WIGWAGGING ~ No doubt most of these boys were having a blast when this photo was snapped in 1940. The young men bivouacked at Camp Lincoln (Camp Berlin), a Boy Scout camp for African Americans. Located at New Berlin, its site is now occupied by a gypsum plant near the north end of the Dames Point Bridge. The place used to bustle with activity, with the Boy Scouts enjoying such daily activities as swimming, archery, and arts & crafts. They also built rafts, bridges, and towers.
Note the bugles held by the three campers on the right. During this time, a musician who would later become a local legend used to rouse his Scout unit with a bugle at New Berlin. Famed trumpeter Teddy Washington was born in Jacksonville in 1930 and would eventually serve for eight years as the bandleader for James Brown, the Godfather of Soul, who electrified audiences with his frenzied dancing, full of spins and splits. Mr. Washington first learned his chops while he was a Scout, practicing many different notes. He became the “bugle boy” for Troop #45, which met at Day Spring Baptist Church on Jefferson Street, northwest of downtown Jax. Indeed, the turning point of Mr. Washington’s life proved to be his Scouting membership, as he relates in his fascinating autobiography Life the Puzzle. Scouting gave the youngster “a positive outlook on life.” After the Army drafted him in 1950, Mr. Washington became his company’s bugler, waking the troops at 2:00 a.m. and blowing taps at night.
A political pioneer used to also bivouac at Camp Lincoln. In 1982, dentist Arnett Girardeau became the first African American man elected to the Florida Senate since Reconstruction. A Jax native, Dr. Girardeau practiced his swimming in the St. Johns River as a Scout at New Berlin. Due to segregation, local African American kids enjoyed few places to swim, with a notable exception being American Beach near Fernandina Beach. Since Dr. Girardeau learned to swim in the moving water of the St. Johns, he believes that he ultimately became stronger and better than if he had been taught in a pool. A fond Camp Lincoln memory for him comes from World War II, when as a Scout Dr. Girardeau would wigwag (signal by flags) to the patrol boats, sub chasers, and other small Navy vessels cruising by. He and his companions grew just as fast with flags as the sailors. Sometimes, the sub chasers would turn around just to signal back to the boys.
The communication practice at New Berlin paid off for Porcher Taylor, Jr. during World War II. Born in 1925, this Jax native became a signalman petty officer in the Navy (and, later, a colonel in the Army). The son of the founder of The Florida Tattler, a local African American newspaper, Mr. Taylor was born in the River City in 1925. About 17 years later, he became Florida’s youngest scoutmaster, leading Jacksonville’s Troop 46. As a young Boy Scout, Mr. Taylor had signaled to the frequent Coast Guard cutters moving past New Berlin on patrol. He communicated by both semaphore (flags) and Morse Code (blinker light). He and his friends also kept an eager watch for two of the largest ships to majestically cruise the St. Johns, the Shawnee and the Cherokee. Although discrimination long blocked the possibility of fulfilling of their daydreams, the boys imagined that they sailed on these sleek vessels as affluent passengers, heading off into the sunset to paradise.
KICKAPOO JUICE ~ New Berlin is steeped in history, and the Scouts made the most of their visits to nearby Civil War sites, as Mr. Taylor recalls in his intriguing autobiography Damn the Alligators. Yellow Bluff Fort had been occupied by both Southern and Northern troops, including companies of the Fifty-fifth Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, an African American unit. Flashing blinker lights, a 90-foot tower at New Berlin had provided communication for the Federal soldiers. It linked their gunboats with military towers in Mayport and downtown Jacksonville. Trenches, earthworks, and five cannons still remain as part of a park at Yellow Bluff. At their campfires, the Boy Scouts scared themselves with tales of ghastly soldiers haunting Camp Lincoln late at night.
“Kickapoo juice” is another funny memory for Mr. Taylor. His cousin, an Eagle Scout named Ralph Stewart, presided over an Indian-style pow-wow that required all “Brave Scouts” to partake of a mysterious potion from a big, black, boiling pot. Although Ralph called the concoction “kickapoo juice,” it contained such foul tasting ingredients as Epsom salt and laxatives, which proved quite a surprise to the unsuspecting victims. All in all, Mr. Taylor says that he enjoyed the best times of his life at New Berlin’s annual Scout encampments.
Unfortunately, the Boy Scout organization initially resisted African American members. In fact, local African Americans had to keep their first Scout troop a virtual secret from white people for several years. The unit was formed at LaVilla’s Stanton High School in 1926 under the direction of David Dwight, an indefatigable community activist and one of the first African Americans to become an Eagle Scout. White Scout leaders even contested the idea of African Americans wearing official uniforms. In November 1931, sixty-eight prominent citizens of the local African American community signed a letter that asked permission to officially don the outfits. Although approval came in January the next year, white and African American Scouts in Jax were still kept segregated for many years to come. White Scout leaders had not wanted African Americans to wear the uniforms since the outfits represented a symbol of respect and social status, as Mr. Taylor observes in Damn the Alligators. The white leaders had wanted to deny these benefits to the young African American men, keeping them in an inferior position.
A political football for years, a swimming pool for the African American community was finally opened on Jefferson Street in 1951. Still in use today, the facility finally gave African American Scouts a more accessible location to practice their swimming and test for merit badges.
~written by Glenn Emery