As a kid and well into my college years, going to YMCA Camp Letts near the Chesapeake Bay was one of my central life experiences. One of those experiences was confronting Dixie style segregation.
YMCA Camp Letts sits at the end of a peninsula jutting out into the Rhode River near Edgewater, Maryland. On a clear day, you can see all the way to where the South River meets the Chesapeake Bay. The camp was established in 1906 and has been in its present location since 1922. Many of the counselors come from local Maryland colleges, especially my alma mater, the University of Maryland at College Park.
Generations of DC area kids have sailed its waters, hiked its trails, played Capture the Flag, sat around campfires, short-sheeted one another and told dirty jokes after lights out. It has also served as an adult conference center and outdoor education center for school kids.
I first attended Camp Letts in 1957 at the age of 9. Then it was racially segregated, not uncommon in the Maryland of that time. The Chesapeake Bay beaches near Camp Letts where my parents took me for weekend outings were White Only as were many public acomodations and restaurants. But the Civil Rights Movement was on the march and the walls of Jim Crow were falling.
I had grown up in segregated Glenmont, Maryland and had been surrounded by the everyday bigotry of a border state white working class community. But I had also been raised Unitarian by liberal parents. They were not paragons of racial equality, but they made no effort to indoctrinate me with concentrated white supremacy.
My North Carolina born mom directed most of her prejudices toward "hillbillies" and people who reminded her of Jeeter Lester (a character in Erskine Caldwell’s novel ‘Tobacco Road’ about impoverished southern white tenant farmers). After spending her childhood in Depression-era Durham NC, the last thing she wanted to be reminded of was white poverty.
In short, I had come to believe that racial prejudice was not only impolite, but downright wrong.
In 1961, Camp Letts finally desegregated. I don’t know how that decision was made or even why. You would have to delve deep into the archives of the Washington Metropolitan YMCA to answer that question. So in the summer of 1961, I met Butch, the first "Negro" I ever got to know personally.
Now I had a chance to put my beliefs into action with about 20 other teenage boys (ages 13-16).
We were "Pioneers" (which was what the YMCA called our Camp Letts teen group). We lived away from the younger kids in tents instead of cabins, cooked our own food, hauled water and used a trench for nature’s needs.
For the first couple of days of his arrival, Butch seemed stiff and distant. But whatever our racial views, we were curious about him and eventually he opened up and it seemed he had become "one of the guys".
Butch was a tall kid, about 16, and more mature than most of us. He was also a natural leader and I know I wasn’t the only Pioneer who looked up to him. It looked like integration was working.
We were supposed to be preparing for a 2 week canoe trip across the Chesapeake Bay to Rehoboth Beach, Delaware. To practice our open-water canoeing skills, we were scheduled for an overnight canoe trip down to Annapolis– a distance of about 25 miles roundtrip.
We packed our tents and gear into our canoes and paddled for hours before we reached the Severn River and the campground we were staying at. The Chesapeake Bay skies were blue, but we had battled a stiff wind and white caps all the way there and we were exhausted when we arrived near dusk.
The next day our counseolors took us on a tour of the US Naval Academy and told us we were free to wander the streets of Annapolis in the evening. Several of us made plans to see "Hercules", a "sand and sandal" movie starring muscleman Steve Reeves.
I was in the "Hercules" group along with Butch and about 6 other guys. When we arrived at the theater, the ticket seller told us there was a problem. The theater did not allow "Negroes". Butch no longer had that confident leader-like look on his face. After some hesitation, he suggested that we just go on in and he’d find something else to do.
I’d like to say that we told him,"What the hell are you talking about," and that we all immediately staged a sit-in at the theater. But that’s not the way it went down.
We told him "Sure…ok. We’ll see you back at the campsite."
The movie was totally forgettable. After we paddled back to the Pioneer Village at Camp Letts, Butch was a changed person. He withdrew from us and started hanging out with Marshall and the other kids of the all Black cooking staff. At that time, the only Black people who worked there were a few cooks and maintenance people.
