Since our four children are adopted and ethnically diverse (see “White and Celebrating Kwanzaa“), we have made it a practice to study each child’s culture as a family. However, it had never occurred to me to study Black History in Scouting.
James E. West, BSA’s first Chief Scout Executive, felt all troops should be inclusive from the start, but it was not that way for all troops—far from it. Even Scouting has its own checkered history to match the country’s cultural past.
According to Kurt Banas and the African American Registry (AAR), Monday, July 31, 1911 marked the founding of America’s first “Negro Boy Scout” troop (just seeing those words in quotes makes me bristle.) That first troop was started in Elizabeth City, North Carolina, but immediate opposition to the unit brought on problems. However, in spite of opposition, troops kept forming and meeting with or without BSA charters.
Finally in 1916, Troop 75 in Louisville, Kentucky, became the first “official” Boy Scout Council-promoted all black troop. According the AAR by the next year, there were four official similar troops in the area. Then by 1926, 248 all-black troops had been officially organized with BSA. These troops offered Scouting to nearly 5,000 boys and after ten years growth, “there was only one Council in the entire South that refused to accept any black troops.”
Included in the Boy Scouts of America’s inter-racial service was a strange “Program Outreach” that is hard to understand today. It combined racial minorities with rural, poor, and handicapped boys, which strikes today’s readers as extremely odd. According to Banas: “These programs were often ineffective, especially with immigrants who feared the BSA as a means to recruit for the Army. Another problem with Program Outreach was that it often didn’t distinguish between the boys it viewed as ‘less chance’ and those who were simply not white.”
Such a one-size-fits all was fraught with problems. For example, the program used as common categorizes for their Scouts: “Feeble-minded, Delinquency Areas, Orphanages, and Settlements.” Often Scouts in these “Delinquent Areas” were black and thus labeled as “Special Troops.” So instead of advancing black Scouting, the BSA’s system categorized blacks in a way that gave a literal meaning to “racial handicap” as the color of their skin and the label “special.”
An other strange service for minority Scouting was offered in rural areas along railroads. This was referred to naturally as “railroad Scouting.” In this program BSA staff would ride trains throughout the rural South. As they stopped at each town, staff would distribute information and encourage the formation of troops.
Strange as these may seem today, with the help of these programs, the then two Southern Regions of BSA had growth rates of 28.2% and 47.9%, respectively. In 1937, 57.9% of black Scouts in the BSA were from these two regions.
Here is an interesting fact. In 1940, Martin Luther King, Jr. joined Scouting at age 11. King was registered as a member of Troop 151, sponsored by his father’s Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta. He stayed in the program until he was 13 (read more about this interesting story here).
During the 1960s, BSA put more effort towards urban Scouting and related services. So in 1961, the Inter-Racial Service turned into the Urban Relationship Service and added inner-city children of all races.
William Murray, author of History of the Boy Scouts, wrote: “Negro lads in the South and in the Northern industrial centers were somewhat out of the stream of American boy life and needed special aid.” AAR continues:
“The Inner-City Rural Program was also developed to expose rural Scouts to the city and vice versa but was small in scope. Programs targeting gangs were unexpectedly successful, and in many cities, as many as 25% of boys living in housing projects were enrolled in the Scouts, many former gang members.
“In the South, with the ‘separate but equal’ mindset of the times, black troops were not treated equally. They were often not allowed to wear Scout uniforms and had far smaller budgets and insufficient facilities to work with. The BSA on a national level was often defensive about its stance on segregation. ‘The Boy Scouts of America never drew the color line, but the movement stayed in step with the prevailing mores.’
“Even so, there was only one integrated troop before 1954 in the Deep South compared to the frequent occurrence of integration in the North. Also, the Scouts in the South did not support social agencies that were allies of the BSA. The YMCA was historically one of the BSA’s strongest supporters, but in Richmond, Virginia, blacks were not allowed to use the Y’s facilities to earn merit badges, specifically for swimming.
