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Wednesday, March 4, 2009 10:10 am

Raise the colors

Scouting for diversity among the troops

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Last summer, while William Ferguson was working as a junior counselor at the Urban League’s Freedom School, a child fell and broke his arm. Ferguson used two sticks and a bandana to fashion a makeshift cast, to keep the child’s arm immobile until paramedics arrived. It was one of many skills he never dreamed he would use. But his experience with the young day camper taught 15-year-old Ferguson that merit badges were something more than just colorful little patches.

Ferguson, a sophomore at Southeast High School, is a Boy Scout. He has been in scouting for so long, he can hardly remember when he started; he thinks he was a third-grader when he took the Cub Scout oath. He didn’t have much choice: His mother was a Girl Scout; his two uncles both achieved the rank of Eagle in Troop 21, the same group Ferguson belongs to now.

“I would love to get my Eagle Scout,” he says.

What makes Ferguson and his family unusual is not just their devotion to the scouting tradition but also the fact that they’re African American. Among the nine counties that comprise the local Abraham Lincoln Council, only 15 percent of all 11- to 18-year-old boys are registered scouts. In Sangamon county, only 7.4 percent of all scouts, Cubs on up, are African American, says Daniel O’Brien, scout executive of the Lincoln Council. And most of the high-school-age black males associated with Boy Scouts in Springfield belong to one of the less-traditional, more progressive branches of scouting — a non-uniformed offshoot called Venturing.

There’s a rich history of minority scouting in Springfield. The capital’s first black Boy Scout group, Troop 19, was established in 1920, at St. John’s AME Church. A second, Troop 20, was chartered shortly thereafter at Pleasant Grove Baptist Church.

But now, almost 90 years and a sweeping civil rights movement later, there are only three Springfield Boy Scout troops with any significant number of minority members.

Why? If you think it’s because scouting isn’t “cool,” think again. Darren Kincaid, a senior at Southeast High School, made the all-conference swim team last year, belongs to the French Club and the African-American Club, has a B+ average, and says being on the basketball team takes up at least half his time. Twice a month, he attends Junior Frontiers, also known as Boy Scouts Venturing Crew 33 — although he admits most of his friends aren’t aware of that fact.

“But if asked, I would most definitely tell people about it,” he says.

The organization he belongs to is one of 25 Venturing crews in the Lincoln Council. Introduced by Boy Scouts of America about a decade ago, Venturing crews are similar to Explorers — they’re both coed, for kids ninth grade through age 20, but Explorers are generally linked to a profession (law enforcement, for example), while Venturing emphasizes an interest area, anything from sailing and scuba diving to computers and coin collecting. Kincaid’s crew, which is not coed, was chartered in 1995 by the Springfield chapter of Frontiers International, a service organization known for hosting the annual Martin Luther King Jr. breakfast.

Kincaid was in seventh grade when his neighbor invited him to join Positive Youth Development, or PYD, the younger group of the Junior Frontiers Venturing crew. There are no merit badges, no uniforms, no oath, no ranks. But both groups are linked to Boy Scouts.

“We in essence give Frontiers International a franchise to operate. We form a partnership,” O’Brien says. “We provide some training, facilities for outdoor adventure and activities, and they in turn use scouting principles and guidelines.”

Kincaid says the best part is the guest speakers who come talk to the kids every other meeting.

“It’s basically structured around getting young men to develop as young men,” he says. “To me, it’s a big responsibility. Any time you’re part of an organization, it leads you to strive for bigger and better things.”

Ferguson feels the same way about his troop, where he has learned not only how to splint a broken arm with sticks and a neckerchief, but also the proper way to bear the flag, and how to cook cowboy chowder, peach cobbler and “foil dinners” — steak, potatoes, and carrots. The skills he learned earning his physical fitness merit badge helped him get in shape for track. The most important skill he learned, though, is time management. He works two part-time jobs (busing tables at Saputo’s and running concessions at the convention center); sings in the choir at church and the show choir at school, goes to Scout meetings at least once per week, and brings home A’s and B’s.

Is he a responsible, mature kid because he’s a Boy Scout? Or is he a Boy Scout because he’s a responsible, mature kid? He isn’t sure which is the chicken, which is the egg.

“My mom trained me like this,” he says, “but scouting does have something to do with it.”

