Where the Green Grass Grows


Camp Fletcher stands the test of time.

by Cherri Ellis

 

In Bessemer, Alabama, four and a half miles off Highway 459 at Exit 1, there is a plot of land that is oddly untouched by time. Water cuts through its rolling greenery; the trees are so old and so tall that it feels like it’s higher than it is wide, though it claims 280 sprawling acres. To come onto the property, you must pass under a wooden sign that reads “Wohelo,” and if you hear anything, it’s the sound of nature talking to itself. This is Camp Fletcher, and it is here today because a young black woman named Pauline Fletcher just wouldn’t listen.

In 1926, Birmingham was a relatively new town. Just 55 years old, it was a city literally built on its own dirt. Unlike anywhere else on the planet, the Magic City’s soil was rich with all of the ingredients to make pig iron, and since the area conveniently sat at the intersection of the country’s two largest railroads, the pig iron was easily shipped out. While Birmingham’s soil was rich, its working class was not. Both black and white laborers were desperately poor, and tuberculosis was rampant.

Pauline Bray Fletcher

Pauline Bray Fletcher

When Pauline Bray Fletcher decided that she wanted to be a registered nurse, the closest training she could get was out of state. When her father died in the middle of her schooling, she had to go home and pick cotton long enough to earn the money to return.  She completed her education and began working, becoming the first African-American registered nurse in the state of Alabama. By the age of 28, she was the county nurse for the Anti Tuberculosis Association, where she helped her white boss, Miss Bertha Clements, found “Kiddie Camp” on Shades Mountain. The act of camping as a concept was relatively new—being outdoors meant hardship and work, and getting wet was considered unhealthy.

Fletcher, undeterred by the lack of precedent or funding, decided to start a camp for the area’s underprivileged negro children so that they too could reap the benefits of sunshine, fresh air, and nature. With the help of the Association of Nurses and a Service League committee, Fletcher raised $2,000, an astronomical sum of money for a young, widowed, black woman to commandeer in that day. She bought a large, beautiful plot of land and then personally solicited every lumber yard in the area. Before long, there were six neatly constructed screened huts sitting on land that had trees with pinecones the size of pineapples and rock-bedded Big Shade Creek for swimming. There was an improvised shower system made of up-ended logs and a five-gallon sprinkler with water heated over an open fire. There were clean latrines and there was a dining room that seated 110 hungry little campers. There was a kitchen that had no electricity or gas, but boasted a cooking range and an icebox that held 600 pounds of ice. There was a daily activity schedule that started at six in the morning and finished by kerosene lamp at nine each night.

Although the name wasn’t officially changed until much later, that summer, Camp Fletcher was born.

Money was a constant struggle, and at one point, the twice-widowed Fletcher mortgaged and then lost her own home in her efforts to stay afloat. She was very blunt and unafraid to ask anyone of any race for a donation. She once wrote to the chair of the American Cast Iron Pipe Company and told him that she wasn’t interested in his prayers for her campers—she was interested in the check he had promised.

Through her vision and dogged determination, the camp flourished for 21 years.  Then, in 1947, the Ku Klux Klan came calling. For a week, there had been two white counselors training a new chapter of black Girl Scout leaders, one of whom was a young woman named Mildred Johnson. (Interestingly, Johnson’s daughter Alma grew up to marry General Colin Powell.) As the young women slept, some 100 robed and hooded members of the KKK surrounded the white counselors’ tent. They woke them with flashlights and ransacked their bags, demanding to see their Communist Party cards and telling them to be gone within 24 hours or else. The KKK, a perfectly legal civil group, filed a report citing that the raid was necessary because the women were using the same dining and restroom facilities at the same time, and, even worse, they were shopping for supplies in town arm-in-arm—as if they were friends.

In a beautiful turn of events, the raid massively backfired. The outrage went national almost immediately, jointly spurred on by the Girl Scouts of America and one local Jewish attorney named Abe Berkowitz, who refused to let the story die. Local Klansmen were confused; they routinely committed far more violent acts that had gone completely unchecked. After all, most elected officials and policemen were KKK members themselves.

But this is a story about our city galvanizing. The people of Birmingham said, “No,” and the rest of the country echoed it back en masse. Within a year, Alabama managed to do something that both Florida and Tennessee had attempted unsuccessfully. By an overwhelming majority vote, Alabama passed The Anti Masking Law, making it a punishable crime to conceal your identity while intimidating others. Though the battle for equality raged on for many years to follow, all transition starts somewhere. And in the middle of the night in 1947, it began at Camp Fletcher.

Screen shot 2014-05-06 at 9.57.26 AMThe arching sign at the entrance to Camp Fletcher today reads “Wohelo,” a word that means work, health, and love. In its 88 years of existence, everything around the camp has changed except the camp itself.

Kids of all ages and ethnicities and school systems still come together and get to know each other as they get to know themselves. You can’t punch keys on a cell phone when you’re in a canoe and the river is running high. You can’t stare at a computer screen when you’re aiming a bow and arrow. Hot, sweaty skin breaking the surface of cold pool water will always elicit the same rush. There is still freedom and self-discovery to be found between the patches of sun and shade in the woods, and that’s likely something that will never change.

But Pauline Bray Fletcher knew that.

For registration or more information, visit campfire-al.org.

4 Responses to “Where the Green Grass Grows”

  1. Allison, this is a lovely story–historical, informative, touching.

  2. Jennifer says:

    So glad to read this article! Fascinating information about the camp that my boys attend every summer! It is an awesome facility and my children LOVE being there. Can’t wait to share this story with them when they come home from Camp Fletcher today!!!

  3. Cynthia Glenn says:

    Thank you for the rich history lesson. I would like to know if you have any original camp drawings that bring the vision of how the camp’s buildings were situated on the property?

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