I have been a Cub and Boy Scout leader for about four years, but I remained indifferent to the Scout policy barring open homosexuals until I came across a note from my grandfather.
While transcribing letters for a family history, I found a card that my grandfather wrote to his father-in-law, the editor-publisher (and sole reporter) of a small newspaper in Columbia, S.C., nearly a century ago. Suggesting a story, my grandfather attached a clipping from the Dec. 13, 1918, issue of the Washington Herald. The headline read: “Word ‘Nigger’ on Blacklist; Boy Scouts Will Be Urged to Discourage Such Nicknames.”
Charles A. Wilson, the Herald reported, had written to the federal Bureau of Education, a precursor to the Education Department, asking Commissioner Philander Priestly “P.P.” Claxton to add the racial epithet to the “blacklist of nicknames for ‘foreign-born Americans.’ ” Earlier, the bureau had given this list to the Boy Scouts of America “with a request that the scouts discourage the use of such names as ‘Dutch,’ ‘Frenchy,’ ‘Greaser’ and similar monikers of derision.”
That kind of language was more acceptable in 1918 than it is now, and the Boy Scouts were not immune from society’s prejudices. All the same, I was stunned to learn that the organization that has helped my son grow and helped me become a better father (I hope) once had to be asked to quit using racial and other epithets.
William D. Boyce, the man who brought Scouting to the United States in 1910, believed that whites were superior to other races. But when he agreed to give $12,000 a year to help organize the Boy Scouts, he wanted Scouting to be open to all, regardless of race or religion.
The Scouts’ first executive board gave prejudiced whites a loophole, allowing local councils to decide whether to accept black Scouts and leaders. Official policy was that any boy could join, but blacks were often denied membership, especially in the South. Admitting blacks “would lose us many white Scouts,” a Memphis Scout leader said in 1918, according to David I. Macleod’s “Building Character in the American Boy: The Boy Scouts, YMCA, and Their Forerunners, 1870-1920.” James West, the Boy Scouts’ first chief executive, feared that allowing “colored troops” would eventually “work havoc and be an unnecessary embarrassment.”
Where blacks were allowed to join, they (and Asians) were often relegated to separate troops and denied equal funding. But even separate troops were too much for some whites, who threatened to burn Scout uniforms in public if blacks were allowed to wear them.
The prejudices of the times affected other groups, too. Some Scout leaders wanted to bar Catholics. Others felt that immigrants made poor Scouts, with one man lamenting in 1924 that Scouting “was too hard and comprehensive for our Italian boys” and another attributing three 19-year-olds’ failure to become first-class Scouts to their being “just ordinary Hungarian boys.”
Still, by the 1930s there were at least 50,000 black Scouts, most in segregated troops. Although opposition to blacks and other minorities eased, it took until 1974, and a lawsuit from the NAACP, for the Boy Scouts to affirm that the group was open to all.
It took time. But the Scouts did change, just as the country changed.
I live in Virginia, where 50 years ago my son most likely would have been forced to join an all-black troop. My wife and I couldn’t have been leaders then because we couldn’t have lived together in Virginia. The commonwealth wouldn’t have recognized our interracial marriage or permitted us to live there.
The Scouts’ national board will meet this month and is scheduled to decide then whether to allow homosexuals to join and become leaders. At one time, it seemed that the organization might vote to let individual councils decide, in much the way it allowed local councils to discriminate against blacks for decades. Recently, however, the Scouts announced it was considering allowing boys who were openly gay to join while maintaining its ban on gay adult leaders.
I only have to substitute the word “black” for “gay” in that sentence to understand how wrong it seems.
I’m mindful that many deeply religious people have strong feelings about this issue. Many Cub Scout packs and Boy Scout troops are church-sponsored, so the Scouts face hard choices. Still, it’s worth remembering that religion was once used to justify slavery and claims that women were inferior to men.
Some say that letting gays into the Scouts is a civil rights issue. I’m not sure I agree. I think it’s a matter of simple fairness, of living up to the promise of America and the values of tolerance and decency inherent in Scouting.
David Nicholson is a former assistant editor of The Post’s Book World section.