Bernice Thompson Lavendar Interview, 2010

Bernice Thompson Lavendar attended camp when it first opened in 1938. Bernice's experience with camp left a lasting impression on her growing up. As an adult she attended Bible school and after graduating worked as the youth coordinator for a church where she worked to ensure the children she was working with had the opportunity to go to camp as well. Bernice was also involved with the Future Outlook League and became one of the first African Americans to work at the Woolworth's in downtown Cleveland.

Participants: Thompson Lavendar, Bernice (interviewee) / Epps, Michelle (interviewer)
Collection: Phillis Wheatley Association
Institutional Repository: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Interview Transcript

Michelle Epps [00:00:03] My name is Michelle Epps and I'm interviewing Bernice Thompson Lavendar. It is May 5th, 2010, and it is approximately 10:30 in the morning. We are interviewing Bernice at her home. So what I'm going to do is just ask you a few start-up questions just to get you, you know, kind of a little background on you.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:00:20] Okay.

Michelle Epps [00:00:21] Can you state your full name, when you were born, and where you were born?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:00:26] Okay. Bernice Thompson Lavendar. I was born in Cleveland, Ohio, December the 8th, 1928.

Michelle Epps [00:00:37] Terrific. And when did you attend Camp Mueller?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:00:40] You know what? I was reading the article in the paper and it said it opened in '38. So I called my brother. No, my brother called me first and he said, did you read the paper today? There is your old camp in the paper, and I may have been on that first, one of the early buses because, you know, I was about that age to go to camp, and it was about the same time I went to camp. So I said, yeah.

Michelle Epps [00:01:09] So about 1938, then?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:01:11] Yes.

Michelle Epps [00:01:12] That early? Wow.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:01:13] That early.

Michelle Epps [00:01:13] And how, how many years did you go to Camp Mueller?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:01:15] I only went to camp about two or three years at the most, because when I became a teenager and went to high school, you know, I didn't go to camp then. But, I really did love it.

Michelle Epps [00:01:31] What are some of the activities you remember the most?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:01:34] You know what I remember the most? I remember the tents. I remember that the most and cleaning the tents in the morning. And we had to make sure that the tents were neat and clean, you know. The floor had to be swept and the beds had to be made and in uniform. And everything had a place and even then you had to be in the place because it seems like that we always wanted to get the honor for the tent, you know the high honor. So we were really meticulous about that inside cleaning and around the tent for the camp. I remember, I don't know why that stands out, but that cleanness and the neatness, you know, really made a big impression on me.

Michelle Epps [00:02:28] So did you have to set the tents up yourself or was there?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:02:30] No, no. They were all ready.

Michelle Epps [00:02:32] All ready up.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:02:33] They were already up.

Michelle Epps [00:02:35] And how many girls were there per se?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:02:36] You know, I can't remember how many were in a tent because we had a counselor, you know, in each tent. And then there were at least eight or ten. It was, it was a huge tent, you know, and it had, you know, it was made just like the tents you see. You know, what the ropes going down to the ground, but they were very sturdy. And it wasn't anything frightening for me to be in that tent.

Michelle Epps [00:03:11] Was the, some of the people we talked to discussed a pool, the pool that's at Camp Mueller, and how everyone's, you know, wanting to get it back up and running. Was the pool around when you were there?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:03:20] Yes. Yes. I remember having to have a swimsuit because I had to, my mother I had to purchase one, you know? Yes, I remember that. I remembered the water, the games. I didn't go there knowing anything about swimming. And it was probably the first time I had ever, you know, been in a pool or anything.

Michelle Epps [00:03:43] Do you think the other children had similar experiences, where it was their first encounter with a swimming pool?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:03:48] It probably was, at least for where I lived. I lived at 2330 East 105th Street and Quebec and the entire area at 100th Street, we had a recreation center called the Kingsley Arter Center. And this Kingsley Arter Center was run by a lady named Beatrice Fox and she was a part of the Phillis Wheatley. And that's how the connection about the camp and everything came from her. So when the camp started, that's how I knew more from that center than from mom. You know that's Phillis Wheatley, we didn't have a lot of grass and things on Quebec where I lived. On the other side of the street was a railroad track. If you go to 105th, you know, it ends at Quincy going Woodhill one way and Quincy to go downtown. There's a lot of dirt around there and I can remember a lot of dirt when I was a kid because where we lived our backyard was huge. But it, you know, it was used for the Italians, used it for a bocce game. And they would come and play bocce ball back there. So it was dirt. You know, they did that in the dirt. So I can remember all that dirt that was around me. So I, it was my first experience for being somewhere where grass, all this grass and all of, all this came into being. All this greenery, I guess I should say.

