Desegregating Circle M Day Camp: A Determination to Succeed

by Marcy and Bob Brower

It was July 2, 1964, and President Lyndon Johnson had just signed the Civil Rights Act. For us, the time had come to finally implement a plan to desegregate our white suburban day camp. We had been discussing how and when for many years, and the signing of the Civil Rights Act was the final impetus we needed to make it happen. At that time we were in our thirties and were social activists who had participated in civil rights activities since undergraduate school. Also, at that time, our eight-week, coed day camp of about 244 children was ten years old. The camp grounds were located in a white suburban community of northwest Chicago serving only middle to upper class children.

Prior to 1964, there were several events that occurred that touched us deeply and prepared us for taking a calculated risk with our camp. On June 12, 1963, President Kennedy introduced his Civil Rights Bill to Congress and the public, but never saw it become law. Ten weeks later on August 28, 1963, Martin Luther King led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. The march and his "I Have a Dream" speech left an indelible mark on us and on the direction of our day camp. Marcy celebrated her birthday that year by going to Washington to participate in the march. When she returned, she was inspired and more determined than ever that we find a way to bring the message of the Washington march to our camp. President Kennedy's assassination on November 22, 1963, was a national tragedy and a terrible shock to us, as it was to many young adults and certainly to the nation as a whole. During the long weekend of his funeral, we remembered what he had said in his January 20, 1961, inaugural address: "And so, my fellow Americans: Ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country."

We were determined to respond to Kennedy's call. The first change we made in our camp program was to discontinue our rifle program. Although we only had BB guns at camp, we thought it was not necessary to teach young children to shoot. We also sought out and hired some African-American staff. We sent a notice to our parents of our decisions and our rationale. Our parents overwhelmingly indicated approval.

A Plan for Desegregation

Our next change was to develop a plan to include African-American children in our day camp, coupled with a camp scholarship plan to allow low income families to attend our camp. We knew of many social agencies in Chicago that provided camp opportunities to African-American children, and as a matter of fact, as undergraduates, we had worked at a settlement house and resident camp for about 200 African-American children. However, those camp experiences, at least the ones we knew of, had segregated camper enrollments.

We wondered whether a desegregated private day camp would succeed in the North Shore suburbs of Chicago or if the idea would be rejected. After all, there were seven other private, competitor day camps serving the same general area and our parents who were unhappy could switch to one of the other camps. Actually, after our plan went into effect, a few parents did enroll their children in neighboring day camps, but there were other parents who enrolled in Circle M precisely because of our desegregation plan.

When we think back about our first attempt at desegregating our camp in 1965, we have to admit it was a naive plan and not long lasting — but it was an attempt — and it was a beginning. A large public housing project in Chicago called Cabrini Green was located in Chicago about forty miles from our camp. Most of the residents of the project were African-American families. We were able to contact a social worker who worked with the families in the project and who helped us develop our plan. One difficulty with Cabrini Green was that the distance to camp from the project was too far for a satisfactory daily pick-up and dropoff route. Therefore, our thought was to ask Cabrini Green parents to allow their children to stay overnight in a suburban home for eight weeks and be brought home on weekends and conversely to ask our suburban parents to welcome into their homes an African-American child for eight weeks. We hoped both sets of parents would embrace the value of the camp and living experience for themselves and their children.

Our first integration plan consisted of three parts:

  1. African-American families from Cabrini Green who had a child between seven to ten years of age would agree to participate for eight weeks and to allow their child to live with a white suburban host family and attend camp during the week.
  2. Suburban host families would agree to host an African-American child for eight weeks who was the same age as their child who already attended camp. The host family would bring the city child back to his or her home each Friday after camp and pick-up the child on Sunday evening for the following camp week.
  3. As owners and directors, our obligation to each child in the program would be to accept the African-American child at no charge, to place that child and the host child in the same camper group, and to facilitate a successful camp experience and home experience for both children.

The social worker at Cabrini Green located ten city families interested in the program and we located ten suburban host families also interested in the program. We met with each family to determine whether the stability of the family enabled the children to participate in the program for the full eight weeks because we were concerned that fami ly issues might prevent a successful completion of a full summer of camp attendance.

Of the twenty families interviewed, we were able to match eight families and children. We held several joint child/ parent meetings and picnics on the camp grounds where city and suburban parents and children could get to know each other and exchange questions and answers about living accommodations, health needs, likes and dislikes, and other personal concerns. When families got to know each other, they realized that as parents they had the same goals, concerns, and wishes for the well-being of their children. At one of the meetings, we also gave our camp talk with photos of camp and activities. Fortunately, the children of the host families had previously attended camp and were enthusiastic about camp. That alleviated many hesitations that city parents, who had no prior camp experience, might have had.

