One of the first African American Girl Scout troop leaders, Josephine Groves Holloway (1898–1988) paved the way for Nashville, Tennessee's African American community to participate in Girl Scouts. Holloway broke through scouting's racial barriers to secure a troop for her daughters and went on to become the first African American to hold an executive position within the Cumberland Valley Girl Scout Council in Nashville.
Born Josephine Amanda Groves in March 1898, Josephine Groves Holloway grew up in Cowpens, South Carolina, as one of ten children born to John Wesley and Emma Mae Gray Groves. Holloway's father was a Methodist minister, just as his father before him. Holloway was one of five siblings to reach adulthood, and by the time she hit adolescence, the family was living in Greenwood, South Carolina. In 1919, she entered Fisk University, located in Nashville, Tennessee. She paid her tuition through jobs as a dining-hall attendant and clock winder, tending the clocks in the music department's practice rooms, and she also earned money by mending tablecloths from the dining hall. In 1923, Holloway received her bachelor of arts degree from Fisk and returned to South Carolina, where she began doing recreational and community-building work among African Americans.
In September 1923, Holloway moved back to Nashville and took a job as a “girls’ worker” at Bethlehem Center, which had opened ten years before and provided social services for the local African American community. The center had a well-baby clinic, kindergarten, sewing circle, and recreation program in its early years. Holloway's job as a girls’ worker was to deliver programming and support that would enrich and improve the lives of the African American girls she served.
After joining the Bethlehem Center staff, Holloway began researching programs for girls and was drawn to scouting because of the character-building tenets and emphasis on the outdoors. When she could not find any local troops for African American girls, she contacted the Girl Scout national office and arranged training with Girl Scout founder Juliette Gordon Low. A native of Savannah, Georgia, Low had founded the first Girl Guide troop in the United States in 1912, after traveling to England and observing the scouting program instituted by Sir Robert Baden-Powell. Within a few years, the organization became known as the Girl Scouts. Scouting had come to Nashville in 1917, but local troops mostly comprised white, middle-class girls.
Low's Girl Scout program was aimed at preparing girls to become good citizens. Members were encouraged to always be prepared and to do one good deed daily. The program emphasized moral training through the Girl Scout promise in which the girls vowed to serve God, their country and others at all times and to live by the Girl Scout laws. Scout laws touched on honesty, loyalty, usefulness, helpfulness, friendship, courtesy, kindness to animals, cheerfulness, and purity in thoughts, words, and actions. Low developed the program to promote the skills she thought would best serve young people in their adult lives. For encouragement, she established a system whereby girl scouts could earn decorative badges upon mastering certain skills. The badges emphasized camping, nature study, animal lore and crime detection.
Holloway learned all aboutthe Girl Scout laws and the Girl Scout promise during training at the Southern Education Conference on Scouting, which was held at Nashville's George Peabody College for Teachers in January of 1924. Low and other national scout officials presented the program. After attending the training, Holloway earned a commission as a program captain. She was the only African American to participate in the training session.
After returning to Bethlehem Center, Holloway launched the program and soon had a troop of more than 150 girls, which she registered with the council. Because the local Girl Scout camp was segregated, Holloway struggled to find a place to teach her troop camping skills. Fortunately, the editor and publisher of the Nashville Tennessean stepped in and allowed the girls to camp on his property. By late 1924, Holloway had established ten troops at Bethlehem Center, serving more than 300 African American girls.
On June 30, 1925, Holloway married Guerney Holloway, a “boys’ worker” at Bethlehem Center. Although she intended to continue her job, the Bethlehem Center director forced her to resign. Following the customary treatment of female schoolteachers of the era, the center's director did not think it proper for a married woman to hold the position. Holloway's replacement did not share her passion for scouting, and the troops soon folded.
After losing her job at Bethlehem Center, Holloway studied business at Tennessee Agricultural and Industrial College, which later became Tennessee State University. In 1926, she earned her bachelor's degree, then accepted an administrative job in the registrar's office at Fisk University. Holloway stayed at the university until 1936, when she took a job with the Tennessee Department of Welfare's public instruction division.
Apart from her career, around 1933, Holloway had formed another Girl Scout troop for African American girls. Her eldest daughter, Nareda Wenefred Holloway, turned six that year and Holloway wanted her to be part of the program. She attempted to register the troop in May 1933 and requested access to Girl Scout materials—like the handbook—but the Nashville Girl Scout Council rejected her request. The council appointed a special committee to look into the matter. After further investigation, the committee issued a report back to the council on June 6 recommending that Holloway's troop for African American girls be denied.
The committee's rejection was due to costs and segregation issues. Because local race laws did not allow blacks and whites to mix, the Nashville Council would be required to form a separate branch for African American troops. The Great Depression had reduced the funds available to the local council, which was struggling to survive the hard economic times. Unable to invest in branching out at this time, the council was forced to deny Holloway's request.
The decision of the Nashville Council did not sit well with some of its members. On June 22, council member Letitia Morgan argued that racial segregation was out of alignment with the Girl Scout doctrine. She asked the council to give permission for two African American troops to be established. Morgan's motion failed, and she asked that her request be recorded in the minutes.
Meanwhile, Holloway continued to run her unofficial troop. After the local council denied her access to handbooks, Holloway's husband acquired some in Chicago, where he was studying to become a doctor. Holloway's troop members wore gingham uniforms, but they wanted to become “real” scouts, so she pressed on with her efforts for recognition. Her daughter even took up the battle. In April 1942, Nareda Holloway approached First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt for help. Roosevelt was in town to present an award at the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, and Nareda was in attendance. Roosevelt took Nareda's name and address, but later wrote back to say she was unable to help, although she encouraged the girl and her mother to pursue recognition. Nareda's sisters Josephine Alzilee and Weslia Juanita were also involved with their mother's rogue scouting program.
