Radical Brownies, Monarchs and Black Camp Fire Girls USA

Researching uniform colour schemes for tabletop gaming figures is usually about the colour of great coats and trousers, not so often about skin tone.

I noticed that the photographs I came across were mostly of White Americans whilst researching for uniform references to the Camp Fire Girls USA (and Britain).

This uniform research is part of gaming figure conversions for my Scouting Wide Games tabletop gaming project (part of my DMZ Demilitarised non-lethal gaming projects).

Although I found reference to adopting a penpal amongst Mexican Girls in the Arizona Camp Fire Girls, I found little reference to Native American or African-American groups so far in my limited 1920s reference material online, original and reprint books.

This is not surprising as most of the affordable material available online to me is 1910s, 1920s and early 1930s.

At the time the Girl Scouts Of America (GSA) were still working away quietly to work towards desegregation and support Civil Rights by the 1960s.

GSA Wikipedia entry: “Most Girl Scout units were originally segregated by race according to state and local laws and customs. The first GSA troop for African American girls was founded in 1917; the first GSA American Indian troop was formed in New York State in 1921; and the first GSA troop for Mexican Americans was formed in Houston, Texas, in 1922. The first official African-American GSA troop in the South was founded in 1932 in Richmond, Virginia by Lena B. Watson.

Martin Luther King Junior in 1956/7 described the Girl Scouts Of America as “a force for desegregation.”

Now that Camp Fire (USA) is multiracial and inclusive, coeducational with boys since 1975, they are looking back critically at the early years of Camp Fire Girls with its Native American influences of Native American names, ceremonial gowns and traditions with concern over cultural appropriation of indigenous peoples.

It is interesting to compare this to today, with the work of the Radical Brownies (or Radical Monarchs as they are now known), of Oakland California set up in 2017 in the era of Black Lives Matter:

https://www.theguardian.com/world/ng-interactive/2017/jan/06/radical-brownies-berets-badges-and-social-justice-video

One of the few references I have found so far to African-American Camp Fire Girls is from History Professor Marcia Chatelain of Georgetown University. She has written about the experience of African-American Camp Fire Girls in the Great Migration to Chicago 1910-1940 in her book South Side GirlsGrowing up in the Great Migration.

https://www.dukeupress.edu/south-side-girls

I bought a UK sourced paperback copy of South Side Girls, which I am enjoying reading, adding another aspect to my patchy knowledge of American history. It sits well alongside Becoming, the autobiography (available as an audio book) of Michelle Obama, another Chicago South Side Girl made good.

In her blog post on her book, Marcia Chatelain says: “the Great Migration, a period of U.S. history in which millions of African Americans fled the deep South and settled in cities across the country. Many black girls, as young as 7 or 8 years old, worked in private homes and sharecropped cotton fields in the South, and their labor was crucial to their family’s economic stability.

So this is not surprising that African American or Black Campfire Girls did not appear in Everygirl’s Magazine in the 1920s as many African American communities in the Deep South would maybe not have had the finances, spare leisure time or opportunity to attend summer camp.

In Chicago, it proved a struggle to achieve camping sites and access to open space for African-Americans.

Many of Chatelain’s press cuttings about the African American Camp Fire Girls Of Chicago come from local city newspapers such as The Chicago Defender.

Some white Southern Americans in the early days of the Klu Klux Klan and the Jim Crow South would certainly not have tolerated my suggestion of equality, desegregation or of mixed groups and probably rather not having to tolerate the existence of African-American Camp Fire Girls groups at all.

African-American children as a cheap part of the labour force would probably not have had the holiday time when Camp Fire Girls went on summer camp.

The black Churches however might have approved, as Camp Fire Girls was designed like Baden Powell’s Scouting to sit alongside or within exiting community and youth movements.

Chatelain again: “Although cultures of black girlhood were forming slowly in the South, in Great Migration cities, like Chicago, black girls gained unprecedented opportunities to attend school more regularly and participate in children’s organizations.

A precious photograph for figure conversion and uniform reference from Chatelain’s book South Side Girls.

Chatelain: “Girl Scouts and Camp Fire Girls created spaces where girls discovered the joys of sisterhood, socializing, and serving their communities. Yet, the realities of racism sometimes hampered black girls’ access to these programs. When black girls joined troops and councils, they were often segregated along the color line, and black girls were often unable to enjoy camping trips, nature hikes, and impromptu boating races due to segregation in leisure facilities.”

“In a 1944 report about the Chicago Commons day camp, a disappointed worker recorded, “Trips were not planned to the Forest Preserves because the swimming pools were not open to both Negro and white children.”

Marcia Chatelain then goes on in her blog post to talk about the Oececa Council Camp Fire Girls, who organized in Chicago’s Black Belt.

Chatalein: “This, among other, all-black councils not only donned their Camp Fire beads with pride and participated in selling war bonds at local events, but they also forged an image of a black girl as an active citizen in a challenging moment in black life.”

“I include the activism of black women civic leaders Irene McCoy Gaines, [Chicago suffragist] Irene Goins, and Blanche King, who organized countless benefits and campaigns to raise funds to build cabins in the black resort town of Idlewild, Michigan, so their Camp Fire Girls could enjoy the great outdoors without fear of harassment or intimidation.”

