Thursday, June 15, 2017

Girl Scouts, Camp Fletcher, and the Ku Klux Klan

Talking with patrons about their research is one of my favorite things as you can learn something odd, new, different, or something that is now forgotten yet an important event in history. That was the case when I was helping David Kelley of WBRC Fox 6 with our digital microfilm scanner earlier this month. Local media often come in to use the library’s collection of newspaper microfilm, and he was researching a story about the Girl Scouts, Camp Fletcher, and the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) for Fox 6’s new TV show, Bounce Around Birmingham.

In June 1948, two white Girl Scout instructors, Katrine Nickel and Elizabeth Ijams, came to Camp Pauline Bray Fletcher, an African American camp, to teach leadership training sessions for about 20 African American girls. Because there were no qualified African American women to conduct similar leadership training sessions, Nickel and Ijams came down from Memphis to train these African American women. The Girl Scout leaders claimed they had segregated bath and sleeping facilities but did have to share the toilet facilities.

Word of the white Girl Scout instructors’ presence reached the Ku Klux Klan, who felt it was not proper for white women to be working and living within the boundaries of an African American camp, and decided to conduct a night raid to frighten Nickel and Ijams into leaving camp. According to Katrine Nickel, between 8 to 10 robed, masked men entered their tent, woke them up, shined flashlights in their faces, rifled through their purses and belongings, and ordered them to get out within 24 hours. As a result of the threat, Camp Fletcher closed and sent everyone home. E.P. Pruitt, president of the Birmingham’s Ku Klux Klan, released a statement denying the involvement of the Klan in the Camp Pauline Bray Fletcher incident, but the description of the attackers left little doubt in most people’s minds that the raid was the work of the Klan.

Girl Scouts Demand Justice

In the aftermath of the incident, the Jefferson County Girl Scout Council asked for an investigation both by local law enforcement and the FBI. The Negro Citizens Defense Committee petitioned Governor Jim Folsom and Attorney General A.A. Carmichael to protect the African American community in the wake of increased violence in Birmingham. There had been a similar incident at Camp Blossom Hill, as well as the deaths of six African Americans allegedly at the hands of the police. Attorney Abe Berkowitz asked the Alabama’s Attorney General A.A. Carmichael to revoke the Ku Klux Klan’s charter. Local businessmen founded Citizens Against Mobism (CAM) in 1949 to advocate for an anti-masking law by curtailing the influence of the KKK from their mask of anonymity.

Public outcry and negative national press helped encourage action against the Ku Klux Klan. A year later, the Alabama legislature passed the first anti-masking law which made it a misdemeanor to appear in public wearing a mask. It carried a $500 fine or one year in jail for violation. It was the first anti-masking law enacted in the Deep South since Reconstruction and weakened the power of the Ku Klux Klan.

Tune in on Monday, June 19, at 6:00 p.m., to watch this story be featured on Fox 6’s new show, Bounce Around Birmingham, which showcases compelling stories that impact the African American community. Bounce Around Birmingham will air every Monday on the Bounce TV Channel 6.2 at 6:00 p.m.

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