Moving Forward in Truth: Bitter Fruit

Todays’ flowers grow from seeds planted long ago
and whether they bear sweet or bitter fruit
depends upon what lies at the root.

Nestled away on 1,100 forested acres in Navasota, Texas Camp Allen began on 10 acres of land gifted by Rosa Lum Allen in 1921.  Development began at Trinity Bay, near Galveston, to make the site ideal for hosting not just campers, but anyone for retreats, conferences, and meetings. In the 1950s Camp Allen continued to grow. Facilities expanded and summer camp became more and more innovative. Campers came from all around Texas to experience folk dancing, crafts, masquerade parties, treasure hunts, drama, singing, crabbing, baseball, archery, tennis, and swimming. Throughout its journey from its original site in Galveston to its current location in Navasota, the heart remains the same: to create a space for people to come and find respite, and experience God in a new, illuminating way. (Taken from History on website.)

But not all would-be campers could experience firsthand the amenities offered by this retreat in nature that operated on Trinity Bay from the late 1920’s, until it moved to its current location in the early 1970’s. Perhaps the same sentiments were held by too many about sharing the camping experience as were held about sharing a meal as expressed by the delegate to the 1947 Beaumont Council who declared, “I have no objection to sitting with the Negro in church, or going to the altar with him, but I do object to eating with him.” Not all campers were welcome.

As I was thinking about the beauty and serenity of Camp Allen, as we know it now, and all its splendor and vastness all snugly tucked away among towering pine trees, some of which have no doubt been standing for ages, I started to wonder, what if those trees could talk? What if those trees that have borne witness to who-knows-what could tell the stories of all that they have seen and heard and witnessed, who would be implicated and who would be celebrated by the truths they told? I googled some words looking for a poem to capture my wondering and found these written by an unknown author:

What would these trees say, if trees could speak
What would these trees say, if trees had hands or feet
What would these silent witnesses of the living
These voiceless watchers of the breathing
Say, if trees could speak?

 What stories would these trees tell, if trees could speak
Of what glories would they tell us, of victory or defeat
What would these spectators of the actions of man
These chroniclers of creatures made by an Immortal God’s hand
Tell, if trees could speak?

 I have gone to Camp Allen for nearly two decades now, for conferences, retreats, meetings, camp residencies and for a host of other reasons. I have always felt welcomed there and have never hesitated to go because I felt I would not be. My experiences have pretty much been pleasant and as uneventful as I desired them to be, except the first time I drove there at night from my home in Kingwood, without the certainty of where I was going or a lighted pathway to indicate that I had arrived, and then the time when one of the folks in the group I was with fell and sprained her ankle and I was her designated driver to the Navasota Hospital where we had to spend a good portion of the evening. Apart from those two occasions, I have had no complaints or reservations. This, however, has not always been the case for many African Americans in this diocese. Some have never gone and never plan to.

In 2007, when Danita Bailey-Samples became Sr. Warden of the Vestry of Hope Episcopal Church, one of the first issues of contention she faced had to do with going to Camp Allen. Hope was the name decided upon by the newly-merged congregations of St. Michael’s and Incarnation Churches. The irony of this merger was that St. Michael’s, an all-White parish had once served as “Mother Church’ to the predominantly African American Incarnation Episcopal Church, which had been founded in the late 1950’s because St. Michael’s parishioners did not want Black children to attend their Day School alongside their children. Then in 2006, after operating independently for decades in between, and each congregation finding itself facing financial challenges, both churches mutually agreed to merge. So much ire was raised over the suggestion by Mother Martha Frances to have a parish retreat at Camp Allen that the new Sr. Warden called for a meeting to have members air their grievances. When all gathered and sat down to share their stories, she learned that the parishioners from St. Michael’s who had grown up having camping experiences and other access to Camp Allen, held fond memories and were eager to go there. Parishioners from Incarnation, however, held no fond memories, no pleasant shared experiences, and only recalled being told that Camp Allen was not open to them. The notion of being not welcome there had taken root in many and they wanted no parts of it. This meeting, Danita recalls, this sit-down face-to-face experience of sharing, put them on a path to healing.

When one does not know the truths that the trees could tell, when they have not seen and heard for themselves, they often remain captive to the unspoken truths or reality as only they have come to know it. Liberation cannot fully come until truth is spoken, heard and accepted by, not necessarily agreed upon, but acknowledged as being valid by all concerned parties.

While Hope’s Vestry was able to agree on holding their retreat at Camp Allen that year, Danita admits to an unsettling experience she had during her first time there. Not having grown up in this diocese, she was not familiar with the history of Camp Allen, so she considered herself impartial in facilitating a peaceful resolution to going there for retreat. However, she admits being taken aback when she stepped out onto the cabin porch and saw a large white cross illuminated in the distance on the other side of the lake. Having grown up on the campus of Tuskegee University in Alabama where her father was Chaplain, during Jim Crow segregation, the lighted cross stirred in her more thoughts of terror than redemption. Even talking and listening with the best of intentions, we still cannot know all there is to know about one another, or know all the stories there are to be told or the deep down truths. But as we grow more accustomed to listening and more open to hearing, we can at least become more aware.

Having access to adequate meeting facilities for African American Episcopalians in this diocese and a location for African American Youth to come together for camping and other activities was a long hard-fought battle. In his address to the 1938 Council, Bishop Quin made an appeal, “I want to put in a plea that we might soon make it possible for our Negro people to have their own properties and camp.  For seven summers they have had fine Conferences for their young people, but without adequate facilities, and the time is here that we ought to do something to provide them with their own quarters.”

