Camp Atwater Offers Black Children A Chance To Make Friends And Make Plans At 100-year-old Camp Atwater, Black children can enjoy life away from the city, playing sports, making friends and spending time discussing their futures.

Camp Atwater Offers Black Children A Chance To Make Friends And Make Plans

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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

In central Massachusetts, a summer camp for Black kids turns 100 this year. It was founded by a preacher who wanted Black children to have the same enriching summers that white kids did.

Quincy Walters of WBUR reports on Camp Atwater's enduring importance.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAKE WATER SLOSHING)

QUINCY WALTERS, BYLINE: The American summer camp wasn't originally intended for Black children. But on the shore of Lake Lashaway, you'll see Black kids frolicking in the bliss of the season at Camp Atwater.

(SOUNDBALL OF BASKETBALL BOUNCING)

WALTERS: Sixteen-year-old Olivia Auston and 14-year-old Alaysia Mondon, friends who met here two years ago, are having a little friendly competition of basketball. When the camp was founded in 1921, scholars believe it might have been the first of its kind in America, a summer camp specifically for Black youth. And Olivia says it's important that she gets to spend time with kids who look like her in predominantly white Massachusetts.

OLIVIA AUSTON: When you think of, like, different cities, like, oh, yeah, Massachusetts, full of rich white people - da, da, da, da, da. Like, it's nice to have somewhere where you can go and trust people and, like, be around your own people.

WALTERS: While her friend Alaysia says she likes how the camp lets them explore their individuality.

ALAYSIA MONDON: I mean, we're obviously all different in our own ways, but...

AUSTON: Ms. Speech Girl.

(LAUGHTER)

MONDON: I mean, we all can't be the same, or else it won't be fun. So if we all had the same interests, there would be no point of doing all these activities.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Food is inside today, OK?

WALTERS: And so the sleep-away camp for kids ages 8 to 15 was on hiatus last year because of COVID. And this year, it's just a free day camp two days a week for older vaccinated teens. But whatever modicum of peace camp allows is necessary, especially after the isolation and injustices of last year, says Henry Thomas III, who heads the camp.

HENRY THOMAS III: When you think about where the kids have been for the last year, emotionally, psychologically, it's been kind of rough.

WALTERS: Thomas heads the Springfield Urban League, which manages Camp Atwater. He was a teen activist during the civil rights movement in the '60s, the same time he was a camper here. Being here was inspiring because he was around Black kids who dreamed of bright futures.

THOMAS: And when we'd finished playing ball, we'd sit down on the waterfront and we'd start talking. And they also was, you know, was saying, well, I want to be a lawyer. I'm going to be a doctor.

WALTERS: And did they become doctors and lawyers?

THOMAS: Well, I made a little list here. Wayne Budd was assistant attorney general under Bush - Rick Ireland, first Black chief justice of Massachusetts Supreme Court - Wendy Williams.

WALTERS: Like, "The Wendy Williams Show" Wendy Williams?

THOMAS: Oh, yeah.

WALTERS: OK.

THOMAS: Yeah, the Wendy Williams.

WALTERS: OK.

THOMAS: Yeah.

WALTERS: And there's Donald Faison from "Scrubs" and Ruth E. Carter, the Oscar-winning costume designer of "Black Panther."

Groundskeeper Buck Gee, who was a camper in the '70s and a counselor in the '80s, says the magic of Camp Atwater is the freedom it allows Black kids. They try not to have too many rules at this camp because Black kids are policed everywhere else. Gee says he remembers a time when kids would take canoes to an island on the lake and spend the night there.

BUCK GEE: You can do activities all day. And at night you'd hear them singing and going back across like Vikings. And man, you talking about noise all night - (imitating laughter). And then you wouldn't sleep.

WALTERS: Historians consider the camp anomalous because of its longevity and its purpose. Camp Atwater attracted Black kids from across the country.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Over loudspeaker) All the campers gathered at the bus - please do not get on the bus until there's an adult.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: Give me my ball.

WALTERS: At the end of the present day, kids head to the bus to leave. But 17-year-old Joshua-Mark Campbell lingers for a moment on the basketball court.

JOSHUA-MARK CAMPBELL: I'm kind of without words because this is something you don't see very often, you know? And when you spot it, it's a good thing. So, yeah, it's awesome.

WALTERS: Campbell says next year he hopes so many kids are interested that there's a waitlist for Camp Atwater, where generations of Black kids have been free to be Vikings or just themselves.

For NPR News, I'm Quincy Walters.

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