“Oh camp so fine, Wo-Chi-Ca mine, There’s not another camp like mine!”
Wo-Chi-Ca camp was birthed in 1934 amidst World War II, McCarthyism, The Great Depression, and the Cold War. Wo-Chi-Camp is short for Workers Children’s Camp. It was an interracial co-educational summer vacation camp found in New Jersey.The emergence of this camp came from summer vacation homes designed for people with ties to the Communist Party. Originally, these spaces were inter-generational, but the adults began to realize that the youth needed their own summer community as well. In 1934, a New Jersey farmer and his wife donated 127 acres of land to start Camp Unity, the first interracial camp supported by the communist party in the United States. Camp Unity would then be called Workers Children’s Camp or Wo-Chi-Ca for short.
“The idealist who would found Wo-Chi-Ca wanted their children to experience ‘The World of the Future’ today, through shared living with those of different racial and ethnic backgrounds. They especially wanted to welcome negro children to their new camp. Labor-based, co-educational, affordable, interracial- for a children’s camp in 1934, a revolutionary concept.” ( Levine, 3) Wo-Chi-Ca’s directors wanted ethnic diversity and racial integration. Many of the campers came from union families and so the ethnic diversity was not hard to get, but the racial integration was more difficult. African Americans at the time were barred from most unions and were segregated in the ghettos. So, the organizers of the camp decided to reach out to Black neighborhoods in order to ensure that Black children had the same opportunities as Whites. This was particularly important because the McCarthy era had created distance among the NAACP and the Communist Party. Wo-Chi-Ca would serve as a way to support the Civil Rights Movement. Wo-Chi-Ca was very successful at doing this and in 1943, there was one Black child for every 5 White children at Wo-Chi-Ca.
Camp ran for five periods of two weeks each, with room for 200 children at any given time. The camp committed itself to music and the arts. It was well known for its commitment to raising awareness and building appreciation for arts and music. Art and music was used as a strategy to build relationships across ethnic and racial divides that were happening as a result of the segregation that was in place. Wo-Chi-Ca committed itself to diversity both in their campers and their staff. They wanted to create an intentional integrated space throughout the entire camp.
Famous artist Pete Seegar, Paul Robeson,and Woody Guthrie had visited or worked at the camp during it’s time. Paul Robeson, an American singer and actor, was actively involved in the camp. He first came to the camp in 1940 and returned every year to sing, play ball, and talk to the campers. The camp also saw other notable artist such as Charles White, Canada Lee, Pearl Primus, Ernest Crichlow, Jacob Lawerence, and political figures such as Howard Fast and Dr. Edward Barsky. These individuals would come to the camp to talk about their experiences and struggles with trying to change the world.
By diversifying the staff and campers and inviting prominent leaders from the Black community to the camp, the camp served as a uniquely strong educational environment. Black campers were able to see other Blacks in positions of authority. The camp served as a glimpse of what the world should be. It softened prejudices and stereotypes and created friendships with children before they were socialized into racism. This camp also reflected a change in ideology that was in line with society. This ideology was one that was child inclusive, labor oriented, and community focused. They did this through art programming that connected art education with deeper understanding of collective struggle.
“Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, like other leftist camps at the time, believed in intentionally and openly discussing race and class. However, Wo-Chi-Ca’s focus on intentional dialogue was also complemented by the everyday camp practices. Camp Wo-Chi-Ca addressed race and class in two separate, but connected ways: through staffing (discussed earlier) and programming. This intersection of staff and programming seeped into several categories: visual arts, performing arts, recreation, and political activism.” (White)
Wo-Chi-Ca was a progressive educational summer camp for kids. These young pioneers were activist and leaders. Judy Hodges was among the campers who during the 1930’s and 1940’s was learning about the importance of loving all humankind as well as playing board games and receiving swimming lessons.
In the early 1950’s the camp fell to the pressure of McCarthyism and closed it’s doors. Like many other leftist camps, Wo-Chi-Ca struggled with threats ranging from community members to state and federal pressures. The biggest pressure was financial. After the IWO was placed on the U.S. Attorney General’s “List of Subversive Organizations,” the camp could no longer get federal tax exemptions. The camp’s name was changed several times in order to avoid the financial issues, but to no avail. The camp closed and its commitment to social justice and racial integration was forced to be carried out by the campers and staff members. Judy Hodges was one such camper who has continued abiding by the ideology instilled in Wo-Chi-Ca. Her best friend Sandy Ackerman has faithfully stayed true to the values at the camp as well. Their commitment is a testament to the power of the camp.
Ronnie Gilbert, formerly of The Weavers, says in her introduction, “It will be a glimpse of a time and place when hundreds of youngsters every summer discovered that even as children we could think as individuals and also be part of a community, could participate in a life of ideas along with sports and games.”
Harris, Daryl L. “Dance Claimed Me: Pearl Primus.” The Journal of Pan African Studies (Online) 5.8 (2012): 210.
Levine, June, Gene Gordon, and Ronnie Gilbert. Tales of Wo-Chi-Ca: Blacks, Whites and Reds at Camp. Avon Springs Press, 2002.
Mishler, Paul C. Raising Reds: The young pioneers, radical summer camps, and Communist political culture in the United States. Columbia University Press, 1999.
White, Samantha. “Race, Class, Space, and Memory at Wo-Chi-Ca: A Look at Radical Leftist Summer Camping.” Child & Youth Services 36.1 (2015): 5-15.