On Mar. 12, 1912, widowed socialite Juliette Gordon Low founded the American Girl Guides – later the Girl Scouts – with 18 girls in Savannah, Ga. Its mission: Building self-reliance and citizenship.
In 1917, the first African-American troop was started. The Girl Scouts stayed segregated until a strong ’50s integration push led the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1956 to call it “a force for desegregation.”
Barbara Wilbourne, 82, of Savannah, joined one of the first African-American troops there in 1941. Her original pin, membership card and a vintage photo of her as a troop leader (accompanying this article) are on display at the Girl Scouts First Headquarters in Savannah, a national landmark site. Visiting Chicago recently for Black History Month, she shared her experiences with dozens of Girl Scouts who gathered Saturday to hear her at St. Mark United Methodist Church in the Chatham neighborhood on the South Side.
“Before 1943, Savannah was segregated, and Afro-American Girl Scouts did not exist,” she said. “I am not sure why a change was made, but I was invited to join Troop 61 with about 12 other Afro-American girls. We were excited to become a part of the group. Our leader was Afro-American, and we met at her home. My troop went from intermediate girls to senior girls. I moved up to senior scout in high school.
“All activities were segregated. They would go to their parties and have their meetings, and we’d have ours. There’d be Girl Scout parades. We’d have ours in our section of town. They’d have theirs.
“Activities included weekly meetings, learning the Girl Scout promise and Girl Scout laws, a lot of songs, and other community activities. We would visit hospitals, day care centers. We had cookie sales. Girl Scouts had only one cookie back then. They were 50 cents a box.
“And we couldn’t go to the Girl Scout Camp. We had to go to a camp two hours away, the Log Cabin, in Sparta.
“Scouting was a wonderful experience for me. With God, family and Girl Scouting, I have been helped to become the person I am today. Scouting experiences helped me to learn how to get along with people, develop good study habits and a deep love for God, and it helped me to become a good citizen and an understanding mother. I was able to complete my bachelor’s degree at Savannah State College with honors. I became an elementary school teacher in 1951 and a Girl Scout leader in 1952.
“Friends are very important in scouting and I still have about six from that first Savannah Afro-American Girl Scouts troop, and we still keep in touch. The rest have passed away.
“That picture was from my first year as a troop leader. I didn’t know it was in the Savannah museum until a few years ago. They invited Afro-American girls from the early days and said please bring anything you still have from when you were a scout. I was walking around and saw this picture taken during segregated times. I said, ‘Who’s that girl?’ My friends said, ‘That’s you!’ And so it was.”
Today, the Girl Scouts is thought the largest educational organization for girls in the world, with 3.7 million members internationally.