Saturday, May 1, 2021

Boy Scouts of America; the First Jewish Scoutmaster and Boy Scout Troop was in Chicago, Illinois, in 1920.

Bernard Miller, a resident of Evanston, tells the fascinating story of his father, Solomon Miller, who he described as "the first Jewish scoutmaster." 

Solomon Miller was born in Leeds, England, in 1889. In 1911, while at Leeds University, where he graduated with a degree in education, he formed the first Jewish Boy Scout troop in that city. Bernard Miller says that this was the very first synagogue-based Jewish troop ever formed and that Lord Baden-Powell, the founder of scouting, had personally signed Solomon Miller's Scoutmaster Warrant.

Solomon Miller left Leeds for Canada in 1913. The policy of Great Britain during the First World War was that any young teacher who would go to Canada to practice his profession would be exempt from military service. So Solomon Miller spent the war years teaching Hebrew to Jewish children —" the children of Jewish farmers" — in a one-room schoolhouse in Winnipeg, the capital of Manitoba, Canada. After WWI, Solomon Miller came to Chicago on vacation and met his future wife, Minnie. After their marriage, they settled on the northwest side and raised their son and daughter. 

Although Sol had changed careers from teaching to accounting by then, he continued his scouting activities. From 1920 to the 1940s, he was not only financial secretary of Chicago's Atereth Zion Congregation (AZC) at 1132 North Spaulding but also Scoutmaster of Troop № 60 based in the synagogue and serving the Humboldt Park community. Mrs. Minnie Miller served as President of the ladies' auxiliary and led the Girl Scout troop. At that time, Leonard Shabsin was scoutmaster of the synagogue's Cub Scout Pack № 6060. Bernard Miller remembers the AZC scouts' camping trips featuring "Mulligan Stew" — kosher meat and vegetables cooked in a tin coffee can over an open fire. 

In 1964, Sol and Minnie Miller paid a visit to Leeds, where they were feted by members of his old troop. Sol was pleased to learn that the troop he had organized in 1911 still existed.
Mr. and Mrs. Solomon Miller proudly show the scroll presented to him by the 7th Central (Leeds Jewish) Old Scouts Association on August 26, 1964, on his first visit to England after 50 years in America. This certificate of authorization is a precious Miller family heirloom.

His long years of service to scouting in Chicago have also been rewarded. On February 27, 1972, in the annual "Eternal Light Honor Night" ceremony at Chicago's Loop Synagogue, 6 South Clark Street, he was given the Shofar Award in recognition of his 52 years of service to scouting in America. The award was presented by the Jewish Relationships Committee, Chicago Area Council of the Boy Scouts of America. 

Bernard Miller and his sister followed their parents into scouting, each of them as assistant leaders of troops in Skokie, and have passed that interest on to their children and grandchildren.

Compiled by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D. 

The Boy Scouts of America; the First Negro Troop in Evanston Recognized in 1912.

The Evanston, Illinois, Negro community in 1910 numbered 1,110 at the beginning of rapid population growth. The first Negro Boy Scout Troop in America was taking root.

“The Boy Cadets are the talk of Evanston. Commandant (Scoutmaster) Alfred H. Edmunds (Edmonds) is trying to organize these boys into boy scouts. These boys represent some of the best families of Evanston. The line up: Capt. Adam Perry, Jr.; First Lieutenant, Raymond Thomas; Sergeant, Joe Reed; Quartermaster, Sam White; Surgeon, Horace Graves, Jr.; Drummers, Lester Conners and Henry Saunders; Privates included John McAllister, Swan Cailer, Joshua Blair, Ceasar Gayles, and Herbert Lee.”

According to Chicago Defender Newspaper articles, Edmunds began the process as early as May 1911. He organized a group of local boys and drilled them similar to that of the Boy Scouts, including the use of uniforms. In addition, Edmunds offered exhibitions and competitions to drum up support for the effort.

Over the course of three years, the Chicago Defender reported on the activities of the Boy Cadets through its acceptance into the Boy Scouts. 

Reported in the May 4, 1912 issue:
Scoutmaster, Alfred H. Edmunds

“Evanston, Ill., May 3. — Word received this morning by Alfred H. Edmunds from the executive council of the Boy Scouts of America, stated that the application for membership made by the troop of local negro boys had been accepted.”

Designated first as troop three, it was later changed to Troop № 7 at the signing of the charter. The charter was signed on May 6, 1912. Signatures included President Taft, ex-President Roosevelt, Mr. E.T. Seton, and Mr. James E. West. Mr. Alfred H. Edmunds was appointed as the troop's Scoutmaster.

Despite constant demonstrations and acts of community engagement, one article criticized the local population in its apparent lack of continued support and interest of the Boy Scouts.

“We are endowed with the honor of having the only troop of negro boy scouts in America, yet we do not appreciate the fact to any great extent.”

After 1913, the activities of the Boy Scouts were not mentioned, at least in the Chicago Defender. However, in an unidentified article, from the Graves family archives, headlined “Plan Farewell Address for Negro Troops." The article was posted recognizing Graves who enlisted to serve in WWI. His accomplishments in Evanston were enumerated with mention of his involvement in the Negro Boy Scout Troop № 7.

“Six Evanston boys, former Boy Scouts of America members of Troop № 7, under Scoutmaster Major Alfred H. Edmunds, are on the firing line in France because Horace S. Graves, Jr. was a former member of France's ninety-second division."

The War may have put an end to Troop № 7. After the war, Graves returned to Evanston and became a charter member of the William F. Garnett Snell Post, American Legion. Later in Evanston, a new, segregated Boy Scout troop was formed during the 1920s as Troop  30.

Circling back to “firsts," September 27, 1913, the Chicago Defender article discounted Evanston’s claim as first:

“Boy Scout No. 1 of Chicago are the oldest and first organized, and not the Evanston Scouts, as was published some weeks ago. The Chicago Scouts were organized May 30, 1911 by Major Stephen J. Horde.”

The Boy Scouts of America claim there were no records relating to the Evanston Negro Boy Scout troop of 1912.

By Dino Robinson
Edited by Dr. Neil Gale, Ph.D.