BHM: Black Girl Scouts and the Powerful Black Women Who Made it and Other Empowering Things Happen

Despite their stated commitment to the empowerment of all girls, Girl Scouts of America has a bad name amongst many of the feminists I know and teach; however, for me, Girl Scouts of America has been a place where both I and my peers learned invaluable skills denied us elsewhere. More than that, in doing research about key African American women in Girl Scouts, I uncovered a herstory of black female leadership that included radical involvement in the betterment of black people’s lives. While most people think Girl Scouts are just the girls in green uniforms pushing thin mints like drugs on the corner or outside the bank, the reality is that Girl Scouts of America was actually founded to encourage female leadership and civic duty. Not only have they helped girls with public speaking, survival skills (including how to find clean water, identify edible plants, and build a makeshift dwelling when lost in the woods) that are still considered largely the domain of men, and girls self-esteem, but they are actively involved in service work with the elderly, differently-abled people, low income and “poor performing” schools, animal rescue shelters, homeless shelters, etc. They provide opportunities for girls to work with and/or learn from women working in industries where we are underrepresented, who own their own businesses, or work for places like NASA, NGOs, or the White House, encouraging girls to challenge glass ceilings and reach for their dreams. And they have worked, with inconsistent results, to be more inclusive, have more cultural education components, and to deal critically and more often with global girls’ issues, including the oft forgotten issue of differently-abled girls’ empowerment. So today, my slightly biased black herstory post (I was a girl scout) goes out to the Black Girl Scouts, both the black girls who have been members since the segregated troops which helped lay the ground for integration of Girl Scouts and its ongoing efforts to serve girls regardless of race or country of origin living in the U.S. (1) and the black women who took groundbreaking leadership positions.

African American Girl Scout Troop in Dixie 1930s

According to GSA, the first African-American Girl Scout troupe was formed in 1917. However, all other historical records point to the first troupe having been formed in 1924 by Josephine Groves Holloway. (2) Holloway received a degree in Sociology from Fisk in 1923 after putting herself through college. Immediately following graduation, she became a Girls’ Worker at Bethlehem Center and attended training to become a Girl Scout Leader at George Peabody College for Teachers. She successfully started the first troop for African American girls in 1924.

Unfortunately, that troop would shut down less than 2 years later after Holloway was forced out of her position by her supervisor. She was told the reason for her dismissal in 1925, shortly after she got married, was that a married woman “did not have enough time to dedicate to the girls.” The woman appointed by her supervisor, focused her energy elsewhere, whether this was by design or not we will never know. Her lack of attention meant the troop ceased activity within the year.

There were no other approved troops again until 1943, when Josephine Holloway finally got approval to start a new group after years of lobbying. Between 1925 and 1943, Holloway tried repeatedly to get approval for an African American Girl Scout troop but was denied by the national and local Girl Scout leadership. They even refused to let her have an old Girl Scout manual. However, Holloway started a “Girl Scout like” organization with special uniforms similar to those of the Girl Scouts and taught them the basic ethics, organization and leadership skills, etc. of the Girl Scouts using an old handbook her husband acquired in Chicago. By 1943, the girls had been trained in the exact same way as Girl Scouts and the leadership of GSA could see no way around including them in the organization and officially recognized troop 200 of Tennessee.

A year later, the GSA hired as an organizer and field adviser to the Girl Scout Council, making her the first African American woman to hold a high ranking staff position in GSC and the first black female exec in Girl Scouts in Middle TN. Her hire represented a critical paradigm shift in the racial thinking of the organization, partially inspired by troop 200. By the 1950s, GSA was actively desegregating Girl Scout troops. By the 1960s, Martin Luther King Jr. had referred to them as “a force for desegregation [in the South].” (GSA website)

white and black members of Girl Scouts sit together at camp in Aug 1941

When Holloway died, she gave Girl Scouts of America her family farm to convert into a Girl Scout camp. The farm became one of the “most modern and ADA compliant camp sites” (GSUSA website) that Girl Scouts own. The camp comes full circle for Holloway who was honored with a campsite named after her when Girl Scouts officially integrated their troops to honor her efforts toward the equality and inclusion of black girls. In 2008, the camp hosted Josephine Holloway day in which women and girls were taught the history of African American women and girls involvement in Girl Scouts, provided opportunities to learn activities that girls learned in the 1920s and 30s primarily by local African American women artists and small business owners, and watched a documentary on Holloway’s life.