Even though Ferguson and Kincaid attend the same high school, live close enough to call themselves neighbors and have both been registered with the BSA for years, until last week, Ferguson didn’t know Kincaid was a fellow scout. It’s not something either kid actively advertises. Scouting is cool, but maybe not that cool.

Terry Ransom logged less about five years in Boy Scouts when he was a kid growing up in Springfield. He enjoyed it, but achieved only the middle rank, First Class Scout. So when he found himself ordered to become a scoutmaster — by his commanding officer at an Army outpost in Germany — Ransom says he felt “unqualified.” He was 21 at the time, and would be stepping in to a troop that numbered more than 70 sons of fellow soldiers, replacing another man who had been shipped back to the United States.

Fortunately, the U.S. Army provided Ransom with a training course and all the support he could want. If he needed tents, food and portable stoves for a campout, he got them. Trucks to transport the scouts to the trail head? Those too. “All I had to do was write out a list,” he recalls. “I got everything.” His scoutmaster tenure ended a year and a half later, in November 1963, when it was his turn to get transferred stateside.

Around 1968, Ransom reconnected with scouting the natural way — by becoming a Cub Scout leader when his oldest son joined a pack. The following year, he was hired for one of the Abraham Lincoln Council’s few paying gigs, as a district executive. He lasted three years, resigning, he says, after another professional scout called him a “jungle bunny” and their boss refused to address Ransom’s complaint.

Ransom admits he had a personality clash with the boss. “I never did get along with him too well,” Ransom says.

Shortly after Ransom resigned, the council decided to send a contingent of East Side scouts to the National Scout Jamboree being held that year in Pennsylvania. The jamboree, a quadrennial event, is scouting’s mecca — a gathering of thousands of young men from across the nation and around the world for 10 days of activities and celebration. It’s not unusual for the sitting U.S. president to visit the jamboree.

Prior to 1972, no black scout from Springfield had ever attended. But that year, the council paid the way for 32 east side scouts (31 African American and 1 Caucasian), providing transportation via school bus and free uniforms. Despite Ransom’s unpleasant departure from their office, the council executives asked him to lead the group to the jamboree. To this day, he says he doesn’t know what motivated the council’s gift.

“I didn’t ask them. I didn’t question it. I was just happy that they did something like that,” he says.

An even bigger surprise came at the end of the gathering, when one of the scouts in his group, a kid named Tony Hammons, was awarded the honor “Scout of the Jamboree.” “He averted a race riot,” Ransom says. He had intervened in a conflict between the black Springfield scouts and boys from another area, who were calling them names. When the Springfield scouts went to their campsite to gather axes and knives, Hammons calmed them down then went to talk to the leaders of the other group.

Ransom witnessed none of the drama. “I don’t know where I was. You’ve got more than 1,000 acres out there with things going on everywhere,” he says. “But some other scouts happened to see what happened and nominated him. They said they’d never seen a young man be as tactful and work as well with both boys and adults.”

The story’s happy ending has a footnote: Hammons subsequently dropped out of Boy Scouts and never returned.

When it comes to race relations, Boy Scouts of America has a history that’s neither particularly shameful nor progressive; it just mostly mirrors the status quo. BSA was established in England and brought to the states in 1910 by Chicago publisher W.D. Boyce, who envisioned an organization that would never discriminate on the basis of color or creed. However, he soon ceded BSA to the Young Men’s Christian Association, and as scouting spread, BSA headquarters suggested that individual councils adopt whatever racial policies were used by their public schools. Consequently, most troops were segregated.

BSA first “officially promoted” a “Negro Troop” in 1916, in Louisville, Ky.; within a decade, there were almost 250 black troops, according to a black history organization called the African American Registry. Black troops, though, were sometimes lumped together with troops established for boys with special needs, under a BSA initiative called Program Outreach. “For example, the program’s reports categorize some scouts as ‘Feeble-minded, Delinquency Areas, Orphanages and Settlements.’ Many of the scouts in ‘Delinquent Areas’ were blacks, who were measured as ‘Special Troops,’ ” according to the Registry.

The most blatant discrimination was faced by black scouts in the South, where they were often not allowed to wear the Boy Scout uniform and were allotted lower budgets, according to the Registry. But even tepid support for black troops could subject the local councils to vicious threats from the Ku Klux Klan, which denounced the entire scouting movement as a “puppet” of the Catholic Church.

