This summer, 26 million youth in the United States will attend camp (NYTimes). Summer camps offer children an opportunity to play and learn new skills, make friends from different backgrounds, enjoy nature, and practice teamwork. Summer camps are an American tradition (CNN). Summer camps have provided summer recreation and education for many communities, including long-standing camps for girls, Jewish youth, working-class kids, and children of color (U.S. History Scene). But the institution of summer camp is also rooted in white supremacy and racial exclusion. Acknowledging summer camp racism in the past and present is necessary if we want them to be a tradition we can all share.
Summer camps were born in the late 19th century as “a scattering of rural camps for white, Protestant, middle- and upper-class boys from Northeastern cities.” White boys were thought to be at risk of “sissification” from their mothers and sisters within middle-class homes. Outside the home, they were supposedly endangered by dirty, polluted cities. The solution was to send boys to male-only camps in pre-industrial, rural environments (U.S. History Scene).
• Support NAYA, Camp Laugh a Lot, the BLM Summer Camp, Transcending Adolescence, CampOUT, Harbor Camps, and Camp Founder Girls.
• If you or a family member attend a summer camp, call out cultural appropriation and racism.
“The original child whom the first late 19th century camp proponents were imagining was a White boy. And their concern was about the boy’s masculinity, his future leadership and sometimes also his spirituality,” says historian Leslie Paris (NPR).
For decades, summer camps were all-white. The Ku Klux Klan, which had millions of members in the 1920s, sponsored summer camps for members, including teenage boys in the Junior Ku Klux Klan and children in the Ku Klux Kiddies (History). A KKK “Youth Corps” advertised its summer camp into the 1980s (U.S. History Scene). In the 1930s, the German-American Bund ran a 205-acre camp in New Jersey. Teenage members marched in formation behind the flags of the United States and Nazi Germany, chanting, “Heil Hitler! Heil America!” (NJ).
Summer camp racism didn’t stop there. Blackface and minstrel shows were common at summer camps well into the 20th century, even after they declined in popularity elsewhere (U.S. History Scene, NHPR). A 1942 Milwaukee YMCA camp brochure featured a photo of white boys playing a carnival game labeled “Hit the [n-word] Baby!” This “once-popular carnival game,” which involved throwing eggs or baseballs at a Black person, was being advertised as one of the “Special Events” campers would enjoy (Snopes, USA Today).
Summer camps remained largely segregated until the 1960s. The legacy of summer camp racism persists to the present day. There’s a “long tradition” of summer camps assigning campers to “tribes,” raising “totem poles,” using “war paint,” and holding “powwows.” This Indigenous appropriation is especially offensive given that campgrounds, like the rest of the so-called United States, were stolen from Native people, and Indigenous youth were banned from white-only summer camps for much of their history. In recent years, some summer camps have finally decided to retire offensive names and traditions (CNN).
And summer camps’ roots in promoting conservative gender roles mean they also continue to exclude LGBTQ+ youth. The Boy Scouts of America banned gay members until 2014 (PBS), with chapters still permitted to “use religious beliefs as criteria for selecting leaders, including sexuality.” Unlike the Girl Scouts, the Boy Scouts have taken no action toward including transgender members (ACLU).
If you or a family member is attending a summer camp, you should demand an end to cultural appropriation. And we should expand access to summer camps to youth from oppressed communities traditionally excluded from the experience. Summer camp costs can be prohibitive, so broadening access ensures that it’s not just “middle- and high-income kids who get to continue their education through camps” (NYTimes). NAYA’s Camp Rise is free for Native youth from 2nd to 8th grade (NAYA). Camp Laugh A Lot serves Lakota youth on the Pine Ridge Reservation (First Nations Development Institute). The Black Lives Matter Summer Camp is for Black children in Utah (BLM Utah). Camp Founder Girls, founded in 1924, is the United States’ oldest camp for Black girls (Camp Founder Girls).
• Summer camps were racially segregated until the 1960s.
• Many summer camps featured blackface and minstrel shows.
• Many U.S. summer camps feature offensive “Native American” motifs to this day.