Camp Cleveland opened in 1933 on a mostly wooded 88-acre tract on the larger City of Cleveland–owned Cooley Farm in Warrensville Township, now incorporated as the village of Highland Hills. Originally named Camp Pyke in honor of Welfare Director Bernice S. Pyke but renamed just one year later, Camp Cleveland was under the jurisdiction of the Cleveland Camp Council which at the time had 22 member organizations and 18 camps run by community funds. Camp Cleveland, however, is the only one stated as being run by the city. The Camp Standards Committee of the Council under the chairmanship of Harold L. Madison, Senior Director at the Museum of Natural History, set the standards by which camps should be run. The Committee’s regulations touch on sleeping quarters, dining rooms, dishes, showers, recreational equipment, fire prevention, life-saving facilities, the mandatory employment of a resident nurse or doctor, and the requirement of all staff and campers to have had a prior medical examination.
From its founding as a “fresh air camp,” Camp Cleveland was intended to give underprivileged children a summer camp experience. The camp’s facilities in 1941 consisted of 10 large cabins, a dining hall, a recreation building, a medical building, and a large swimming pool which was more like a small man-made pond in which campers could not only swim, but row boats as well. Camp Cleveland was open June 23 to August 30, and campers stayed at the camp in two-week sessions. At the time each session had over one-hundred campers. Boys and girls had separate sessions, with boys going to camp in July and the girls sessions being in August. The age range of campers was 8 to 14 years old. There were many activities that the kids could look forward to including a variety of water-based activities like fishing, swimming, and boating. Kids could also participate in hiking, nature study, star study, woodcraft, and plenty of handicraft and other art related projects. Some camps even had a Snipe Hunt for the new campers where they “will learn what the most elusive of all birds look like.” Of course what would any camping experience be like without regular campfires? Camp Cleveland also included some form of religious service on Sunday.
Camp Cleveland stands out among summer camps not because of its location, or its facilities or even its activities. It stands out because of its campers’ racial makeup. Camp Cleveland was an interracial camp that served boys and girls regardless of the color of their skin. As observed by the Call and Post, “They have no time to fritter away worrying about the color of their playmate’s skin. They may well provide an example for their less perceptive elders.” By the mid 1940s Camp Cleveland was used to accommodate campers from various settlement houses from around Cleveland. The settlement houses that used the camp were the Friendly Inn, East End Neighborhood House, Merrick House, and University Settlement, all of which did not have camps of their own. There were five two-week sessions in which two of the settlement houses used the camp simultaneously, and sessions also alternated between boys and girls. The camp was free for those kids from the settlement houses. Importantly, these groups were interracial.
A day in the life of a camper at Camp Cleveland in 1948 began at 7:00 am with breakfast. Then they engaged in various activities such as swimming and crafts until lunch time at 12:30 pm. After lunch campers returned to their cabins or walked around outside for an hour long rest period, and then it was back to activities. Dinner was at 5:30 pm, and was followed by another rest period. Evening activities such as group singing, cookouts, fireplace get-togethers, and campfires closed out the day. Other sports campers could partake in were baseball, volleyball, and badminton.
Camp Cleveland was open to groups of all ages and not just children. One of the camp’s most praised events was a yearly get together of a group of elderly. This group came to the camp in two sessions at the end of the summer in late August and early September after the youth sessions. 1949 was the first year for this program, and the first session consisted of 64 campers, 24 of which were African American, 19 women and 5 men, all over the age of seventy. The planned program for the elderly campers included activities such as crafts, sewing, singing, art, and nature study. Like the youth campers, these groups were required to have had received a prior physical examination and have a doctor’s approval to be at the camp. No camper was accepted if they required a special diet, however, since the kitchen was not equipped to handle such cases
In the first year of the program, one woman initially refused to attend the camp on account of there being African Americans present. After some convincing she decided to attend and later admitted that she had enjoyed her time there, and “felt that she had been un-Christian in her previous ideas about Negroes.” This is only one example of how the interracial Camp Cleveland event helped to break prejudices and racism. One camper, a Mrs. Freeney stated “that we have a lot to learn too; prejudice is everybody’s job and I’ve found little here.” It was hoped that campers had been able to form friendships that could last beyond the five day session, and to help create a more tolerant society. Camp Cleveland’s Director Woods believed that racism couldn’t be wiped out in just five days, “but Cleveland and the Welfare [F]ederation are positive that such an interracial camp does more good than harm.” The interracial programs of Camp Cleveland were helpful in dispelling racism and prejudice at all all ages.
In December of 1989 Cleveland Council President George L. Forbes resigned from his position on the council after 26 years, and in a unanimous vote of 20-0 it was decided that Camp Cleveland would be renamed Camp George L. Forbes. Camp Cleveland still exists to this day as Camp George L. Forbes, and is in the same location in Highland Hills.
- “Camp Cleveland is True Citadel of Democracy for Happy Youngsters.” Call & Post. July 13, 1946.
- “Camp Pyke Now Camp Cleveland.” Cleveland Plain Dealer. March 8, 1934.
- “Camps To Open June 17, Set Health Guard Standards.” Call & Post. June 2, 1938.
- Huisman, John S. Plot Plan of Cooley Farm, Warrensville, Ohio. Cleveland: Department of Public Health and Welfare, 1930.
- “Old Aged Camp Project Helps Destroy Prejudice.” Call & Post. September 9, 1950.
- Shearer, Tobin Miller. Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2017.
- Shockley, Shelley. “Forbes Bids Farewell: ‘The train’s going to stop here and it’s my turn to get off.’” Call & Post. December 21, 1989.
- “Underprivileged get Vacation at Camp Cleveland.” Plain Dealer. July 20, 1941.