In that same year, his appeal was followed by a plea from the Dean of the Colored Convocation, Willie Bright Davies, who served concurrently as Priest for St. Augustine’s in Galveston, “Our Young People’s Summer School of Religious Education, better known as Negro Summer Conference, was started in 1930 with only 10 young people.  This number has gradually increased and in 1936 the attendance was 78.  Our most urgent need at this time, is a permanent camp site to be located in Galveston.  I am, therefore, appealing to this Council, in behalf of the colored young people of the Diocese, to seriously consider this our most present need—a permanent camp site. “Come over to Macedonia and help us.”

In his report to the 1939 Council, Dean Bright-Davies made a similar appeal, writing: “This report will be incomplete without a word about our Young People’s Summer Conference.  We have managed to hold these conferences for eight years under very trying and unfavorable conditions due to inadequate facilities… May I close by saying that the Negro Summer Conference is a Diocesan enterprise, and since Camp Allen is not available for our people, I am appealing to this Diocese to help us make some adequate provisions to meet the needs of our Summer and other Conferences.”

Similar appeals would be made to Council every year until 1960, stressing the inadequacy of facilities to accommodate a growing number of Youth, the favorable results realized, nonetheless, by their makeshift provisions,  and the increasing need to have suitable meeting space for Youth and adult activities.

Bishop Quin in his address to the 1941 Council acknowledged, “I am proud of the work being done in the Negro field but am ashamed of my own leadership in that more is not accomplished… but we have not moved a foot toward providing a Conference center for the Negroes and the time is here when we ought to be willing to share Camp Allen with them or provide them their own.”

Then, during Council of 1943, following a motion made by the Rev. Oscar Dudley Reed, it was voted that the Camp Allen Committee consider the possibility of letting the Negro Young Churchmen use the Camp Allen facilities. This, of course, would not happen for some years to come.

For three years during the waiting, African American Youth of the diocese were able to meet at the YWCA owned Camp Reposo, said to be 11 miles from Houston. The Negro Young Churchmen of the Diocese, it was reported, sponsored the first “camping conference” for Negro Youth at Camp Reposo during August of 1943. They returned to Galveston the following year, but held the Second Annual Negro Camping Conference at Camp Reposo in 1945.

Mrs. Jimmie Poindexter of St. Francis, Prairie View, now in her late 80’s, holds fond memories of attending that 2nd session of the Camp for Negro children at Camp Reposo. She was 11 years old at the time and lived on Prairie View’s campus where her father was Campus Minister.  And while she doesn’t remember where it was located, she remembers well the fun and the excitement she had while attending. “There was only one week that Negroes could go to the camp,” she recalls. And for her, one week was a pretty good helping. It was reported that there were 36 attendees that year, including 6 staff, plus youth from Tyler, Houston, and Lufkin where there was a Black mission at the time. 

It would take an act of Lambeth, however, to finally pry open the long-held-tightly-shut entryways to an integrated camping opportunity for all. As noted by the Diocesan Commission on Race Relations at Council in 1959, the 1958 Lambeth Conference had passed a resolution, that “neither race nor colour is in itself a barrier to any aspect of that life in family and community for which God created all men.  It therefore condemns discrimination of any kind on the grounds of race or colour alone.”  Lambeth, the Commission went on to report, “urged that members of all races shall be allowed * * * the right to associate freely in worship, in education, in industry, in recreation, and in all other departments of the common life.”

In 1957 the Camps and Conferences Division unanimously adopted a resolution “that there be no discrimination in the Camping Program of the Diocese of Texas on the basis of race or color,” but of course this would be carried out incrementally, making exception initially to its white children only policy, to allow only for a week-end “family conference” which was held for Negro children and adults. To further the half-step being taken, it was proposed that more extensive camping facilities for young Negro children be provided than the diocese had made available in the past, while at the same time proposing to make no change to the racial makeup for the majority of camps operated by the diocese. 

While Camp Allen was opened to White children and parishioners in 1921, it would be almost four decades later before the mandate was given that one summer camping period should be open to all children of the diocese. The first integrated camps at Camp Allen were held during the 1959-1960 camping season. Prior to a letter was sent to the parents of each camper as they were accepted, explaining that this particular camp would be open to both Negro and white children.  No objections were received.  Perhaps as an assurance and insurance policy to White parents, they also held one camp (segregated) for Negro high (boys and girls) school students.  All other camps were for White children.

Today the camp doors are open. The fresh air, winding trails, majestic views, campgrounds, and conference facilities are available without discrimination, and the “All are Welcome” signs really mean all. But for some, the bitter taste of yesterday’s exclusions cling to their memories and their palates. Even though this has been the case for many years now, for some, the feel of its “all whiteness” has not left. As recent as last year, when one of the Youth from my church, returned from “Happening,” she said of her experience there, “We felt a little uncomfortable there.” Other than the four of those who had gone from our church, there was only one other African American Youth present. “They stared at us,” she continued. “We stared at them. It got better as we went on.” She planned to go back this year and get a better experience, but COVID-19 happened.

Bitter fruit, I guess you could say, can leave a long and lasting bad taste in your mouth, sometimes taking decades or even centuries to remove or to cultivate new tastebuds.

Sources: Primarily Council Notes. Personal interviews with Mrs. Jimmie Poindexter and Dr. Danita Bailey-Samples.

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