In October 1942, Holloway attempted once more to register her troop. Finally, in May 1943, amid a more robust economy, the Nashville Council extended its approval, authorizing the formation of Troop 200. The registration was made retroactive to 1942, recognizing the legitimacy of the troop Holloway had been running for nearly a decade. Although the council offered approval, it attempted to limit the number of African American girls who could join this branch of the organization, setting a cap at one-quarter of total enrollment.
Holloway promoted the Girl Scouts so well that in 1943, 36 African American volunteers signed up for training through the Nashville Council, and by May of the following year 13 African American troops were up and running in Nashville. Of the 1,679 girls registered at the local council, 252—or 15 percent—were African American. Of the 397 adults involved as troop sponsors, 82—or 20 percent—were African American. Around this time, the Nashville Council established a separate branch for the African American troops and hired Holloway as its field advisor, giving the council its first black executive. Holloway continued her efforts to persuade others to start new troops, going door-todoor to mobilize volunteers. By 1946, there were 40 African American troops in the Nashville Council.
Holloway was so influential in rounding up recruits and taking care of them that many local girl scouts would refer to themselves as “one of Mrs. Holloway's girls.” In 2015, Nashville resident Kathryn Russell discussed her youth as a scout with Tennessean reporter Nicole Young and remembered Holloway as a great nurturer and mentor. “She was a pioneer, that's a given, but she was also a very strong-willed woman who did not accept any kind of insecurity or fear,” Russell noted. “She taught us to be strong, and we all respected her because of it.”
During the 1940s, Holloway struggled to find a way to allow African American girls to go camping, since blacks were still prohibited from using the Girl Scout camps owned by the Nashville Council. At one point, the council approved a motion to secure park land camping for Holloway's girls, but it was subsequently pressured by the Tennessee State Parks board, which feared legislative retribution if a camp for African American girls was established on state-owned property. In the end, no land was secured and Holloway was forced to take her campers to Camp Henry Koch in Evansville, Indiana.
Holloway faced segregation issues again in 1946 when the Dixie region of the Girl Scout council decided to host its annual meeting in Nashville. The council integrated the meeting, allowing both white and black troop leaders to attend, but problems came when accommodations were being secured. Local hotels would not offer rooms to African Americans coming into Nashville for the meeting, and this required that Holloway arrange for accommodations among local residents.
Around 1950, Holloway located about 50 acres of land near Millersville, Tennessee, and this was purchased to establish a camp for African American Girl Scouts. It was not clear if the land was purchased by Holloway or the Nashville Council; in any event, the council did little to develop the property. Ultimately, it fell to Holloway to organize girls and their families to clear an area for a campground and establish roads and trails. She located some discarded army barracks and had them moved to the site, helped by members of a Fisk University fraternity, and the camp officially opened in 1955. By the late 1950s, there were complaints that the African American camp was not up to par with the camp facilities the council provided for white scouts, and in 1960, a pool was funded and installed on the property. By the 2000s, Camp Holloway was a popular Tennessee Girl Scout camp offering a pool, shower house, lodge, platform tents, cabins, an archery range and obstacle course, and a 40-foot climbing/rappelling tower. In honor of its founder, there was even a badge that could be earned while staying there called the “Josephine Holloway/Guerney's Cabin Patch.”
In 1951, Holloway witnessed change as the Nashville Council folded her branch office into its headquarters. In 1957, the Nashville Council merged with some Kentucky counties to become the Cumberland Valley Girl Scout Council. By 1963, when she retired from her position as a Girl Scout organizer and field advisor, she was supervising more than 2,000 African American Girl Scouts and leaders. Reflecting on her career at a later date, Holloway complained about integration, saying that the girls lost insights into black culture. As reported in Trial and Triumph: Essays in Tennessee's African American History, the scout organizer lamented that, with integrated troops, the girls no longer received messages concerning “examples of black strength and pride.”
After she left scouting, Holloway organized a free tutoring program for high-school dropouts and struggling students in the Nashville area. Her program, which utilized volunteers, was later folded into the public school system. Despite moving on from scouting, the Girl Scouts remained an important part of her philanthropy and in 1984, she and her husband donated 40 acres of land adjacent to Camp Holloway to extend programming at the camp.
Over the course of her lifetime, Holloway was involved with several professional organizations. She was affiliated with the American Camping Association, the National Association of Social Workers, Zeta Phi Beta Sorority, the Optimistic Study Club, and local parentteacher associations. She died on December 7, 1988. In recognition of Holloway's lifelong commitment to advancing and extending membership in Girl Scouting, the Cumberland Valley Girl Scout Council constructed the Josephine G. Holloway Historical Collection and Gallery at its headquarters in Nashville in 1991. Her portrait hangs in the gallery, which also features her memorabilia.
Van West, Carroll, editor, Trial and Triumph: Essays in Tennessee's African American History, University of Tennessee Press, 2002.
Tennessean online, http://www.tennessean.com/ (February 16, 2015), Nicole Young, “Girl Scouts’ ‘Pioneer’ Left a Legacy in Local Camp.”
Girls Scouts of Middle Tennessee website, http://gsmidtn.org/ (December 31, 2016), “Josephine Groves Holloway.”
Nashville Public Library website, http://nashvillepubliclibrary.org/offtheshelf/ (December 31, 2016), “Josephine Groves Holloway, Girl Scout Hero.”❑