Common Heritage

African American Boy Scouts

The Boys Scouts of America (BSA), founded in 1910, quickly gained popularity in the United States. In 1919, President Wilson presented the organization with a federal charter. Subsequently, the president created a Boy Scout Week to demonstrate national support of the Scouting mission. The organization aimed to train young boys in the “activities of the great out-doors” and cultivate the qualities of “physical strength and endurance, self-reliance, and the powers of initiatives and resourcefulness.”

Image: US Postage Stamp, Boy Scouts of America, 50th Anniversary 1950 Issue. Public Domain.

From its inception, BSA has grappled with the fine line between inclusion and exclusion. This struggle continues today. Boy Scout administrators defied conservative critics by permitting willing local councils to admit African Americans and other non-white boys in the 1910s. 1911 saw the formation of the first African American Boy Scout Troop in Elizabeth City, North Carolina. The troop continued to meet and grow, despite white opposition. The first officially sanctioned troop was founded in Lexington, Kentucky, in 1916, and by 1926, there were 248 all-African American troops, with 4,923 scouts. By the mid-1930s, only one Scout Council in the South refused to accept African American Scout Troops. BSA desired to soothe racial tensions across the nation by providing a neutral ground upon which whites and African Americans might interact without malice.

Image: Delano, J., photographer. (1942) Some of the scouts of Troop 446 who meet in the community center of the Ida B. Wells Housing Project. Chicago, Illinois Boy Scout meeting. United States Cook County Illinois Chicago, 1942. Mar. [Photograph] Retrieved from the Library of Congress, https://www.loc.gov/item/2017828683/.

Image: US Postage Stamp, Boy Scouts of America, 50th Anniversary 1950 Issue, Public Domain.

Despite the established BSA position on the inclusion of African Americans, communities were allowed to follow the policies that dictated their local school systems, thus ensuring the continuation of segregation. African American communities strived to provide the Scouting experience for their children, even though some troops in the South threatened to leave BSA and burn their uniforms if African American Scouts were permitted. These factors framed the period during which Troop 103 existed at El Bethel Church in Milledgeville, Georgia, in 1946. Troop 103 may be the first African American Boy Scout troop in Milledgeville, having formed by the early 1940s; Joseph M. Graham served as its Scoutmaster until he joined the army in 1943.

Image: Photograph of African American Boy Scout with a trumpet, Atlanta, Ga, ca. 1942. Retrieved from http://dlg.galileo.usg.edu/children/do:bss003

Image: Official Boy Scouts of America 1946 charter awarded to El Bethel Baptist Church, Milledgeville, Georgia for Boy Scout Troop 103. The charter provided official status for one year, Troops were required to renew charters annually. The Troop Committee and Scoutmasters were members of the El Bethel congregation. Digitized during Common Heritage Community Harvest Event, October 5, 2019. Georgia College Special Collections.

El Bethel Baptist Church has served a contingent of Milledgeville’s African American community since its founding in 1897. Originally Oak Lawn Baptist Church, the church sat on a one-eighth acre lot on North Wilkinson St. purchased for $1.00. By 1905, the church had become El Bethel Baptist Church. The original structure burned in 1917. After the fire, the congregation purchased the corner lot of West Montgomery St. and North Irwin St. in 1918 for $90. The 1918 church building stood until 2010 when the current brick structure replaced the wooden church. It was during the demolition and construction of the new building that the charter for Boy Scout Troop 103 was unearthed.

It was not uncommon for African American Boy Scout Troops to form from the auspices of the church. No pillar of the African American community is more central to its history and identity than the church. As one of the the first institutions built by African Americans, independent of white society, churches were a symbolic place that served both secular and spiritual needs, nurturing hope for a better tomorrow. The dual function of the church, as a place of worship and as a social center, in a society with a strict demarcation along racial lines, provided a physical and social outlet for African American communities.

Top Image: The 1918 El Bethel Baptist Church structure prior to demolition, circa 2010.
Courtesy of Melvin Baymon, Sr.
Bottom Image: The 1918 El Bethel Baptist Church structure being demolished, circa 2010.
Retrieved from https://www.facebook.com/ElBethel-Baptist-Church-119914734714820/