Traveling Through Time
Written by: Ella Wagner
I’ve been working in the Cultural Resources Office for Interpretation and Education (CROIE) at the Washington Support Office (WASO) of the National Park Service (NPS) for more than two years. That’s enough time to have most of the acronyms down pat! But this summer with CRDIP marks a big shift in gears for me. So far, my work has focused on the women’s suffrage movement (roughly 1840s-1920s) and on the founding and “early republic” era of US history in preparation for the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence in 2026. This summer, though, I’m traveling forward in time to focus on researching and interpreting the World War II home front in the late 1930s and 1940s. I’ll be building an interactive map and several web pages to create a place-based history of religion on the home front.
To organize my research, I began by identifying a few themes in the history of religion and the home front. In this post, I want to share a few of the stories I’ve found about conscientious objectors (or COs)—people who objected to military service because of their religious opposition to war and violence. Since our office focuses on place-based history, I have begun building a Google Map to keep track of historic places that I can use to tell these stories.
Many COs were members of the historic “peace churches,” including Quakers, Mennonites, and the Church of the Brethren, that advocated pacifism. During World War II, draftees who held pacifist beliefs had to register as COs with their local draft board. From there, they had three options. They could join the military in a non-combat role, such as as a medic or chaplain. They could participate in the Civilian Public Service (CPS) program, which organized “work of national importance” in different government agencies (including the NPS) for COs. Or they could go to jail.
Most of the 43,000 men who registered as COs during WWII chose either the first or the second option. Those choosing civilian service reported to one of the 150 camps set up for the CPS program. The first to be constructed was the Patapsco Camp near Avalon, Maryland. The site of a former Civilian Conservation Corps camp, Patapsco provided a base for COs to forestry and trail maintenance work. Today, the site is part of the Patapsco Valley Heritage Area.
More rarely, COs felt uncomfortable even with civilian service that indirectly supported the war effort. About 6000 of them opted for imprisonment. One of these objectors was Bayard Rustin, who would become well-known as a leading activist in the civil rights movement over the next decades. Rustin was a Quaker who belonged to the 15th Street Meetinghouse on the Lower East Side of New York City. Built in 1860, the building was surveyed by the Historic American Buildings Survey, an NPS program.
While jailed, Rustin organized fellow inmates to protest segregation inside prison facilities using nonviolent tactics like hunger strikes. A commitment to nonviolence would become central to much of the civil rights activism that Rustin eventually spearheaded. His experience as a CO in WWII was central to that development.
I look forward to sharing more of my research and discoveries in future posts!