The cooks lived in small cabins right behind the Dining Hall. I didn’t realize it at the time, but when I think about them now, they resembled the traditional slave cabins of Maryland’s plantation days.
Then Butch disappeared. The camp staff found him on Route 214 outside the Camp Letts gate trying to hitchhike back to DC. They returned him to the Pioneer Village after some closed door meetings with the Camp Director. A few days later, Butch was back on Route 214 trying to thumb a ride home. The next thing we knew, his bunk was empty and his stuff was gone.
Ken, the head counselor, called a Village meeting around the council fire and announced in a loud voice,"Well…we’re minus one nigger".
I would like to say that we all stood up and told Ken that he ought to shut his redneck cracker mouth before we shoved a log in it.
But of course no one did. We just sat in stunned silence. Later some of us talked about how Ken’s comment was really wrong, but publically we went on as if nothing had happened.
We were cowards who betrayed Butch not once, but twice.
But I have to say that Camp Letts did not give up on desegregation. By 1962, there was a small but growing number of Black campers. One of them (whose name I don’t recall), was with our teen group during a week-long exploration of Virginia’s Shenendoah National Park.
On the drive back, we stopped at an empty roadside diner and waited for service…and waited…and waited. Finally it dawned on our counselor what was going on. He said something to the waitress and told us we were all going to get served or none of us would get served. We walked out with our heads held high.
We were hungry teenage boys, but we managed to keep our self-respect this time. He found us a place up the road that was only interested in the color of our money and we ate those burgers and fries with a special enthusiasm.
I became a Counselor-in-Training (CIT) in 1964. There were now Black counselors and a Black unit leader. A counselor named Chris Stone was teaching us civil rights songs. A CIT named Phil Blum was caught up in the folk music movement and strummed away singing old folk songs and the new protest anthems. He was joined by guitarist Geoff Bartley and vocalist Lee Robbins. Camp Letts now had its own folk and protest group. Phil ended up playing guitar professionally for many years. Geoff is still a popular folksinger in the Boston area.
Camp Letts was no longer a culture of segregation and white isolation. Kids were singing freedom songs around the campfires along with the traditional camp favorites like "Sound Off!" and "The Ship Titantic". At night during Vespers some of us told stories about the brave civil rights workers who were facing down the cops and the Klan.
My last year at Camp Letts was in 1968 when I was a unit leader. My junior counselor that year was a Black high school student named Ted whose parents had been leaders in the Civil Rights Movement. Ted had even met Dr. King. I was impressed. I’d say about 25%-30% of the campers were Black. There were a number of Black counselors including two in my unit.
One night a bunch of us were sitting around talking about the various demonstrations we had been involved in. It was 1968 after all and the University of Maryland was not the only school represented on the Camp Letts staff.
People told stories of sit-ins, marches, arrests, teargas and police clubs. Even John the ROTC cadet had taken part in an anti-war demonstration. Then Eugene spoke up. He was a student at historically Black North Carolina A&T in Greensboro, NC. He told us that when Martin Luther King was assassinated in April, that the cops had come into the campus shooting. It was lucky no one was killed. He said this with a quiet matter-of-factness that was chilling.
If you were a white student in 1968, you might get smacked upside the head. If you were a Black student in 1968, you could easily end up dead. The times were changing, but they were still changing differently depending on what color you were.
When I entered the University of Maryland in 1965, YMCA Camp Letts had already introduced me to the racial changes that were sweeping across America…and I wasn’t the only Terp who had spent summers there.
But there was already a small Students for a Democratic Society chapter and a fair housing group. UM students had fought housing segregation and segregation in public facilties. They had challenged the KKK. Campus CORE and the Black Student Union were soon to be born.
I wanted to join the fight and I knew that the campfires of Camp Letts had helped light the way.