NCPH Award Q&A – Acadia Job Corps Conservation Center (AJCCC) in Maine’s Acadia National Park, Part II
14 March 2023 – Laura Miller and Angela Sirna
Editor’s Note: Want to learn more about the Acadia Job Corps Conservation Center in Maine’s Acadia National Park? We sat down with Laura Miller and Angela Sirna and learned about his program’s impact on the community and individual corpsmen. This post is part of a series of reflections from winners of NCPH awards in 2022.
Editors: What surprised you the most about researching the subject matter?
Laura: It was striking, but not surprising, to see how thoroughly the history of the AJCCC has been ignored or buried in local history. It reflects the broader erasure of people of color from American environmental and conservation narratives. The only public acknowledgment of the Job Corps Center at Acadia was a tiny plaque. The park’s archives told a similar story. After we completed the study, Marie [Yarborough, Acadia curator] discovered a Job Corps scrapbook that had long ago been misfiled in the park’s archives. Local archives did not have any records related to the center. These omissions reflect the reality that many local businesspeople and residents wanted the poor, majority Black and Latino corpsmen to remain out of sight from the affluent tourists visiting Bar Harbor and Acadia National Park. The Center was never fully welcomed in the local community. Once it closed, many people seemed eager to forget about it.
Editors: What was uncovered about Black history in Maine, specifically with the Jobs Corps program at Acadia?
I can’t say that we uncovered a tremendous amount specifically about Black history in Maine; for that research, we are indebted to those who have studied the state’s Black history in detail.
We learned how the War on Poverty operated in Maine, and how issues of race and class intersected in public debates over whether to bring a Job Corps center to Acadia National Park. Hancock County (home to Mount Desert Island) was very poor and had high unemployment rates. The proposed Job Corps Center was intended to serve poor young men from outside the community, whereas most War on Poverty programs sought to help local communities themselves. Many residents were concerned about corpsmen competing for already scarce resources–particularly jobs–if the young men stayed in the area after completing the program. Many locals also expressed fears about poor Black and Latino young men coming into their overwhelmingly White community.
Acadia National Park and Bar Harbor have long been leisure spaces catering primarily to affluent White vacationers. When corpsmen of color used their free time to explore and enjoy the island’s recreational spaces, they often faced scrutiny from residents, businesspeople, and tourists who complained about their presence in town and the national park. This provoked civil rights conflicts similar to those playing out in communities throughout the United States in the 1960s. The Park’s archives reveal some of these confrontations, as well as the challenges and frustrations they created for corpsmen.
We also uncovered some glimpses into corpsmen’s hopes, fears, and aspirations, as well as exciting experiences they enjoyed as part of their participation in the Job Corps. A few examples: Acadia’s corpsmen rehabbed an out-of-commission Coast Guard lifeboat to use for recreational sailing; they posed for photos with a massive sperm whale that washed up on a park beach; and a group of corpsmen traveled to the 1967 International Universal Exposition in Montreal. The newsletters also reveal more painful realities. The war in Vietnam was ever-present for many of them, and so, too, were the protests and urban uprisings against police brutality and civil rights abuses in American cities in the mid-1960s.
Editors: How important is studying race and class when doing interpretive work for the NPS?
Angela: All Americans should be able to see themselves in the stories told at National Parks. Many National Parks interpret the history of the conservation movement in their own origin stories. The conservation movement is often thought of as a movement led by white, upper-class men, but the Job Corps story complicates that narrative in a way that shows how young men of color and White men at the bottom of the economic ladder contributed to these special places.
Laura: And by extension, avoiding histories that engage with race and class has consequences for both the National Park Service’s understanding of its own institutional history and its ongoing efforts to diversify staff and visitors at the national parks.
Editors: In what ways do you think your approach to this project is particularly innovative? Or, how or why would you say this project should serve as a model for other National Park Service History Projects?
Angela: In my experience, it isn’t typical to see this kind of collaboration between park cultural resources staff, a NPS regional historian, and a consultant. This is the first time I have been able to substantially contribute to a project in more than just a project management or reviewer role. Everyone was deeply invested in this project, which I think made all the difference. It might not sound innovative to most public historians reading this post, but it was for us.
Editors: Where would you want to take this project next? What were some of the tangible outcomes from the research?
Angela: I’ve been trying to draw attention to the Job Corps for a while. Completing this project and winning this award has helped get the word out. We want this study to have a life beyond NPS gray literature, so we are writing an article for The Public Historian. We hope that this study is a starting point for more work to be done on the history of the Job Corps, not just in the NPS, but other agencies as well. We are also excited that Acadia National Park is hiring interns to continue this work at the park.
Laura: We also want to highlight the contemporary relevance of this project in the midst of present-day calls for the Biden administration to establish a Civilian Climate Corps. The proposed program was cut from last year’s Inflation Reduction Act, but the continued enthusiasm for such programs underscores the importance of revisiting the history of the Job Corps. It provides essential context for— and perhaps a cautionary tale about—federal youth conservation programs.
Editors: How will this Historic Resource Study be used for interpretive and/or future research purposes within the NPS system?
We are interested to see what Acadia National Park does with the study. This summer, the Park hired an Untold Histories Research Assistant, Seikou Sanneh, to continue working on this and other topics. We hope that by incorporating the Job Corps story into interpretation, Acadia can tell a richer, more complex conservation story. We hope our study will inspire other national parks and national forests with Job Corps histories to examine them closely.
~Laura Miller is a public historian and historical consultant based in Western Massachusetts. She specializes in research, writing, and oral history projects for history organizations and other nonprofits. She has worked on several consulting projects for the National Park Service, and is currently writing an administrative history of Eisenhower National Historic Site in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. Miller earned her Ph.D. in History and M.A. in Public History from the University of Massachusetts Amherst.
~Angela Sirna leads the Park History Program for the National Park Service legacy Intermountain Region. Her research interests lie in the intersection of social policy with public lands management. She has a M.A. in history from West Virginia University and a Ph.D. in public history from Middle Tennessee State University. She has worked in national parks in the National Capital Area, the NPS Southeast Regional Office, and as a consultant specializing in park administrative histories.