Every February, the U.S. honors icons in Black history and the Civil Rights Movement. This year, Girl Scouts of Greater Los Angeles hopes to draw your attention to some lesser-known leaders, who paved the way for Girl Scouts of color.
The first African American troop chartered south of the Mason-Dixon Line occurred in 1932 in Virginia, when Maggie L. Walker, newspaper editor, civil rights and women’s rights advocate, and the first African American woman to charter a bank and serve as bank president, fought Jim Crow laws to form Girl Scout Bird Troop, Number 34.
Josephine Holloway worked to ensure African American girls were afforded opportunities, including the benefits of Girl Scouts. In 1933, she organized multiple troops in Tennessee without the organization’s official sanction and fought a to have them finally recognized nearly 10 years later, and eventually desegregated. A critical shift began in the organization, and in 1944, she was hired as an organizer and field adviser to the local Girl Scout Council, making her the first African American executive in Girl Scouts. A trailblazer for sure, a Girl Scout camp bears her name.
Sarah Randolph Bailey played an important role in the desegregation of Girl Scouts. A champion for girls, she founded an alternative organization that welcomed African American girls called the Girl Reserves, which eventually folded into the Girl Scouts organization. With our country still segregated, she founded the first Girl Scouts day camp specifically for African American Girl Scouts in 1945 and eventually won the organization’s highest adult honor, the Thanks Badge.
Girl Scouts was founded in Savannah, GA in 1912, but it wasn’t until 1941 that Savannah’s first African American Girl Scout troop came along. Barbara Wilbourne was invited to become a member of this historic troop and eventually became a Girl Scout leader. Her original pin and membership card are on display at the Girl Scouts birthplace and first headquarters in Savannah, a national landmark site.
In 1943, Bazoline Usher rallied volunteers to establish the first Girl Scout troops for African American girls in Atlanta. Leading up to her Girl Scout career, she was one of the first African American women to be a teacher in the city’s public school system, served as the director of education for African American children in the district before integration, and was the first African American to have an office at Atlanta City Hall. The troops she helped build, known as District V, immersed themselves in determination in a number of aspects of the Girl Scout experience, including the famed cookie program, where in their first year, the girls of District V reportedly sold the second highest number of Girl Scout Cookies in the local council.
One year after its founding in 1912, Girl Scouts welcomed African American girls as members of its third troop, formed in Massachusetts, and the first all-African American Girl Scout troops were established as early as 1917. Desegregation of Girl Scout troops was originally a decision left to states and local laws, and sanctioned troops of color began to emerge in the mid-40s. By the 1950s, Girl Scouts began a national effort to desegregate all troops and became part of the early Civil Rights movement, a move that led human rights icon Martin Luther King Jr. to take note, describing Girl Scouts as “a force for desegregation,” in 1956.
Mary Jackson, one the NASA engineers featured in the book and movie “Hidden Figures,” was a Girl Scout leader for more than 20 years. She joined NASA’s computing division in 1951 as a research mathematician and became the agency’s first African American woman engineer in 1958. In 1979, she transitioned to a new role at NASA as the Women’s Program Manager, where she worked to impact the hiring and promotion of women mathematicians, engineers, and scientists. In true Girl Scout form, she was most admired for giving back by teaching STEM in her community, including helping children at a local community center build a miniature wind tunnel.
In 1969, Dr. Dorothy Ferebee became the first African American Vice President of Girl Scouts of the USA after a storied career committed to healthcare advocacy for African American children in particular. She graduated from medical school in 1924, but was denied internships at white hospitals and interned instead at the Freedman’s Hospital in DC, one of the only hospitals serving African Americans then. She opened her own clinic in the same area in 1925, which included free rides for emergencies, as ambulance services were also not available for African Americans. At Girl Scouts, she helped shift the organization’s focus to include more healthcare learning and highlighted intersecting disparities of gender, poverty, and discrimination.
Ethel G. Harvey was the first African American president of a Girl Scout council in the country. She served from 1972-78 as president of Girl Scouts of the Nation’s Capital, where the highest regional honorary award for Girl Scouts is named after her. Leading up to her presidential post, she was a volunteer for 40 years, starting as a Brownie Troop leader in the 1940s.
Dr. Gloria D. Scott has been a trailblazer most of her life. She led a Girl Scout troop, served as president of the Negro Girl Scout Senior Planning Board in the 1950s, became the first African American instructor at a predominately white institution (Marion College) in Indianapolis in 1961, and in 1975 made history again becoming the first African American National President of Girl Scouts. Scott led the organization’s efforts to get girls of color involved and also influenced the 1978 trefoil symbol update by designer Saul Bass to three faces, which emphasized the diversity of Girl Scouting.
Girl Scout Alumnae Connie Lindsey served two terms as the National Board President of the Girl Scouts (2008-2014)—the highest-ranking volunteer of the organization, where she provided guidance in policy, fundraising, and leadership. A lifetime Girl Scout, Lindsey often credits her foundation of advocacy and community engagement to her Girl Scout experience. She is currently the Executive Vice President and Head of Corporate Social Responsibility and Global Diversity & Inclusion at Northern Trust in Chicago, making her the first African American woman in the history of the firm to be named Executive Vice President.
In 2020, lifelong Girl Scout, GSUSA Board Member, and corporate trailblazer Judith Batty was named the Interim CEO of the organization, becoming the first African American to sit at the helm of the organization in the CEO role. Her Girl Scout career started as a Brownie through Senior, including being a member of the first class of girl delegates at the National Council Session in 1975. Prior to her interim CEO role at Girl Scouts, she served as both a corporate executive and senior legal counsel for ExxonMobil, where she was the first woman and first African American General Counsel of the ExxonMobil affiliate in Japan.