In the summer of 1947, a group of women belonging to the Methodist Council of Little Rock, Arkansas, wrote to their church’s General Board of Global Ministries. Curiously, they requested $25,000 to buy a turkey farm. The property they had their eye on was a hundred-acre stretch of hardwood forest and blue lakes, tucked away at the end of a one-lane dirt road about four miles outside of Little Rock’s city limits. It contained a slumping farmhouse and a cluster of turkey brooder houses. On this land, these women wanted to create one of the first integrated summer camps in the United States.
Over the next ten years, the founders of Camp Aldersgate built cabins, a conference center, and a dining hall. They renovated the farmhouse and hacked new trails through the woods. As the camp neared its tenth anniversary, its grounds were used by district youth camps, mission schools, and black churches, as well as local groups who sought a safe meeting place to discuss the integration of Little Rock’s Central High School.
Camp Aldersgate’s aims were to promote interracial harmony and Christian fellowship. But in Arkansas, in the 1950s, not everyone agreed with these goals. Board members received death threats over the phone. Gunshots were fired into the campground. One night, someone attempted to blow up the lake’s dam with dynamite. Through it all, Camp Aldersgate continued to offer summer programming. While children swam in the lakes and learned Bible verses, Arkansas state police monitored the dirt road, recording the license plate numbers of vehicles traveling in and out of camp.
The Origins of the American Summer Camp
The American summer camp originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as a scattering of rural camps for white, Protestant, middle- and upper-class boys from Northeastern cities. Upper-middle-class Jewish American families also embraced camp as an institution. In part, the summer camp was an outgrowth of the cultural creation of “childhood”: from child labor laws to compulsory education, new policies were carving out space for young children to be innocent, treasured, and carefully protected; regulated leisure was one piece of the package. In part, too, camp was a response to industrial urbanization and the threats it posed to child health and morality. City streets were dirty, unpredictable, rife with lurking adults and vulgar magazines. The rural campsite, isolated and regulated, offered a clean and serene alternative.
Changing gender ideals also played a role in creating early boys-only camps. The industrial revolution made the workplace and home more separate than ever before. For the middle-class home, this became an increasingly feminized space–the domain of mothers and sisters. Middle-class boys, then, were in danger of “sissification”—as one camp leader put it—and a summer spent immersed in masculine ethos was as efficient an antidote as any.
The first modern summer camps emerged out of these intersecting social shifts. Located on Northeastern forest campgrounds, they preserved a nostalgic vision of American boyhood, one that was healthy, hardy, innocent, and exclusive. They traded on the idyllic imagery of pre-industrial leisure. They enlisted racist tropes – blackface and teepees, elaborate pretend Native American ceremonies – to create that imagery. In the 1880s, the minstrel-show craze that had flared across antebellum America was beginning to die out, but within the elite summer camp, it persisted well into the 20th century. The fact that camp staff members were often African American threw this insensitivity into sharp relief: in her book, Children’s Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp, Leslie Paris describes boys at Camp Wakitan rousing a group chant of appreciation for a black chef – ”We want the chef! We want the chef!” – before staging their annual minstrel show later the same evening.
Summer Camps Spread
At the turn of the century, summer camps began to branch out geographically from the East Coast. Church groups, associational societies, and municipal governments hosted youth camps on the local level, while nationwide organizations like the Scouts, Camp Fire, and the YMCA and YWCA sponsored programs throughout the country. In the words of historian Michael B. Smith, by the 1920s the summer camp movement had evolved “from a loosely organized collective of camps focused primarily on recreation for very poor or very well-to-do children into a nationally recognized youth-serving institution.” Yet it remained a white institution. During the Progressive Era, camps for marginalized groups, including Jews, socialists, Christians, and African Americans, began to appear. One of the first, Camp Atwater in Massachusetts, was founded by the Reverend Dr. William De Berry in 1921. In addition to archery, ballet, drama, and football, the camp offered activities that highlighted African American culture and history. It drew middle-class children from around the Northeast who were excluded from all-white camps, offering them a chance to affirm and celebrate their identities.
Summer camps continued to increase in popularity after the First World War and throughout the thirties, spurred by new concerns about juvenile delinquency as well as the organized patriotism of the New Deal, which drew 18,000 children to federally funded camps in 1934 alone. The New Deal programs both reflected and entrenched the segregated trajectory of summer camps. The local chapters of national organizations were typically segregated; the YWCA and YMCA, for example, designated local black chapters as “branches” of the white association. Camp facilities were either entirely segregated or ran separate sessions for black and white families.