“While nationally the BSA has a large endowment (approximately $2.6 billion), local councils had to raise money on their own. BSA is not a non-profit organization, and if local councils had pushed for integrated troops, it would not have gone over well with the general public and it would have made raising money difficult. It would have also been dangerous because the Ku Klux Klan had strongly denounced the Scouts for even having segregated black troops. They claimed the BSA was a puppet of the Catholic Church, and it was not unheard of for Scout Jamborees and rallies to be broken up, often violently, by the Klan.
“After the Civil Rights Act, slowly, troops began to integrate throughout the nation, even in the South. Currently, several troops remain all black. After integration, many segregated black organizations, especially churches, remained segregated, not by law but by choice. It provided a heightened sense of community and unity that complemented their internal needs. If they made it this far under such extreme oppression, why should they happily submit themselves to white churches and social clubs? Since these organizations sponsored such a large number of Scout troops, many remained all black by choice. In 1974, after 53 years of segregation, the Old Hickory Council (North Carolina) and BSA councils throughout the South, started to integrate troops.
“As an organization dedicated to developing morally strong and virtuous men out of boys, the BSA stresses the importance of understanding what it means to be a Scout. When applying for the Eagle Scout Award, the highest rank in Scouting, applicants must submit an essay along with documentation of their earned merit badges. In the essays, Scouts are asked, “In your own words, describe what it would mean to you to become an Eagle Scout.” Essay lengths differ greatly, from one sentence to four handwritten pages. Generally, Eagle Award applicants write about what it has meant to work several years to receive this award, and what they plan on doing after they receive it.
In the responses immediately following integration, different values and goals emerged based on race and oppression. One young man says, ‘When applying for a job or trying to enter college being an Eagle Scout is a great advantage.’
‘Being white in Winston-Salem, opportunities to go to college and to get a good job were there. As a black young person, such opportunities did not always exist, and instead of mentioning college and a job, there was a tendency to make more references to the army and military. Not necessarily saying outright that a future in the military is what they are striving for, but there are references like,'[if I get my Eagle Award] it will be like ‘becoming an Eagle Scout is like being a Captain or lieutenant in an army, working towards the Generals position.'”
“Historically, the military has been one of the few ways blacks achieved distinction and respect. These youths had seen their fathers and uncles come back from World War II and the Korean War with medals and get the help of the G.I. Bill. Many saw this as their only way to eventually get into college or have a good career. With the aid of the civil rights movement, black Scouts saw the Eagle Award as a further means of proving their dignity and achievement.
“Blacks in the first half of the 20th century were not allowed much dignity. America and the South were set up to make sure this dignity was never achieved. Through Scouting, black young people finally had something to be proud of, something that would make them, in at least one realm, equal or even superior to white children. It gave them a sense of identity that was lacking for centuries. They were no longer just “Boy,” they were an Eagle Scout.
“Before desegregation, in nearly all-white Eagle Scout applications, the essays included references to leadership opportunities to come out of their Award. Leadership is mentioned much less often among the black applicants, having not seen the same opportunities for leadership in their communities as they progressed through the Scouts.
“Another theme among the pre-civil rights applications was the frequent mentioning of God and Church in the white applications, compared to the black applications. The white applications tended to connect God and Country together as an important trait of an Eagle Scout, as, for example, ‘The Eagle award would show me that I have been doing my duty to God and my Country as a Scout.’ The black Scouts did not mention citizenship nearly as often and when they did, it was usually in a secular manner. ‘I am an American on whom the future of this wonderful Country depends…learning to be of service to others.’ This distinction the result of the lack of citizenship experienced by blacks from the beginning of this country.”
Sure. it’s hard to look back and see that some Scouters supported racism, but Banas reminds us that: “…the Scouts did have certain leaders that pressed against the grain of society for racial change. In the end, though, our most valuable insight is into the minds of these young black men who wrote of an equal chance for distinction and success in their Eagle Award essays. This relatively small achievement may have helped and inspired them to push on in their fight for liberty.”
What are your thoughts on these leaders pushing for racial change? What can we do now to keep making progress for the rights of all people?