Meet the Black Women Who Desegregated Girl Scouts
When Juliette Gordon Low started Girl Scouts in 1912, she founded it on the principle that it would be a space for “all girls.” Black girls were proud to be a part of the third troop ever formed in 1913 in New Bedford, Massachusetts, and in 1917, the first all-Black Girl Scout troops were established.
Despite these instances of inclusion for all girls, Black girls were still being excluded from participation by segregation laws across the United States. In a private letter, Low expressed concern that if Black girls were included, Southern troops would quit, so she decided that states and local councils had to make their own decisions on whether to desegregate.
Despite—and in the face of—these laws, there were brave Black women that fought for change within the organization to provide a safe space for Black girls to participate and experience Girl Scouts. It’s thanks to their hard work and perseverance that Girl Scouts is the organization it is today—and from their stories, we can learn and continue our work to be truly anti-racist.
Maggie Lena Walker
Maggie Lena Walker’s life was dedicated to fighting social inequities through economic empowerment, education, and civic engagement. She played a pivotal role in the creation of the first Black troop south of the Mason-Dixon Line and fought against the Jim Crow Laws in the South to give Black girls a space in the Girl Scouts.
Josephine Holloway was dedicated to bringing Girl Scout programming to all girls. In 1933, she fought to create an official Girl Scout troop for Black girls in Nashville, Tennessee. The local council refused to create this troop their reasoning was “the high cost of maintaining separate facilities for Blacks.” Despite the opposition she faced, she continued to fight, and in 1942, her region’s first Black Girl Scout troop was formed. Holloway was later hired by Girl Scouts as an advisor for Black troops. She is said to have served more than 2,000 Black women.
Sarah Randolph Bailey
Sarah Randolph Bailey led efforts to desegregate Girl Scouts in Georgia. Her mission was to provide all girls within Girl Scouts the same experience. The organization was not yet prepared to make that change, so she took matters into her own hands. In 1935, she created a group called the Girl Reserves that gave Black girls the same experience as every other Girl Scout. After organizing 15 Girl Reserves troops in Georgia, Girl Scouts of the USA invited Sarah to organize a Black Girl Scout troop. In addition, she organized the first day camp for Black Girl Scouts.
It is important that we honor women like Maggie, Josephine, and Sarah, who risked public and private safety to ensure that Girl Scouts was, in fact, a space for all girls.
Looking Ahead: How Should We Move Forward?
Legal desegregation doesn’t mean the work is over.
It is important to note the difference between de jure (by law) and de facto (in fact / in practice), because the desegregation of an organization (or even a country!) does not necessarily mean that the organization or country is more inclusive or equitable. Continuing to examine the ways in which racism plays a role in our country, and therefore in this organization, is not simply important, but necessary.
In the words of Interim CEO of Girl Scouts of the USA Judith Batty, “while we are proud of our progress, I am committed to engaging the Movement in difficult discussions about race in an effort to make the Girl Scouts an actively anti-racist organization.”
In addition to following these words, we must also follow the footsteps of women like Maggie L. Walker, Josephine Holloway, and Sarah Randolph Bailey and not just talk about the changes that need to be made, but act upon them.
In moving forward, it is important to note that action may look different for different people.
Some may choose protesting. Others may choose art. Some may choose mentorship. Some are simply trying to survive.
It is important that we do not choose silence. We must never allow people to be discriminated against because we don’t think they fit into the culture of our organization.
In the words of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., “The ultimate measure of a [person] is not where [they] stand in moments of convenience and comfort, but where [they] stand at times of challenge and controversy.”
Change always brings in moments of inconvenience or discomfort, but the question is: do we want to hold onto to comfort, or challenge ourselves to be changemakers?