From Scouting’s earliest days, adults quickly realized the movement’s ideals would be perfect for youth in their communities. Some formed troops before the Boy Scouts of America was even founded.
That makes it difficult to identify the first Boy Scout troop in the U.S. However, finding the first Black troop is challenging for different reasons.
The outreach to Blacks, Native Americans, Latinos and other ethnic and racial groups was basically non-existent early on, and as such, very few troops formed. Records for these troops were also not well-documented, but one troop is highlighted — and it’s one that often receives credit as the first Black troop in many online articles: a troop in Elizabeth City, N.C., chartered in 1911.
Stanley Harris, a Scouting pioneer who founded and directed the BSA’s Interracial Service starting in 1926, mentions the North Carolina troop in a 1935 report, but provides no other details.
The first troop?
There is little about the North Carolina troop in the BSA’s reports other than its existence; however, it might not have been America’s first Black troop.
According to the March 1936 issue of Scouting magazine, Troop 55 of Brooklyn, N.Y., was celebrating its 25th anniversary that year. The article states the troop began in August 1910 with James Robert Spurgeon, Sr., as Scoutmaster. He was still the Scoutmaster as of the troop’s 25th anniversary. The troop was given the nickname the “Leopards,” and it claimed to be the first Black troop in the country.
The article detailed a little more about the troop’s activities, such as participating in the opening of the Merchants exhibition at Madison Square Garden in the spring of 1911, and along with a Chinese-American troop, took part in a Native American dance there. In the fall of 1911, the Leopards had grown into two troops, one Black and one white.
The troop later participated in a Scout demonstration in front of Lord Robert Baden-Powell, the founder of the Scouting movement. In 1912, Baden-Powell embarked on a world tour to inspect fledgling Scout units, which he wrote about in his 1913 book, Boy Scouts Beyond the Seas: My World Tour. In it, he details the American demonstration:
We had a fine rally of the Boy Scouts in New York. Some 4,000 attended in a big drill-hall, and a smart lot they were. They gave some very good displays, which included bridge-building, first aid, knot-tying with hawsers, wireless telegraphy, signaling and drill.
Baden-Powell later mentions Troop 55:
An interesting point in the rally of the Scouts in New York was that among the troops on parade was one composed entirely of Chinese boys — and they drilled well and smartly; also one of negro boys, and also one composed half of blind boys, the other half of boys who could see, each of whom acted as leader and comrade to a blind boy. This idea might well be carried out in other places.
The first council to organize a troop of Black Scouts in the South was in Louisville, Ky., in 1916, according to Harris’s writings. It wasn’t until the late 1920s when leaders like Harris and Bolton Smith, a lawyer and banker from Memphis, Tenn., pushed to serve Black communities, especially in the South, where many Black youth lived.
Segregation in America impacted Scouting’s reach; according to a March 19, 1927, story in The Broad Ax, a Chicago-based newspaper, there were about 600 Black Boy Scout troops in America that year — and only 18 were in the South.
Black Boy Scouts faced rejection, opposition and even violence. In an Oct. 25, 1913, account in The Denver Star newspaper, a gang of white boys attacked a group of 75 Black Boy Scouts in New York City. The Black Scouts would march every evening in their neighborhood, dressed in uniform and led by their own fife and drums corps. When the gang attacked, the Scouts defended themselves until the gang dispersed.
A July 9, 1924, story in The Evening Star newspaper tells of a group of 10 men in Philadelphia who dressed in hoods and robes and burned a cross to terrorize a Black Scout troop that was camping.
Despite the hostility, the BSA continued to reach more Black youth as councils hired Black field executives and began developing camps for Black troops. At the 1937 National Jamboree, Black troops from across the country attended. That same year, Black adult leaders attended the BSA’s national training school. By 1945, there were more than 3,500 Black troops nationwide and nearly 800 Black Cub Scout packs.
Share your history
Scouting has a rich heritage of delivering life-changing values and skills to youth for more than a century. It’s important to understand where we’ve come from and where we’re going, so we can better serve and inspire current and future Scouts.
Feel free to share your family or troop’s Scouting legacy with us and make sure you chronicle that history for your unit’s records. One day, future generations might like to know the details of the legacy they’re stepping into.