New research reveals an even earlier Black Eagle Scout: Hamilton Bradley of New York

Scouting volunteers are smart, supportive — and really good at research.

Last month, we wrote about Harry Cooper of Missouri, who was believed to be the first Black Eagle Scout in Boy Scouts of America history.

The key phrase: “believed to be.” When you’re talking about something that happened more than a century ago — when records weren’t searchable, sortable and backed up to the cloud — it’s difficult to say anything absolute.

Eagle-eyed readers who made it to the end of that post saw this paragraph: “Even [Andy] Dubill, who made the Cooper discovery, admits that new original documents could emerge proving that a young Black man became an Eagle Scout before September 1920. If you happen to have those documents, use the ‘contact’ button at the top of the blog to get in touch.”

“We may find an earlier African American Eagle,” Dubill said in that post. “That’s what this historian role is all about!”

How right he was. Less than a month later, someone did use that contact button, providing evidence that a Black Scout earned the Eagle Scout Award even earlier than Cooper.

Hamilton Bradley of New York is now the earliest known Black Eagle Scout in BSA history. His Eagle Scout court of honor was held on Dec. 19, 1919, according to newspaper records from the time. That means he completed his board of review some time before that date.

This article, backed up by a council publication from 1920, indicates that Bradley earned the Eagle Scout Award at least nine months before Cooper.

Credit for the discovery goes to Brendan Kelly, an Eagle Scout and Scouting volunteer from the Leatherstocking Council based in Utica, N.Y. Kelly was completing research for the 100th anniversary of one of his council’s camps when he saw a story about an African American Eagle Scout who earned the award in Scouting’s earliest days.

“I noted it in my mind but didn’t think it was extraordinary until reading your article,” he says.

So what do we know about Hamilton Bradley? What evidence supports his status as the presumptive first? And what happened to him after his time in Scouting?

Here’s what the records show.

The Rome Daily Sentinel from Dec. 18, 1919. (Click to enlarge)
The Rome Daily Sentinel from Dec. 18, 1919, continued. (Click to enlarge)
Hamilton Bradley was one of the first five Eagle Scouts in the Rome Council. (From the 1920 “Year Book of the Rome Council”)

Hamilton Bradley, Eagle Scout

According to the Rome Daily Sentinel, Hamilton Bradley’s Eagle Scout court of honor was held at 7:30 p.m. on Dec. 19, 1919, at the Rome Free Academy.

Unlike the Eagle Scout-specific courts of honor that are popular today, Bradley and his two fellow Eagle Scouts (Marlow Abrams and Madison Jackson) weren’t the only ones being honored that night.

The ceremony also included the presentation of lifesaving awards, merit badges and rank advancement to dozens of other Scouts.

In addition to the newspaper story, Kelly also found evidence of Bradley’s status in another primary source: the “Year Book of the Rome Council: Boy Scouts of America 1920,” published at the end of 1920.

As of the book’s publication, the Rome Council had presented five Eagle Scout Awards: two in 1920 and three in 1919. Those three from 1919: Marlow Abrams, Madison Jackson and Hamilton Bradley.

An essay by Hamilton Bradley, printed in the 1920 “Year Book of the Rome Council.”

Hamilton Bradley, Scouting representative

Hamilton Bradley was such a stellar Scout that he was one of two Scouts selected to represent New York at the Eastern States Exposition, a 1920 gathering of Scouts in Massachusetts.

At the event, held Sept. 18–26, Bradley and his fellow Scouts played games, made plaster of Paris prints of leaves and other objects, and demonstrated Scout skills.

What they didn’t do was sleep in. The bugle sounded at 6:30 a.m., and Scouts were “given seven minutes for dressing before assembly, flag raising and setting up exercises,” according to Bradley’s written account, published in the “Year Book of the Rome Council.”

During the day, they practiced building bridges and signal towers, made fires without matches and showed off their cooking skills.

“In fact, about everything a Scout is taught to do was demonstrated,” Bradley wrote. “We all left with happy memories of the pleasant time we had while there in the interest of Scouting.”

Bradley didn’t cease his Scouting involvement after turning 18. He became an assistant Scoutmaster of Troop 2, which met at the Willett School in Rome.

Hamilton Bradley, husband and father

We know that Hamilton Bradley is Black through historical images, his marriage license and census records.

In Column 10 of the 1940 census, “color of race,” Bradley identified himself as “Neg,” for Negro.

But those records reveal so much more.

A highlighted page from the 1920 U.S. census. (Click to enlarge)

From the 1920 census, we learn that Hamilton Bradley (18 at the time) was born in Maryland to Walter and Caroline Bradley. He was the oldest of four children; his siblings were Walter C. (then 16), Elizabeth (10) and Mary Louise (6).

Hamilton Bradley’s marriage certificate. (Click to enlarge)

Five years after that, Bradley tied the knot on Christmas Eve in Rome, N.Y.

His marriage certificate, dated Dec. 24, 1925, says that Hamilton Bradley married Aurelia P. Staples of North Carolina. It also lists their jobs at the time of their nuptials: Hamilton, 24, was a stock clerk, and Aurelia, 26, was a nurse.

A highlighted page from the 1940 U.S. census. (Click to enlarge)

Another Bradley reference shows up in the 1940 census, listing Hamilton and Aurelia along with their son, 4-year-old Martin. (Hamilton and Aurelia would later have a daughter, Sonia.)

In the census document, Hamilton Bradley indicates that he attended two years of college and lists his occupation as night clerk at the YMCA. Aurelia, the document says, went to college for four years.

After that, we know that Bradley was a station agent for the NYC Board of Transportation, according to his World War II draft card.

Kelly’s final primary source about Bradley is the man’s obituary, published on Aug. 30, 1976, in the Scranton (Pa.) Tribune.

In it, we learn that Bradley died Aug. 28, 1976, at the Wilkes-Barre (Pa.) General Hospital after an illness. Aurelia died in 1974.

The obituary shares that Bradley was a power man for the New York subways, member of the Church of the Nativity and a grand knight in the Knights of Columbus.

From Page 5 of the Aug. 30, 1976, edition of the Scranton (Pa.) Tribune.

Giving credit

Kelly asked us to acknowledge the assistance of the following in discovering the items cited:

  • Jacob Ingalls, reference clerk at the Albright Memorial Library of the Lackawanna County Library System
  • Mary Beth Portley, reference librarian at the Jervis Public Library in Rome
  • Arthur L. Simmons III, executive director of the Rome Historical Society
  • Utica College and its Center for Historical Research’s Camp Russell Boy Scouts collection
  • Donna Wagner, amateur genealogist

Kelly says he was able to reach the niece of Martin G. Bradley, Hamilton Bradley’s son, on March 2, 2021. The niece told Kelly that Martin Bradley is 85 and dealing with some health problems.

Kelly says the niece will reach out to other Hamilton Bradley family members, and if anything is uncovered, we’ll blog about it here.

Get in touch

If you have any information about Hamilton Bradley or know of a Black Eagle Scout who earned the award before Bradley, use the “contact” button to get in touch.

About Bryan Wendell 3281 Articles
Bryan Wendell, an Eagle Scout, is the founder of Bryan on Scouting and a contributing writer.