Camp Atwater (1921- ) [Children’s Edition]

Camp Atwater Ballet Group, 1951
Camp Atwater Ballet Group, 1951
Public domain image

This entry is for juvenile audiences. To see the full version of this entry, click here.

What is it?

Camp Atwater is a 78-acre camp on Lake Lashaway in Massachusetts, which was designed for African American children

Why is it important to know about?

Camp Atwater is the oldest African American owned and operated camp in the nation that is accredited by the American Camp Association (ACA.)

Details of the place

In 1921 Dr. William De Berry founded Camp Atwater on Lake Lashaway in North Brookfield, Massachusetts. Originally called St. John’s Camp, it was designed for the children of African American professionals. The name was changed to Camp Atwater in 1926 when Ms. Mary Atwater donated $25,000 in honor of her father, Dr. David Fisher Atwater, who had been an important doctor in the town. Camp Atwater lies on 75 acres of waterfront land with 40 buildings, plus a 3-acre island in the middle of the lake.

In the early years of the 20th century, many African American families moved north, away from the harsh rules of the south, in a time called the Great Migration. But though their families had moved hoping for greater freedom, Black children were still barred from almost every white summer camp in the area. Camp Atwater was created so that African American children who had moved to Springfield, Massachusetts would have their own summer camp. Dr. De Berry hoped that at camp his own children could meet kids from a similar Black, middle class background.

At Camp Atwater, children from eight to fifteen years old did things like boating, basketball, soccer, tennis, archery, ballet, drama, arts and crafts, and swimming. In fact, Dr. De Berry wanted everyone who came to camp to learn to swim. This was especially important because African-American kids were usually not allowed in white swimming pools. Children also learned more about African American history and culture. Kids made lifelong friendships, which often became professional connections when they grew up. Sometimes they even got married and sent their own children to Camp Atwater.

Its lasting impact:

As summer camps around the nation began to desegregate in the 1950s and 1960s, many African American children began going to camps closer to home. But Camp Atwater is still operating. It is now owned and managed by the Urban League of Springfield and welcomes children from all economic backgrounds. Camp Atwater still follows its original mission “to develop youth physically, intellectually, emotionally and socially,” strengthening bodies, minds, hearts, and friendships.

What we learned from it

When you have a place to strengthen your body, mind and relationships as a kid, it can help you your whole life—in your schooling, job, family, and friendships. During a time of excluding Black children from summer camps and many other important activities, Dr. De Berry created a place that was not only fun, but that uplifted African American families and futures.

For more information, please see BlackPast.org.