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Girl Scouting Was Once Segregated

Though the Girl Scouts of the USA initially declared itself a space for all girls, the reality was different for girls of color

African-American Girl Scouts chat at a camp named after Josephine Holloway, who pioneered scouting for girls of color. (Nashville Banner Archives/Nashville Public Library)
smithsonian.com

Has a Girl Scout knocked on your door within the last few weeks? With cookie season in full swing, it’s not unusual to see scouts on the move in neighborhoods and set up in front of supermarkets plying their delicious wares. But for one group of girls, cookie sales and badges weren’t always a possibility.

Juliette "Daisy" Gordon Low, who founded the Girl Scouts, was raised in Savannah, Georgia and her father served in the Confederate Army during her childhood. Irritated by her rigid Southern upbringing and the strict expectations of upper-class women in the United States, she started the Girl Scouts in 1912 after learning about scouting from its British founder.

Like today’s Girl Scouts, Low’s initial organization declared itself a space for all girls. But the reality was different for girls of color. "It is safe to say that in 1912, at a time of virulent racism, neither Daisy Low nor those who authorized the constitution considered African-American girls to be part of the 'all,'" writes Stacy A. Cordery in her book, Juliette Gordon Low: The Remarkable Founder of the Girl Scouts. Low feared that an official position that included African-American girls as scouts would make Southern troops quit, so she left the decision up to state and local councils. 

According to the Girl Scouts' official blog, African-American girls were members of the third U.S. troop formed in New Bedford, Massachusetts, in 1913, and the first all-African-American Girl Scout troops were established as early as 1917. However, the first African-American troop chartered south of the Mason-Dixon Line didn't occur until 1932, the National Park Service notes. That's when a bank president, newspaper editor named Maggie L. Walker fought Jim Crow to form Girl Scout Bird Troop, Number 34. 

Walker wasn't the only woman who fought for a space for African-American Girl Scouts in the South. A woman named Josephine Holloway led the effort to make Southern states include African-American scouts. Not only did she organize multiple troops without the organization’s official sanction, but she fought a long battle with the Girl Scouts to have them recognized. She persisted for years until one of the region's first African-American Girl Scout troops was established in 1942, the Girl Scouts' official blog writes. Today, a camp bears her name and she is recognized as a pioneer within the organization.

As D.L. Chandler writes for BlackAmericaWeb, Sarah Randolph Bailey also played an important role in the desegregation of the Girl Scouts. Like Holloway, she created her own alternative organization called the Girl Reserves that was eventually admitted into the national organization. Bailey also founded the first day camp specifically for black Girl Scouts in 1945 and eventually won the organization’s highest honor, the Thanks Badge.

By the 1950s, a national effort to desegregate all Girl Scout troops began. As the African American Registry reports, by 1956, Girl Scouts had become part of the early Civil Rights movement, with Martin Luther King Jr. calling the scouts "a force for desegregation."

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