A Registry report concludes with a mixed verdict on BSA’s racial history: “It is telling that an organization like Boy Scouts of America, dedicated from its inception to raising men of high moral strength and conviction, supported racism. But at the same time, on a national and local level, the Scouts did have certain leaders that pressed against the grain of society for racial change,” the report says.

BSA has made great strides toward diversity. Nowadays, the Web site contains links explaining how to adapt scouting for for Hispanic, Buddhist, and Islamic boys. Jewish scouts have an extra set of merit badges they can earn through studying their culture and faith. The section on African American scouting offers advice to anyone trying to establish a Cub Scout pack or Boy Scout troop in a black community, and holds up as an example the Hawk Mountain Council in Reading, Pa., where minority membership has increased dramatically, due in large part to a series of barbecue dinners used to recruit adult volunteers. The program has led to the founding of Cub Scout troops in three inner-city elementary schools, with standing requests from nine more.

Scoutreach, BSA’s program targeting inner-city youth, got a black eye in 2005 when an independent investigation of the Atlanta Area Council discovered that officials had claimed more than 10,000 boys signed up and the true number was about half that. The investigation revealed a pattern of willful record tampering, including changing birthdates to keep names on rolls after boys had aged out of scouting, and continually listing a scouting unit at a church that had burned down. The inflated figures helped the council get more funding from United Way.

In Springfield, Ransom has been leading racially mixed scout troops for most of the past 35 years. Now 67 years old, he is troubled by the lack of progress in minority scouting here, but chalks it up to nothing more malicious than a void of understanding between the black community and scouting officials. “It’s just a lack of exposure and a lack of commitment from the African Americans themselves,” he says.

For example, he says council executives don’t understand how hard it is for low-income families to come up with the $1,000 or so that it costs to send a scout to jamboree (Ransom has sometimes paid for their uniforms himself). Similarly, he has had to come up with money to pay for popcorn sold by his boys during the council’s annual fundraising drive, because the cash the kids collected evaporated.

“I have asked them to have the popcorn sale at some other time than right before Thanksgiving, because I don’t think I’d have as much theft,” Ransom says. A single mom running low on food stamps at month’s end might borrow her son’s popcorn money and never find a way to pay it back.

“I lost a lot of kids because one parent or the other, boyfriend or whatever, stole the money. And it’s hard for a kid to say, ‘Hey, I need that money!’ when it’s somebody that’s a parent-figure in their household. So you lose the kid because they’re embarrassed,” he says. “They don’t want to come back and say, ‘My mom took the money,’ or ‘Her boyfriend smoked it up.’ They just stay away.”

O’Brien, the scout executive for the Lincoln Council, says such problems aren’t unique to the black community, and that some troops avoid the problem of unscrupulous parents by setting up card tables outside of supermarkets to sell their popcorn, so that the kids don’t have to carry the cash. “There are ways to do that, and we believe that we really try to help where we can, but anybody is going to have to earn a substantial part of their way,” he says. “Sometimes it takes creativity on the part of the volunteers on how we help the kids earn their way so they can have personal pride.”

Ransom, who acknowledges that he and the council leader have sniped at each other for more than a decade, isn’t inclined to take O’Brien’s advice. “That sounds good coming from him, but he hasn’t been out here, so he can’t tell me anything. And that’s bitter and I’ll admit it,” Ransom says. “If you’re not helping me, you’re hindering me.”

Yet, even O’Brien admits that the biggest challenge in the black community is one that can’t be changed — the lack of tradition. If there’s not a dad or uncle or grandfather who was in scouting, it’s more difficult to get the younger kids interested. “In the African American community, there’s not always that tradition, so sometimes we struggle,” O’Brien says.

Both men say the Frontiers’ Venture crew is thriving, and new Cub Scout packs are forming on the east side — one at Brandon Court, through the Urban League, one at Union Baptist Church. Ransom says he will do whatever it takes to help the new groups succeed.

“I want to see scouting work,” he says. “I believe in scouting or I wouldn’t have been in it this long. I know good things can come of it.”

Contact Dusty Rhodes at drhodes@illinoistimes.com.

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