The stage was now set, and the camp season progressed. The first day and week of camp came and went smoothly. No emergencies took place, and parents and children were happy. As the summer continued, we and our cooperating social worker communicated frequently with parents about camp issues, living conditions, summer colds, or other minor situations. During the camp season, each of the camp families planned summer social events together.

This camp desegregation program continued through the summers of 1965, 1966, and 1967 — and stopped prior to the summer of 1968 when on April 4, 1968, a second national tragedy occurred. Martin Luther King was assassinated and black/ white relations were so troubled that it was not possible to continue this type of program. However, after 1967, some of the participating families and children continued to keep in touch with each other.

One of the unintended but affirmative aspects of the program was the fact that African-American and white children were playing together in the front yards, playgrounds, and parks of otherwise allwhite suburban neighborhoods. Therefore, the positive effects of our plan reached beyond camp to local communities. While we heard some chatter about the African- American children living with some of our camp families, no negative incidents occurred. Of the many phone calls we received during those summers, we had only one call from a parent — one who had not hosted a child — that was negative about desegregating Circle M.

At the outset, we mentioned that this was a naive program, but it did provide a few African-American children with a good camp experience, and it allowed our entire camp community, including staff, the opportunity to develop friendships they would not have had before. Most importantly, it provided an impetus for us to develop another and more improved way of desegregating our camp.

A Second Plan

After the King assassination, the city of Evanston, Illinois, a large suburb that borders Chicago, was involved in a program to desegregate their schools. Since Evanston was within a reasonable driving distance from our camp, we contacted some of the African-American leaders of the school desegregation program and sought their assistance in locating families interested in sending children to Circle M. Enrolling children from Evanston allowed those youngsters to live at home and be picked-up on regular day camp routes. This normalized the camp experience for the African- American children.

We established four criteria for the new desegregation program:

  1. The parents would agree to send the children daily with their lunch for the full camp season, as did all other parents whose children attended camp.
  2. The children enrolled would be between five and seven years of age. This would allow us to keep the child at camp for several seasons to our maximum age of eleven years; assuming parents were happy with their child's participation in camp.
  3. Two and sometimes three integrated busses would pick up the Evanston children to avoid the appearance of a "black bus" arriving at camp from Evanston.
  4. The camp scholarship fee paid by participating parents would be onethird of the full camp fee. The other two-thirds of the camp fee, including transportation, would be absorbed by the camp.

This plan was so successful that we soon had about twenty children participating, and the plan continued for thirty-five years until Circle M closed. Many of our African-American campers became counselors and some, as parents, sent their own children. As other nearby suburbs within our transportation area became more diverse, camp scholarships were also granted to those children.

While many private day camps and overnight camps have scholarship programs for minority children today, this was unusual in the late '60s. When we approached the owners of the other private day camps in our suburban area of Chicago to desegregate their day camp, they thought they would lose campers. However, what we discovered was that our program attracted many families and enhanced both our camp community as well as our enrollment. We found that desegregation was good for camp as well as for children.

The American Camp Association (ACA) Moves Forward to Address Diversity

During the summer of 1979, Eleanor Eells heard of our scholarship program, visited our camp, and recommended Circle M Day Camp for the Eleanor Eells Award for Program Excellence. We were honored to be one of that year's recipients of the award.

At some of the ACA national conferences during the late '60s and early '70s, we held educational sessions about our desegregation plan and met other private camp owners and agency directors who were also deeply committed to desegregating their camp. Together we formed a group to move ACA into developing a non-discriminatory interracial/interfaith employment and camper enrollment policy. Prior to those years, private camps could remain segregated if they wished.

Over the next few years, after much discussion and turmoil within the ranks of ACA membership, and with the resignation of about 125 ACA members who supported segregation, ACA did adopt a non-discriminatory interracial/interfaith policy. Although the policy has been modified over the years, it remains today as the third section of the Exemplary Ethical Practices for All Members of the American Camp Association. The present policy states, "I shall follow equal opportunity practices in employment and camper enrollment." Today, it is hard to believe that such a simple and straightforward statement would have caused so much strife in the past. 

Marcy and Bob Brower founded Circle M Day Camp in 1953 in Wheeling, Illinois. The camp philosophy was child centered rather than activity centered and emphasized the development of personal growth and social skills of children through camper group meetings and discussions at the beginning and end of each day. Counselors were specifically trained to facilitate those group meetings. The Browers retired in 1998 and sold their camp to a private camp agency. Contact the authors at crclm@sbcglobal.net.

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