The Battle for Integration
There were few integrated camps in the interwar period; the best-known were those affiliated with radical labor organizations in New York City. Camp Wo-Chi-Ca (Workers’-Children-Camp), supported by labor unions and the American Communist Party, ran a racially integrated and co-ed camp in upstate New York from the mid-1930s to the 1950s when it was felled by a combination of McCarthyism and a polio outbreak. (Paul Robeson was a frequent visitor, playing sports and singing songs to the delight of starstruck campers.) At Wo-Chi-Ca, and similar leftist camp, integration was not just a part of camp life but the very point of it. These programs were part of a broader movement that aimed to rework the entire structure of American society. Here, campers named their bunks after historical figures like Harriet Tubman; counselors led rest-hour discussions about discrimination.
In the aftermath of the Second World War, democratic rhetoric flourished, and many camps began to reach across the boundaries of class, gender, and religion drawn by the first Northeastern camps. But segregation by race remained glaringly persistent. In 1953, Pennsylvanian club leader William Howell wrote—in response to a Pittsburgh charity’s decision to offer separate camp sessions for white and black children—that their choice “seem[ed] just as fallacious as if you had included periods for Catholics, Jews, and other minorities.”
The American summer camp grew up segregated—along with America’s pools, beaches, and public parks. From the 1940s through the 1960s, it turned into another arena in the nationwide battle for racial equality.
National camping organizations—the YMCA and YWCA, the Scouts and Camp Fire USA—were slow to make sweeping change, leaving black leaders to fight their own battles. By the early 1950s, less than half of all urban YMCA chapters offered integrated camping, and most of these were clustered in the Northeast and upper Midwest; Paris notes that the demographics of most national organizations were similar. The camping question also contributed to policy splits in urban legislatures and churches. In 1949, Pennsylvania governor James H. Duff legally barred segregation in a state camp for underprivileged children. An Episcopalian diocese in Virginia shut down their summer camps for two years as laity and clergy debated “racial policy.” Even the landmark 1954 decision of Brown v. Board had done little to initiate widespread change in camping segregation. If anything, the vitriol endured by Southern students demonstrated why integrated summer camps often held little appeal for black families. Summer was a time for fun and friends, not for braving racist slurs in a mostly white camp.
Leisure activities were often more difficult to integrate than educational and community programs. “Where does the pulse [of inclusion] beat the faintest?” one YWCA report asked. “It is where we have facilities, such as gymnasiums, pools, camps and residences, that one part of the Association tends most frequently and most persistently to set up barriers against another.” The waves of integration effort that rippled through school-year programs never seemed powerful enough to engulf summer vacation. In Louisville, for example, educator and activist Murray Atkin Walls had to push through local Scouting resistance one step at a time: an integrated camping committee in 1953, an integrated Scouts pool in 1954, and, finally, an integrated summer camp in 1956.
By the early 1960s, segregated summer camps were still the norm throughout the United States. The 1964 Civil Rights Act pushed the issue into the open, making discrimination in summer camps illegal. In 1965, the American Camping Association officially adopted a non-discriminatory, inter-faith, inter-racial policy. By the time of its passage 125 members, opposed to desegregation, had resigned.
The story of segregated camping did not end in 1964. Even federally assisted camps, like 4H, were slow to act on desegregation in the South. As one Mississippi agent stated, they were reluctant to “vanguard” integration with resistance raging in public schools. According to historian Carmen V. Harris, Southern 4H directors refused to send black campers to a national encampment in Washington, D.C., and camps run for African Americans shut down in Virginia, South Carolina, North Carolina, and Mississippi during the sixties. “We did not get integration, we got disintegration, a feeling that you would gradually disappear and that someone else would be in charge,” said Alberta Dishmon, a former agent for Mississippi’s agricultural extension program.
Summer camps were unexceptional in the history of desegregation as an uneven, contested, and bitter process continually pushed forward by organizers in the black community. As late as the 1980s, the Ku Klux Klan drew press coverage for their “Youth Corps,” informal summer camps designed to offer “good, segregated fun,” according to the “Imperial Wizard” Bill Wilkinson. (“We are striving to make the Klan ‘Youth Corps’ an alternative to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts,” Wilkinson told reporters.) And in the decades since the Civil Rights Act, camps, along with other icons of summer leisure like pools and picnic grounds, have been sites of racist confrontation. Last July, national media outlets reported on African Americans having the police called on them while engaging in everyday activities—including going to a pool, swimming at a pool, and wearing socks at a pool. Part of what makes these encounters so frustrating and so chilling is the long history of segregation that haunts the American summer.