Jesse Costa / WBUR
The American summer camp was not originally intended for black children.
But in central Massachusetts, on the shores of Lake Lashaway, generations of black children cavort at Camp Atwater for the bliss of the season.
On a Thursday in July, Olivia Auston, 16, and Alaysia Mondon, 14, had a basketball friendly competition.
When Reverend Dr. William DeBerry, scientists believe it could have been the first of its kind in America – a summer camp specially for black youth.
Olivia said it was important that she spend time with children who look like her.
“Blacks aren’t very represented in Massachusetts. When you think of different cities, you think, ‘Oh, Massachusetts. Full of rich whites, ‘”she said. “But it’s nice to have a place where you can go and trust people and be with your own people.”
Alaysia, who Olivia met at camp two years ago, said she likes how Camp Atwater allows them to discover their individuality.
“We’re obviously all different in our own ways,” she said.
“Miss Speech Girl,” teased Olivia.
They both laughed.
“I mean, we can’t all be the same or it’s no fun,” Alaysia continued. “So if we all had the same interests, there would be no point in doing all these activities.”
The sleepaway camp for children aged 8 to 15 took a break last summer due to COVID. This year it’s a free day camp two days a week for older vaccinated teenagers.
Whatever the peace camp allows is necessary, especially after last year’s isolation and injustices, said Henry Thomas III, who runs the camp.
“When you think about where the kids have been – emotionally, psychologically – it was pretty tough,” he said.
Thomas heads the Springfield Urban League, which administers Camp Atwater. He was a teenage activist during the civil rights movement in the 1960s – at the same time he was a camper here.
“We used to have some dynamite discussions about civil rights, the movement, Black Power,” he said.
Being at the camp, Thomas said, fueled his fight for justice because he felt he was protecting the dreams of his fellow campers.
“When we finished playing the ball, we would sit on the waterfront and start talking,” recalled Thomas. “They said, ‘I want to be a doctor.’ ‘I want to be a lawyer.’ “
And many of them became doctors and lawyers.
Thomas pulled out a small piece of paper with handwritten notes and rattled down the names of famous former campers. Wayne Budd, the former US attorney for Massachusetts; “Rick” Ireland, the first black chairman of the Massachusetts Supreme Court; Donald Faison, an actor best known for the show “Scrubs”; Ruth E. Carter, the Oscar-winning costume designer for “Black Panther”; and media mogul Wendy Williams.
Jesse Costa / WBUR
Groundsman Buck Gee, who was a camper in the ’70s and a consultant in the’ 80s, said the magic of Camp Atwater is the freedom it gives black children. They try not to have too many rules in this camp because black children are being monitored everywhere else. And Gee says he remembers a time when children took canoes to an island in the lake and camped there.
“At night you’d hear them sing and go back over there [the lake] like Vikings, ”he said. “And man, you talk noise all night, loud! You wouldn’t sleep. “
Camp Atwater is considered “historically abnormal,” because of its longevity and purpose, said Leslie Paris, associate professor of history at the University of British Columbia. The camp is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Paris said it played an important role in the Great Migration as black families moved from the south to the metropolitan areas in the north.
“It offered opportunities to escape the stresses of the cities and the racism of the city,” said Paris. “It highlights spaces that were safe and inviting.”
Paris, who studies and writes about summer camps, said the first American summer camps didn’t think about black children.
“The original child that the first camp proponents of the late 19th century envisioned was a white boy,” she said. “And their concern was about the boy’s masculinity, his future leadership, and sometimes his spirituality.”
Because Atwater was so unique, it attracted black children from all over the country, especially from wealthy families. Back then, Atwater also offered challenging activities such as fencing and ballet and lacrosse.
“Sending your child to Atwater was a token of privilege,” noted Paris. “It was a sign for parents and their children that they would make it.”
But Camp Atwater’s popularity waned in the 1970s, Paris said, in part due to the desegregation of other summer camps.
The American Camp Association, which accredits Camp Atwater, does not keep a running list of camps like Atwater in the country. But there are a few known ones, like for example Camp founder girls, a summer camp that began in 1924 for black girls in San Antonio, and the modern-formed Black Lives Matter Summer Camp in Utah.
Jesse Costa / WBUR
At the end of the camper day in Atwater, most of the kids go to the bus to leave. But Joshua-Mark Campbell, 17, who had just learned the history of Camp Atwater, stayed on the basketball court to ponder the importance of the camp in Massachusetts a century after it was founded.
“I’m a bit without words because you don’t see something like that very often, you know?” he said. “And when you discover it, it’s a good thing. So yeah, it’s great.”
Over the next year, Campbell hopes so many children will find out about this “definitely important” place that there is a waiting list for Camp Atwater – where generations of black children have been free to be Vikings or just themselves.