Marcia Chatelain on the Radical History of Black Girls’ Groups

 In this guest post, Marcia Chatelain, author of South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration (March 2015) looks at  how the history of black girls’ groups like the Campfire Girls presaged current youth movements.

“Have you seen this?”  “What do you think?”

radical browniesOver the past few weeks, friends and acquaintances on Facebook and Twitter have asked me to comment on articles about the Radical Brownies. Clad in brown vests and matching, Black Panther Party-style berets, this Oakland-based girls’ group found inspiration from the #blacklivesmatter movement. As a historian of black girls and girlhood in 20th century America, I have a lot of love and appreciation for Radical Brownies. Their quest to “empower young girls of color to step into their collective power, brilliance and leadership to make the world a more radical place,” reminded me of the girls in my forthcoming book, South Side Girls: Growing Up in the Great Migration.

In my book, I argue that delving into the dynamics and definition of South Side Girlsblack girlhood is key to understanding various dimensions of 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. My book links the hopefulness that fueled black migration to the material and emotional conditions girls faced, adding new voices to the conversation about the magnitude of this mass exodus.

The characteristics that surrounded twentieth century images and ideas about childhood—innocence, vulnerability, dependence, and worthiness of protection—were not always extended to black children. Black girls shouldered the same burden as black women, and they were often deemed culpable for the sexual advances, violations, and transgressions of white male employers.  So, in light of all these challenges, where and how did black girlhood emerge? 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. 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.”

In South Side Girls, I highlight the foremothers to our Radical Brownies—Oececa Council Camp Fire Girls, who organized in Chicago’s Black Belt. 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, 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.

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.

Chatelain author photo smallMarcia Chatelain is Assistant Professor of History at Georgetown University. Recently she created the #FergusonSyllabus Twitter campaign to help educators discuss how to talk about Ferguson in their classrooms. Pre-order South Side Girls at a 30% discount by calling 888-651-0122 and using coupon code E15CHATE.

3 comments

  1. Was Mrs Janet Bridges part of Oececa Campfire Group? Just came across some Camp fire girl material from the 1930’s with this name attached.

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