Around the campfire: A tale of our recreational heritage

By Anne Raines, Administrator, Capital Grants and Loans

What do these two buildings – one in Baltimore City and one on a wooded bluff in Calvert County – have in common?

DSCF6877DSCF6677

At first blush, absolutely nothing!

But here’s the key: both structures were built by Baltimore’s African American YMCA.  Their mere existence touches on the broader story of racial segregation and integration in Maryland.

First organized in London in the 1840s, the YMCA (Young Men’s Christian Association) aimed to provide Christian fellowship for the countless young men who descended on cities for factory work during a time of intense industrialization.  Branches began forming in the US in the early 1850s; local branches were often not integrated, so many cities had both black and white associations.  In 1885, over 30 years after the formation of the white Baltimore YMCA, black ministers in Baltimore convened the first meeting of the city’s black YMCA.  Meeting first in rented houses or in members’ houses, the YMCA purchased its first property in 1899.  After relocating several more times, the YMCA mounted a hugely successful capital campaign – which received a key $25,000 donation from Julius Rosenwald, President of Sears & Roebuck – and in 1918 constructed the four-story facility on Druid Hill Avenue in Baltimore (pictured above).  The facility contained a swimming pool and other recreational rooms, with rental dormitory rooms on the upper floors.  Nearly driven to closure during the Great Depression, the Druid Hill YMCA benefitted tremendously from the Second World War, as black soldiers and sailors embarking in Baltimore overflowed the Y’s sleeping accommodations, and Friday night dances proved a huge draw.

Cabin 7-West Elevation

One of the Camp Mohawk cabins prior to restoration.

Just after the war, the Druid Hill YMCA was sufficiently endowed not only to build a generous addition to their Baltimore facility, but also to purchase 286 acres along the Patuxent River in Calvert County.  This rural parcel became “Camp Druid Hill”, a residential summer camp for African American youth from Baltimore and beyond.  (Calvert County was also home to Camp Conoy, which accommodated white YMCA campers and is now on the grounds of the Calvert Cliffs Nuclear Power Plant.)  The utilitarian cabins (pictured above) that stand today – walls lined with bunk beds – are thought to have been built around 1950.  Boys and girls aged 8 to 16 could participate in weeklong or multi-week summer stays at the camp; scholarships were available for inner-city students.  A YMCA newsletter from April 1969 advertises that “YMCA resident camping offers not only wholesome fun in the outdoors but opportunities for character growth and leadership development” (YMCA of the Greater Baltimore Area).  Students engaged in “swimming, arts and crafts, archery, canoeing, tennis, Indian lore and talent shows.  In addition, the campers are encouraged to develop leadership, physical fitness, outdoor living and the ability to work with others” (Cromwell). Older campers could choose to take special training and return to the camp as counselors.

While the camp remained active until the early 1980s, the world around and within it changed.  In 1960 the Druid Hill YMCA became a branch of the newly integrated Baltimore Central YMCA, and its properties – including Camp Druid Hill – also fell under central administration.  In 1963 the now-integrated camp became known as “Camp Mohawk”; later still, it was combined with Camp Conoy into “Camp Kings Landing”.  In 1984, the camp property was sold to the State of Maryland and leased to Calvert County for park and recreational use; today it is open to the public as Kings Landing Park.

Roof of one of the cabins after extensive repair.

Roof of one of the cabins after extensive repair.

The 2014 award of an African American Heritage Preservation Program (AAHPP) grant to the Calvert County Division of Natural Resources from MHT and the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture  has allowed Calvert County to stabilize the cabins and replace most of the roofs.  Karyn Molines, Division Chief of the Calvert County DNR, and her team, including county preservation planner Kirsti Uunila and park manager Melinda Whicher, have worked to ensure that African American heritage is highlighted at the site and that funds for stabilization and continued improvements are included in the County’s budget.  This commitment will ensure that these modest cabins will house future generations of youngsters who are experiencing the great outdoors – and getting away from home – for the first time.  Without a doubt Camp Mohawk and its alumni still have plenty of tales to tell.

Sources:

http://www.afro.com/ymca-executive-and-afro-family-member-dies/

http://bill-hammerman.blogs.petaluma360.com/10110/my-undelivered-commencement-address/

Cromwell, J.H. “Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman.”  Afro-American (3 December 1966): A5.

http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1715&dat=19731020&id=jLs9AAAAIBAJ&sjid=4SsMAAAAIBAJ&pg=1380,37779246 (see Bettye Moss, “If You Ask Me” column)

http://www.somdnews.com/article/20140725/NEWS/140729648/1045&source=RSS&template=gazette

Wilson, Dreck Spurlock.  “Druid Hill Branch, Young Men’s Christian Association: The First Hundred Years.”  Maryland Historical Magazine  84 (Summer 1989): 135-146. Retrieved from: Maryland State Archives, Web, 30 Jan. 2015. http://msa.maryland.gov/megafile/msa/speccol/sc5800/sc5881/000001/000000/000335/pdf/msa_sc_5881_1_335.pdf

http://www.ymca.net/history/

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One thought on “Around the campfire: A tale of our recreational heritage

  1. Hi … I’m in my 60s now but fondly recall wonderful memories from my childhood when I participated in a free suumer camp called Camp Conoy (or Canoy) in Maryland in the early 1960s. I thought it was a YMCA sponsored program but not certain. Can you help guide me to more info on this camp. Just wanted to thank them (belatedly) for their kindness in helping an underprivileged kid from the projects of Baltimore. Thanks, Ken Kanady

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