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Young African Americans escaped racism and segregation at this youth camp created in 1921

February 27, 2019 at 08:30 am | History

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson

Elizabeth Ofosuah Johnson | Staff Writer

February 27, 2019 at 08:30 am | History

Santa arrives at Camp Atwater by canoe in August 1955. Courtesy of the Urban League of Greater Springfield

African Americans moved from the south of America after the abolishing of slavery to chase their dreams and create their own businesses and industries. Despite being free from working several hours under severe conditions without pay, they were still suffering from social issues such as segregation and racism which affected them and their children greatly.

By the 1920s, several African Americans had settled in the urban areas such as New York, New Jersey, Chicago and Massachusetts where they worked and gained an education to live their dreams just as they had seen the white community do for several years.

With the black community rapidly growing, they could no longer protect the children from social issues that had no respect for age. In fact, children were the most targeted age group facing racism and segregation due to their innocence and helplessnesses.

In 1921, being tired of not having their children attend social programs designed to enhance their minds and interaction during the holidays or their leisure time through games, sports and classes, Rev Dr. William N. DeBerry decide to establish a camp solely for young African Americans.

With the support of several other African Americans who had enough influence and money to support the camp, Dr William N. DeBerry made it a point to see that the dream became a reality.

Camp Atwater

The camp was initially called St Johns Camp but had its name changed to Camp Atwater in honour of Dr Fisher David Atwater whose daughter, Mary Atwater, donated $25,000 dollars for the development of the camp in 1926.

Dr William N. DeBerry and the other African Americans who helped to set up the camp successfully acquired 75 acres of land and managed to build 30 camp buildings. They also created a 3-acre island just off the camp’s mainland making them own 325 feet (99 m) of lakeshore.

Santa arrives at Camp Atwater by canoe in August 1955. Courtesy of the Urban League of Greater Springfield

With the successful completion of the camp, it officially launched to take in African American youth between 8 to 15 years to partake in sporting activities such as swimming, tennis, archery, basketball, soccer and boating. The camp also took a keen interest in history and culture taking members through African-American history and investing in arts and craft helping students develop their skills and learn an instrument or two of their choice.

Camp Atwater

Camp Atwater became a success attracting members not only from Massachusettes but from several other places where African American families resided including New York, Chicago and New Jersey.

Camp Atwater, circa 1930. At left is Mrs. Thomas, a nurse at the camp. Courtesy of the Urban League of Greater Springfield

The camp soon became a favourite among young African Americans who enjoyed the serene environment free from judgment, prying eyes, racism and segregation. The camp served as a safe haven to make friends and explore their world as freely as possible. The camp also made it possible for the African American community to create a stronger bond and network with each other. The camp also created jobs for several Africans.

The camp lost major popularity in the 1960s when several camps in the USA began to desegregate and parents opted to take their children to camps closer to home. Nonetheless, the camps still remained a number one choice among several young African Americans.

Camp Atwater still runs to date and is being run by the Urban League of Springfield. The camp remains one of the oldest camps for young people in America and one of the oldest still running in the country.

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