In 1969, Dr. Dorothy Ferebee became the first African American Vice President of Girl Scouts of America. Dr. Ferebee’s brought with her, her considerable leadership skills and commitment to the health and well being of African American children forged in a long career of healthcare advocacy in the American South.

Dr. Ferebee graduated 5th in her class at Medical school in 1924 but, like other African American doctors and nurses, was denied internships at white hospitals. She interned at the Freedman’s Hospital in DC instead. The Freedman hospital was one of the largest and one of the only hospitals serving African Americans in the 1920s in the Capitol. Interning there, impressed upon her the need for more medical options and services to African American patients, so she opened her own clinic in the same area in 1925 and both she and her staff provided free rides to the clinic for emergencies, because there were no ambulance services for African Americans either. The more she worked in DC. the more concerned about the welfare and health of African American women and children. Speaking about her time at both her internship and the clinic she said:

“So I learned a great deal about the needs of the negro people in Washington, because most of them were concentrated in Southeast. So it was there that I learned there was very little opportunity for the children. Even though they were in school, they weren’t learning anything. And then it occurred to me, there’s something wrong with this town. Anytime a child goes hungry, and the mother has to work and leave her child home like this we need some place for children. We need a day care center.”

To meet the need of female patients and their children, Dr. Ferebee started the Southeast Neighborhood Society, with playgrounds and day care for children of working mothers.

In 1934, she was appointed Medical Director of the Mississippi Health Project, a program that operated during the summers with a mix of physicians and nurses from the North and the South. Despite having funding, supplies, and permission to build 5 clinics in Mississippi, Dr. Ferebee said the seldom met the needs of the African American community because of Plantation owners interference. While they allowed the clinics to be built, they did not allow farm workers to leave the plantations or access needed medical care during work hours and often harassed them about going on off hours as well. Since farm workers could not go to the clinics, their children also seldom got the medical care they needed because there was no one to take them. Dr. Ferebee worried about what this meant for both the health and safety of young girls, so she decided to turn the supplies and funding into mobile clinics. Instead of watching amused plantation owners thwart black people’s health, Dr. Ferebee made house calls and regular on-plantation health check ups for 7 years. And while there, she used the opportunity to educate plantation owners about health care benefits and equality.

Under her leadership, project workers launched vaccine programs against smallpox and diphtheria throughout poor communities. They also treated venereal disease and educated communities about malnutrition while counter the impact of widespread malnutrition due to discrimination and poverty.

Dr. Ferebees commitment to women and children was also evidenced in her work for women’s organizations prior to becoming the Vice President of Girl Scouts of America. In 1949, she was elected President of the National Council of Negro Women after having been a member for several years. The Civil Rights organization focused on discrimination against women in education, employment, housing, voting, the military, and health care. It advocated for their equality as both African Americans and women. She also founded the Women’s Institute to advocate for women’s health care and gender inclusivity in health education and research. While a member of the faculty at Howard, she not only taught about women’s health but was also a member of the Pan-American Women’s Alliance and the White Houses Children and Youth Council, sharing her expertise about the needs of African American women and girls health and the health needs of poor women.

Her time at Girl Scouts of America helped shift the organization’s focus to include more health care related service learning and a wider body of knowledge about intersecting oppressions related to gender, poverty, and discrimination.

Finally, Dr. Gloria Randall Dean Scott became the first African American President of Girl Scouts in 1975 and remained in the position for 3 years. Dr. Scott was the first African American to get a degree in Zoology from Indiana University. She was an avid advocate for education and educational equity for both women and African Americans as well, getting her Ed degree from IU and working as President of Bennett College for women for nearly 14 years. Her commitment to women’s empowerment included starting the Women’s Leadership Institute that helps women succeed in business and leadership positions. She also created/opened the Center for African Women and Women of the African Diaspora to ensure that black women had a place that encouraged, supported, and mentored them in ways that women’s resource centers on campus often fail to do.

Here she is talking about her work to help encourage and support African American and African women’s leadership:

Dr. Scott joined Girl Scouts in 1953 after saving money from a part time job to afford dues and a uniform. Her troop was segregated but provided her with key opportunities to work with black female leadership and her black female peers. Her commitment to the empowerment of young girls and her own leadership skills, caught the eye of the Girl Scouts and she was nominated for several positions within the organization including: President of the Negro Girl Scout Senior Planning Board, delegate to the Region V Senior Girl Scout event in 1954-1955 at University of Oklahoma, and adelegate to the Texas State Senior Girl Scout Conference in Austin, Texas in 1955. This involvement made it possible for Dr. Scott to help encourage the desegregation of Girl Scouts.

