Happy 50th, Peace Corps!

Today’s post is written by Erin Townsend, an archivist based out of Archives II who helps coordinate our digitization projects.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the establishment of the Peace Corps.  Numerous events and activities have already taken place to commemorate this milestone, including programs at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, 50th Anniversary World Expos in cities throughout the United States, and a variety of presentations and panel discussions.  The National Archives hosted one such panel discussion in March on the early years of the Peace Corps.  There are even more events and activities planned for the remainder of the year.  The Peace Corps definitely knows how to celebrate!

As a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer (China, 2006-2008), I’ve had the opportunity to take part in a number of these anniversary events.  As an archivist interested in the history of the Peace Corps, I thought it would be fun to take a look at how the Peace Corps celebrated some of its previous anniversaries.  After a quick search in our Archival Research Catalog, I discovered that the National Archives holds a number of series documenting the 20th, 25th, and 30th anniversaries of the Peace Corps:

As I looked through these series, a couple of specific records caught my eye.  The first was a program from a tree planting ceremony in honor of Peace Corps’ 25th anniversary.  Included in this program are reflections by 1961 volunteers, the very first group to serve in the Peace Corps.   According to the program, 818 volunteers began their service in 1961, in 14 different countries.  Since then, over 200,000 volunteers have served in 139 countries.  Below is a page from the program, in which two volunteers, Mary Clare Cahill Gray and Anne H. Wilson, explain what their Peace Corps experience has meant to them.  It’s exciting to learn how Peace Corps service affected the lives of these trailblazing first volunteers.

RG 490 (Records of the Peace Corps), Entry P 19 (International Volunteer Program Historical Records, 1974-1991, NAID 1275411), File: “25th Anniversary”

Some other records that provide insight into the Peace Corps experience are the photographs that were submitted for the Peace Corps’ 20th anniversary photo contest.  Present and former Peace Corps Volunteers and staff submitted a total of 960 entries representing 56 countries, and twelve winners were selected.  One photo in particular, by Karl Warma, piqued my interest.  Mr. Warma served as a Peace Corps Volunteer in The Gambia from 1978-1981 as an adviser to a Ministry of Education book production center in Banjul.  The classroom in the photograph shows bare walls with only a chalkboard as a visual aid.  Although the photograph is 30 years old, and Banjul is quite far from where I taught in China, the classroom in the photograph is incredibly familiar to me.  I’m sure many other volunteers’ taught in similar classrooms, with none of the technology or amenities we’re accustomed to in American classrooms today.  Volunteers throughout the Peace Corps’ 50 year history have learned how to make do in classrooms much like the one in this photograph.

RG 490 (Records of the Peace Corps), Entry P 10 (20th Anniversary Celebration Records, ca. 1980-1982, NAID 1255493), File: “Photographs”

This is just a small taste of The National Archives’ holdings of Peace Corps records.  I enjoyed the opportunity to learn about some of the ways the Peace Corps has celebrated past anniversaries.  Here’s to many more anniversary celebrations in the future!

If you’d like to learn more about the history of the Peace Corps, you can explore the 141 series from Record Group 490 described in our Archival Research Catalog.