Courtesy / Angelica Holmes
In 1924, on the edge of the Jim Crow South, a San Antonio woman named Mattie Landry founded the first summer camp for African-American girls in Texas, possibly one of the first in the United States.
She called it Camp Founder Girls, and it offered a chance for young women to venture outside their neighborhoods, get outdoors, and learn valuable life skills. But after Landry’s death in the 1960s, the camp property was sold, and Landry’s legacy passed into relative obscurity.
But that will change this summer.
Later this month, a group of African-American teachers in their 20s is reviving Camp Founder Girls, after its chief organizer learned about Landry through a documentary film on local black history. They hope to offer black girls a summer camp space they can call their own.
From June 17 to 22, campers will stay at Presbyterian Mo-Ranch Assembly near Kerrville. The inaugural experience is open to 30 girls. Eight spots remain open, with registration available until Friday at Campfoundergirls.org.
“As a former summer camp counselor, I realized there’s got to be something deeper we can provide students,” said Alex Bailey, 28, who’s transitioning from being a manager with Teach For America, coaching other teachers in San Antonio, to working full time as executive director of Black Outside, a local group he founded that’s seeking nonprofit status and sponsoring the revival of Camp Founder Girls.
At camp, the girls will stay in cabins and participate in outdoor activities, a ropes course, swimming, crafts, team-building exercises, and an overnight tent campout at Enchanted Rock State Natural Area.
All activities are organized around the camp curriculum’s four pillars, camp director Angelica Holmes said. They aim to encourage girls to be strong, brave, creative, and confident.
“If they can leave and say that they are all of those four things, confidently, then I’ll feel like we’ve accomplished our goals,” said Holmes, 26, now a teacher at IDEA Rundberg, a charter school in Austin.
“We’re pretty much building everything from the ground up, trying to take the memory of Miss Landry and Camp Founder Girls from yesteryear, but putting our new spin on it,” Holmes continued.
Bailey, who grew up mostly in Ohio and came to San Antonio around three years ago after teaching in the Rio Grande Valley, is passionate about helping students from lower-income backgrounds get “to and through college.”
To do that, they need more than academics, he said. They also need “implicit skills” like resiliency, cooperation, and self-advocacy.
“In my opinion, one of the best ways to do that is through the outdoors,” Bailey said.
Landry likely had a similar philosophy when she started the summer camp at what is now St. Paul United Methodist Church nearly 100 years ago. It offered young black girls the ability to attend an actual summer camp, an experience that would have been barred to them at the time.
In the 1940s, Landry and her supporters acquired a more than 7-acre property in Boerne. She called the property Camp Elvira, named after Landry’s mother. It eventually grew to include cabins, a dining hall, and a recreation building that seated hundreds of people.
“She was a strong, black, Methodist woman,” said Gaynell Sylvia Sapenter Gainer, 78, a professor emerita of radiography at St. Philip’s College who attended Camp Elvira in the late 1950s. “She did promote leadership, scholarship, and service, and in spite of all of her troubles, she never gave up.”
Gainer fondly recalled some of the experiences she had with her fellow campers in Boerne, such as making crafts out of natural fibers, playing pranks on her friends, and wading in the creek. She remembers a well-dressed Landry sitting on a rock and dipping her feet in the water.
At the time, segregation would have barred girls of color from experiencing these alongside their white peers. That legacy persists even decades later, with white youth making up around 70 percent of day and overnight summer camp attendees, according to a 2017 survey by the American Camp Association.
One of Bailey’s most important experiences as an outdoor mentor came while attending Ohio Wesleyan University when he had an opportunity to work as a camp counselor in New Hampshire.
When students arrived for the summer, he remembered watching campers sprint from the buses to meet with their friends or jump in the camp’s lake. Their enthusiasm made an impression on him.
He also was keenly aware of how the vast majority of those campers were white.
“It’s my vision to now flip that and see more students of color from low-income communities have that experience,” he said.
Since coming to Texas, Bailey has organized several programs helping students from minority groups experience the outdoors. He’s shadowed camp leaders and minority outdoor groups all over the country, hoping to learn more about how to make Black Outside a successful youth-focused organization.
Last year, he learned about Landry’s legacy and Camp Founder Girls while watching “A Walk on the River,” a documentary about San Antonio’s African-American history.
He knew Holmes, who, at the time, taught at IDEA Carver on the East Side, and immediately thought of her as the perfect choice for director.
For Holmes, 26, camp was an important part of her youth. Originally from Little Rock, Arkansas, Holmes had the opportunity to attend Christian summer camps twice in her younger years.
“Anything that really pushed me to be a leader in a group of my peers, all of that was really formative for me,” Holmes said. “Seeing my leadership potential blossom is probably why I am the person I am today.”
Still, she said, she found herself as one of the few black girls in a camp setting that was “predominantly white.” She and Bailey both said part of the mission of Camp Founder Girls is providing a space for campers to feel a sense of belonging.
“You’re just kind of told subliminally that we don’t really belong in certain spaces, that they’re not for us,” Holmes said. “There are a lot of environments where we’re shut out without really realizing it.”
The camp is open to all races, though it’s curated for the black experience.
“Our program is kind of like a historically black college,” Bailey said. “We cater our programming for black students, but our programming’s open to all.”
As part of their efforts to draw students from low-income backgrounds, they’ve set up registration fees on a sliding scale. Families are encouraged to pay what they can afford, between $25 and $200, with those paying the full cost knowing that they’re also supporting another girl’s ability to attend, Bailey said.
“We don’t want financial means to be a barrier,” he said.
Next year, they hope to expand the camp to accommodate 40 girls. Future ideas also include co-ed camps, one-off outdoor events, and an outdoor gear library that other organizations can use to check out sleeping bags and tents, for example.
On June 15, Bailey and other members of Black Outside will be holding a meet-and-greet event at outdoor retailer REI’s location at 11745 Interstate 10.
In school, teachers can tell students to be resilient, Bailey said. But in the outdoors, students can truly prove that to themselves.
“It’s totally different when you’re outdoors and you’re halfway up the mountain and you’re tired, and like, ‘Man, I don’t know if I can make it up,’” Bailey said. “And then that feeling of getting to the top of a hill or the end of a hike and seeing … so much of the natural landscape. And then you tell a student, ‘Look how resilient you are.’”