I did have a role in that area. Interesting thing was I didn’t get a single comment from the S.O. (Supervisor’s Office) about hiring these ten blacks.”As African Americans struggled to achieve equal rights, women fought a similar fight. As part of the Forest Service family, many women sacrificed their careers or changed jobs as their husbands moved to new districts. The Forest Service hired women prior to the 1960s and 1970s, but the majority of them worked in clerical positions. Working on the forest was viewed as a man’s job. Bob James recalled that men “were out…taking care of the stock. They were out…doing recreation; they were out cleaning up camp grounds; they were doing all of those kind of things that the women just in those days, didn’t do.” This changed as women sought legal recourse to challenge exclusionary hiring practices. The outcome of legal cases in California forced the Forest Service to reevaluate its hiring practices and make its workforce more inclusive. For more information on the class action lawsuit, Bernardi v. Butz, and subsequent consent decree, see the Gene Bernardi papers.
As American society became more concerned about social justice issues, like civil rights and the women’s movement, the Forest Service responded by hiring more women and minorities. Many of the men interviewed for this project noted that the inclusion of women and minorities into the Forest Service work force is the issue they are most proud of during their careers. Mac McConnell recalled that one of his proudest moments was hiring the first black Forest Service laborer in Texas. Dave Jolly expressed similar sentiments and proudly stated, “When I came to work, I could say almost without any doubt that you were either white males or and you were either foresters or engineers. The woman did only clerical stuff. Now I think, I don’t know this for sure but somebody told me the other day, that slightly over half of the line officers in the Forest Service are women.”