I look forward to reading more about the Black African American Camp Fire Girls that Chatelain has researched, having myself pored over newspaper archives to uncover more of the history of the British Camp Fire Girls in previous posts.

Chatelain: “After poring through Chicago Defender newspaper articles about Oececa patriotic revues, mimeographed reports on the cabin funds, and brief news features lauding Camp Fire standouts like Ruth Reese and Lenora Grady, I realized just how radical black participation in children’s organizations was for the time. Black girls participating in Camp Fire was more than a simple fulfillment of a childhood pleasure; it was a powerful articulation that their girlhood was as valuable as that of whites.”

“Long before the world saw black girls like Ruby Bridges and Elizabeth Eckford bravely integrate schools in the Civil Rights era, there were scores of girls in khaki outfits and carefully pinned beanies who were so radical as to say that they were girls too.”

https://dukeupress.wordpress.com/2015/02/17/marcia-chatelain-on-the-radical-history-of-black-girls-groups/

An interesting blog post and glimpse of the riches in her scholarly history book.

*

Marcia Chatelain also wrote a 2008 Brown University PhD thesis (available online). This introduced her early research on Camp Oecaca Camp Fire Girls in Chicago, some of which informs her book South Side Girls.

“In fact, during Camp Fire’s formative years, the national body did not want to engage in matters of race. Camp Fire may have remained silent on race and membership, but race, as well as gender and class, played major roles in the organization’s origins and practices.”

Chatelain: “Without much local or national institutional backing, the Oececa appealed almost exclusively to African-American churches, businesses, and schools to promote Camp Fire’s goals. African-American organizations often helped Camp Fire because they believed that the girls’ group’s promotion of camping and nature appreciation could not only serve as an intervention in the community goal to reduce youth crime, but also because Camp Fire Girls served as testaments to the community’s best African-American girls.” P.202

Chatelain: “Yet, [the Camp Fire Girls founders] the Gulicks made no mention of race or ethnicity when theydeveloped the membership protocols and requirements for the group. Camp Fire’s silence on race was both a blessing and a curse. In the South, Camp Fire groups encountered resistance from White groups who believed that the presence of Black Camp Fire Girls lessened the character of the organization.”

“Yet, in larger Migration cities, such as Cleveland or Chicago, Camp Fire’s passive inclusion allowed for the relatively uncontroversial creation of African-American councils. Due to the leadership of African-American women in Chicago’s women’s clubs and recreation movement, African-American girls were able to participate in Camp Fire programs within a few years of its founding.”

“The available records on Camp Fire in the city and surrounding areas indicate that Chicago’s Black Camp Fire Girls were organized as early as 1915 in traditional councils. African-American girls also participated in Camp Fire’s World War I era auxiliary group, named the Minute Girls.” P.208

Girls of the Forward Quest and The Blue Triangle League

The racial issue for Camp Fire Headquarters first occurred early on in Nashville in 1914, where local white Camp Fire Councils of Camp Fire Girls objected to the suggestion of equality in allowing the activities or inclusion of African American Camp Fire Girls groups.

The headquarters of Camp Fire and YWCA often solved this by the suggestion of managing black Camp Fire Girls into becoming part of “The Girls Of The Forward Quest” or in the case of the YWCA Girl Reserves groups through a parallel organisation such as the YWCA creating the Blue Triangle League.

I think I shall have to one day skim read again those mid 1920s Everygirl’s Magazines online for news of those Chicago groups.

1943 – National Camp Fire HQ issued its first inclusive policy stating, “Camp Fire must strive to give girls of all minority groups an opportunity to participate fully.”

Short video interview on Fort Worth Camp Fire Girls

According to the Fort Worth Camp Fire timeline and video https://youtu.be/YdOj-BSI45w

In the 1947 Onwards section of this film – about 4minutes 30 seconds in, there is an interview with Norma Royal looking back on her Camp Fire Girl memories and its positive effect on her life.

Norma Royal also movingly recites the Camp Fire Law from memory near the end (17minutes 30 seconds). Image source: Fort Worth Camp Fire Girls Youtube History video 1999.

All very helpful uniform and history research!

I’m not sure if a desegregated Camp Fire Girls type patrol would be accurate for the 1910s-1930s setting of my main Scouting Wide Games at the moment, but a couple of Camp Fire or YWCA Blue Triangle League patrols would greatly enhance the range of terrain and background for Scouting Wide Games.

I think a trial conversion figure or two from Mexican and African-American Camp Fire groups would certainly be worth the effort – and a tiny tiny tribute to the brave and hardworking Camp Fire Girls and Guardians who worked to support Black students and towards desegregation.

Converting or creating a patrol or two of black and white Camp Fire Girls, Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America could even turn into exploring Wide Game scenarios in a whole new continent. It would widen Scouting Wide Games tabletop project into a variety of urban setting and arid scrub through to the forested, backwoods mountain terrain of America. Beware the bears!

To finish:

Who needs an excuse to revisit this amazing photograph, reposted in the Trump era?

Note how similar the early Camp Fire Girls White ‘Middy’ uniform is to the Navy man in the Middy suit with neck tie standing behind the proud Boy Scout and President Obama!

Blog posted by Mark Man of TIN, British 1970s Cub Scout (Bronze Arrow, retired) 20 May 2022

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