Monday, July 20, 2015

“Only Thing Can Find To Do:” Louis Shepherd and the CCC, Part 2

WPA Poster, ca. 1936-1941 (WPA Poster Collection, Library of Congress)

In my last post, I wrote about my maternal grandfather, Louis Shepherd, and what little I knew about his time in the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC). My next step was to send away for his Individual Record, held by the National Archives and Records Administration. Well, guess what came in the mail last week??

Yes, indeed - fourteen pages of information, though honestly a fair bit of it was redundant. However, there were some gems of information. In between his actual Individual Record (8 pages), Certificate of Selection (2 pages), and Enrollee Cumulative Record (4 pages), I learned that he:

-          was a beanpole of a 17-year--old, at 6 feet 3 inches and 160 lbs
-          was in good health – 20/20 eyesight, no asthma, no convulsions and - thankfully - no “fits”
-          got his auto mechanic training at Phelps Vocational junior high school (one of his sons also attended this school, in later years)
-          dropped out of school to seek employment

And it’s this last point I want to focus on for the rest of this post. Remember from the previous post that the CCC was established by President Franklin D. Roosevelt as a way to provide gainful employment to some of those hardest hit by the Great Depression: young men. 

Nine African American men in CCC employment. ( Public Domain: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service)

So let’s explore what Granddad’s situation was in 1940.

A snippet of the 1940 Census for Washington, DC showing Louis Shepherd and his mom Katherine
(née Shepherd) Banks as lodgers.

  • He and his mom Katherine are living in a boarding house at 152 D Street, SE, in Washington, DC. (Does this address sound familiar, Cooper/Shepherd family? There was a cute girl next door – I know her as Grandma Elnora!)
  • Including this boarding house, Katherine has at least 4 different addresses between 1932 and 1940.
  • Katherine is listed as a domestic, servant, cook, laundress or maid in every document that lists her occupation from 1920 on.
The Colonial Hotel, in Washington DC. According to a 1939 City Directory, Katherine worked here as a maid that year. (National Photo Company Collection, Library of Congress)

  • According to the 1940 Census, Katherine is working as a maid in a hotel. In the previous year, she earned a total of $744 over 52 weeks of work. In today’s dollars that’s equal to about $12,636. For an entire year.
  • Katherine is either separated, divorced or widowed in 1940, and has been since at least 1930.

All of this suggests that their financial situation was, if not dire, then not on completely solid ground, especially given the backdrop of the Great Depression. It’s no wonder that Louis would want to help out, especially if he already had his eye on that girl next door and wanted to prove his worth!

According to the new paperwork, Louis at one point worked odd jobs after school and even served as a newspaper boy - what I would give for a picture of that!! But clearly that wasn’t enough, because as his record shows, Granddad dropped out of school to seek employment. Imagine the competition - hundreds of thousands of men and women looking for work, everyone's situation worse than the last. He ended up with the CCC because, according to his file, it’s the “only thing can find to do.”

As a CCC enrollee, Granddad Louis earned $22 a month, worth about $365 today. To put that in context, according to this website, you could get a jumbo loaf of bread for about 5 cents, a gallon of gas for 11 cents, and a Cadillac La Salle for $1,240.

For the first few months, Louis sent all of his earnings home to his mom. When the new year began, he began setting aside $7 per month in his CCC savings account, but all the rest continued to be sent to my Great-Grandma Katherine. After his first term was up, in April of 1941, Louis was apparently still having trouble finding work, because he re-enlisted, under the same terms as his previous contract. But this time he didn’t stay for the whole term: in August of ’41 he was honorably discharged because he had found paying employment. Through a friend's connection, he would serve as an orderly at Weaver Bros., Inc, a real estate firm down the street from the Washington Monument, at 15th and G, NW. And because he’d been setting aside a few dollars each month, he had a little nest egg to withdraw - $56. I wonder what he did with it...

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