The History of Camp Oak Hill: 1948-1988

(Italicized words are direct quotes from Camp Oak Hill brochures 1949-1968.)

In 1948, two African-American women from Philadelphia, Pa., Ms. Margaret Richardson and Mrs. Irene Walker, purchased a 69-acre farm in Lancaster County that that they named “Camp Oak Hill for Girls.” Mrs. Walker and Ms. Richardson made a down payment of $500 and paid off the balance over time. It had been a dream of these remarkable women to provide a modern, up-to-date camp where girls could spend a pleasant summer vacation period away from the city. The opportunity for African-American girls (referred to in the camp literature as “colored”) was limited at that time because of segregation. They turned an animal stable into a dining hall and built some cabins on the hillside. Those buildings along with the old farmhouse and barn are still standing and in use today.

Girls ages 5-17 of good character were accepted for periods of two to ten weeks. The first summer of camp was in 1949. There were five girls (see photo below).

The camp fee in 1952 was $25 per week.  A letter to parents from a 1952 brochure reads:

Girls of today are women of tomorrow. The experience of a summer at camp away from the routine and environment our girls are accustomed to gives them an opportunity to develop physically and to bring out the finest qualities in themselves. They are away from home, away from their parents.  They automatically learn to depend on themselves, use their own judgment, make their own decisions, and thus develop courage, confidence and stability. The campers learn to live together, to play together, and to cheerfully make necessary adjustments. These make a camp season not just recreation but an essential part of the education which makes girls finer women.

Camp Oak Hill was accredited by the American Camping Association in 1948. Each year a member from the Association would visit and stay all day long.  One day the lady said, “I’ve been coming here seven years and I’ve never seen a piece of paper on the ground. It looks like a miniature golf course.”  Ms. Richardson said, “Everything has a place and everything should be in its place.”

Their program included riflery, dance, archery, boating, horsemanship, tennis, swimming instruction, vespers, nature study, arts and crafts, volleyball, softball, and roller skating.  A non-sectarian worship service was held on Sunday and Catholics were taken to the Catholic Church in Oxford.  Camp Oak Hill had counselors from England, Africa, and France.

Anyone that works with children knows discipline is always a challenge.  When asked about discipline, Ms. Richardson said that if you do it right, you only had to discipline children one time.  She recalled once when “two large girls” did not listen to their counselor.  She told them to sit in her office and keep her company while she worked.  They sat there all night long until it was time for the other children to wake up.  When the bell rang, she finally let the two girls go.  She said that she never had any trouble from them again.

Ms. Richardson was a woman who believed in working with and developing “good character” in her campers. The goals of Camp Oak Hill as listed in a 1952 brochure were:

  • Teach good sportsmanship
  • Develop self confidence
  • Develop initiative and creative resources
  • Teach consideration of others
  • Teach to live in this world by winning modestly and losing gracefully
  • Develop clean life, morally and physically
  • Perform duties cheerfully
  • Encourage neatness and cleanliness
  • Develop intellectual pursuits and overcome shyness
  • Teach honesty and to honor other people’s property
  • Develop recognition of lawful authority

Irene Walker died unexpectedly in 1960 and Ms. Richardson became the sole owner.  Though she tried several other partners, none ever worked out. She went in debt to take on this big responsibility. She added a cabin for boys as the demand was increasing. Some weeks they had 100 campers. She borrowed $15,000 from a bank to build a pool. Each year volunteers would come in and build new cabins. When the pool flooded into the dining hall one year, they had a natural diversion built so the water would run away from the buildings.

There was nothing Ms. Richardson would not tackle. In addition to the administrative work, she mowed 25 acres of grass each week. When a roof began to leak, she measured it and had men from town deliver the materials. Over the phone she asked them how to put it on. She did it all by herself and said it was the hardest thing she had ever done.

As she approached age 70, Ms. Richardson leased the camp to a man from Philadelphia who operated camps from 1975 until 1987.  During that time the camp became increasingly run down and she struggled to keep things fixed.  The neighbors were a big help and she remained a spry, cheerful, strong, and dignified woman.  She was an inspiration to everyone.  She showed a rare courage and perseverance in establishing and operating a camp that was the first in the nation for colored girls, then a camp for girls and boys and finally an inter-racial camp. All of this in the post WWII years, the Jim Crow fifties and through the turbulent sixties.

To put this achievement in perspective, African-American instructors were teaching tennis to young African-American girls at Camp Oak Hill beginning in 1948 (See 1952 photo below.)  It was not until August 25, 1950, that the great Althea Gibson became the first African-American to play in the USLTA National Championships (now known as the U.S. Open).

At the age of 80, Ms. Richardson decided to sell the camp. It was purchased by a Washington, DC nonprofit organization run by Curt and Judy Ashburn that serves low-income families and at-risk children. The Ashburn’s are committed to preserving the memory, legacy and spirit of the founders, Ms. Richardson and Mrs. Walker, as well as the tradition of the beloved Camp Oak Hill. Camp Oak Hill continues to serve children from Lancaster, PA, Philadelphia, Baltimore, MD, Washington, D.C. and elsewhere.

The details for this history were taken from old brochures and an interview of Ms. Richardson in 1995 by Joyce Hostetter and Judy Ashburn and a September 2002 interview by Clarence Murray. Mrs. Richardson died in 2006 at age 101.

Today Camp Oak Hill is operated year round and is adding facilities and programs to serve a diverse group of guests from high school youth programs, college organizations, church and community retreats as well as family reunions, weddings and other events.

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