In 1969, Dr. Scott participated in the first integrated Triennial Meeting for Girl Scouts of America. The meeting was preceded by the GSA leadership voting to open 15 positions for women of color on the Board of Girl Scouts. As 1 of 2 existing women of color on the Board, Dr. Scott had high hopes as a result of this decision not only for African American women but also women of color. In an NPR interview done much later, she talks about why it was important for there to be more diversity and acknowledges that diversity meant all women of color

Dr. SCOTT: When I joined the national board in 1969, there were two African-American women out of 65 members of the board, and so the board made a deliberate decision that it would create 15 positions so that a critical mass of African-American, Native-American and Hispanic-American women would join the board out of 65 and could therefore be influential.

MARTIN: Let me ask you this, though, Dr. Scott, though; why do you think it’s important to the Scouting organization that it be diverse?

Dr. SCOTT: Because we all bring, as human beings, skills an abilities that are the same, and the color of the skin, and the background in culture means that this is the world, and certainly this is us in America, deliberately created for us in America.

It is important for all kinds of girls, white girls, Asian girls, Hispanic, black, to understand that the abilities of everybody is needed by Girl Scouting and that the color of the skin is a factor that they bring genetically with them. (excerpt NPR interview on Girl Scouts)

She describes the highs and lows of the event with regards to race and racism like this:

I remember the Girl Scout’s Triennial Meeting of 1969 in Seattle, Washington, I was excited about it because it was going to be the first interracial Triennial Meeting for the Girl Scouts. There were several black leadership organizations invited – NAACP, Urban League Black Coalition and Seattle’s Today Show host who was a black female,” she reflected. “Sixty cities were invited to see our One Hundred Voice Choir and extraordinary flag ceremony. However, a hush went through the crowd when the curtains opened to reveal an all white choir and all white flag girls. (San Jacinto Council of the GSUSA)

The continued failure to be inclusive on the part of the Girl Scouts was not overlooked by Dr. Scott or the other black women in attendance. Instead, they got together and formulated the “Guidelines for Scouting for Black Girls” which included 18 points of improvement needed for the organization to attract, retain, and meet the needs of black girls and women involved in the organization. It also called upon the organization to truly committed to its stated goal of serving “all girls” and to stop assuming that diversity statements, or intentions about inclusivity, translated to actually doing the work of equality and empowerment for all girls.

When Dr. Scott was nominated for President of the organization 6 years later, she wrote back with a simple question: What is the status of black girls in Girl Scouts.

Her commitment to the equality and inclusion of black girls in Girl Scouts has been invaluable from those first segregated days in the 1950s. Like the other African American women leaders highlighted here, Dr. Scott’s commitment to ensuring young black girls have a place to feel empowered, learn new and critical survival skills, and hone their leadership skills in a multicultural environment has never wavered.

The willingness of all of the black women leaders, and those whose names never made into history, to address racism and help Girl Scouts of America recognize, respect, and embed racial diversity within their commitment to girls’ empowerment continues to make it possible for young black girls to find their way in a world that often discounts them. Today African American girls use their involvement in Girl Scouts to help rebuild New Orleans, address the education gap for young black girls, encourage girls to invest in Math and Science and become involved in local elections and politics, etc.

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  1. The website says that they “serve all girls” and has no language regarding cis or trans, so I have written this post accordingly.
  2. I was disappointed to discover that the official website of Girl Scouts of America contains several errors about African American leaders on their Black History Month pages, including the date of the first black troop and the middle names/last names of its African American pioneers; the names included on the site do not reflect marriages or other editions to their names after their time as leaders. I was also disappointed to discover that when you run a search on the leaders they highlight, the only pages that come up are the Black History month pages that actually don’t tell you anything except their titles and the years they served.

4 thoughts on “BHM: Black Girl Scouts and the Powerful Black Women Who Made it and Other Empowering Things Happen

  1. Pingback: Body Impolitic - Blog Archive - » Black History Month: The Promise - Laurie Toby Edison: Photographer

  2. Generally I don’t post on a person’s blog, but I’d just like to say that this post really has forced me to do so! Thanks for your insightful post.

  3. Pingback: I know the cookies are delicious, but that’s not the point. | Disrupting Dinner Parties

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