Michelle Epps [00:05:41] So, speaking of the, of the dirt and not just between the dirt and the grass. Were there any noises that really stuck out in your mind between, you know, being at home and being in at the camp?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:05:50] The quietness because I heard trains all day long. And back then, you know, those trains were really moving because we weren't allowed to go across the street because we'd be too close. The tracks were down a hill, but our parents wouldn't allow us to even go across the street. They may take us across, but that train noise and the streetcars up 105th. And then see, that was like the end of the streetcar track. And they would turn around and go back to St. Clair from there to St. Clair. So it was always a lot of noise. The quietness. The different sounds that, that you heard at camp. It was, I love quietness now, but I can remember as a child, you know, with so much noise, so much noise that tracks and things.

Michelle Epps [00:06:53] Yeah. Did you, was it scary for you than going to camp with the quietness and being away from home?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:06:58] I loved it. I, I loved outdoors. We, we belonged to a church that had a picnic at Garfield Park. It's Emmanuel Baptist Church on 79th and Quincy. And we would have a picnic in Garfield Park, a church picnic. And I loved being, you know, outdoors there. But no, it was not scary. I, I just enjoyed the quietness. I really did. And you could hear birds and you could hear crickets. If crickets were around where I lived, I never remember hearing them in my bed, you know, or anything like that. But that was, that was really nice: the quietness. I seemed to enjoy that so much.

Michelle Epps [00:07:53] And what do you remember about the food at Camp Mueller?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:07:56] It was good. It was good. We had to help sometime. You know, we had a turn cleaning and doing chores and, you know, around the kitchen. Not every day, but everybody had a turn. You know, that they would do these things. But the food was good. It seemed to be more food and different kind of food than I was used to at that time. We were on welfare and I can remember this. I remember going from 105th Street to 79th and Quincy at the church where my mother belonged to Emmanuel Baptist Church. And you had a card where you had a number of people that lived in the house and you just went down the line. We had wagons that we would use to go down there, you know, and pick up the bags of this, and the bags of that, and this, that, and the other food. So this was, this was different because it was different kind of food. And I think it was the vegetables that were so different because we had like potatoes in a hundred, my mother knew a hundred ways to make potatoes for dinner, you know? But I think it was the vegetables and the fruit, you know, that was, that was something different. I know it was good. It was good.

Michelle Epps [00:09:30] A lot of the boys that are doing the interviews, the middle school kids, they, that's one thing that they always like talking about is the food.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:09:36] Yes.

Michelle Epps [00:09:37] I guess even today, it's still really good, so.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:09:39] Sure, it's very, very good. Is the camp still in existence?

Michelle Epps [00:09:44] Yes, it is. Yes, I think there was a period of time where it was not in operation and that's what I've been hearing. But it's definitely running now. And, and the kids that were supposed be doing the interviews that with the scheduling and everything, you know, we've had a little difficulty getting them to actually do it, but they. They actually are going to Camp Mueller and so this is why they're interested in the, in the oral histories so. Yeah.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:10:09] That's something.

Michelle Epps [00:10:11] Yeah. So what, what do you think was your worst memory of Camp Mueller? If there was one.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:10:17] I don't think I had one. The camp experience was so into me from that short period of time and I don't remember this, but my brother and I talked about it. And you know how they have sessions throughout the summer. There's some kind of a way. My brother said he, he's not that much older. You know, he's gonna be 84. I'm only 81. And so he told me that I went to camp more than one session. Now I don't know how that came about or anything between, between Ms. Fox and my mother. You know, I think I went to camp more than one session. Maybe they kind of maneuvered stuff or something. I don't know but I know that that camp, camp made such an impression on me. It did. It, all through my life after that. And that wasn't a whole lot of camp, you know? But I knew, I knew I loved outdoors when I got to be an adult, married and children of my own. And after going to school, I went to Bible school and became youth director for a church. So you had to plan a calendar. And on the calendar, I made sure that as many years as possible, there was a week carved out for camp. So I always took the kids to camp, my kids as well to camp, at least for a week. And you know, the strangest thing, when I see some of those kids now, they're grandparents and some of them have great-grandchildren, just like I do, the thing they remembered the most was the camp. I remember when you took me to camp, you know, but that's how great an impression it made on me that, that this camp made. And I was always involved in camp up through, that was 25 years as youth director for Community Baptist Church in East Cleveland. And we went to camp. We went and we didn't go to Camp Mueller. We went to Camp Skyview Ranch down in Millersburg, Ohio. And in, in that camp, they would always have a, a week that they, they all took a break that week that they took a break. There were a few of the churches that I belonged to at that time would get together and we would have to make our own camp. We had to bring our own counselors and do everything at the camp except prepare their meals. You know, they would do that, but we would, we would plan camp and everything that we were going to do at the camp. And we went to camp there. We've... We've taken the kids to the City Mission Camp. You know, City Mission has a camp and we would, we would do things like that. And then they have a mission. The mission here also not the mission, but the, but the mission work that sends out missionaries. They have a camp that belongs to their missionaries and their missionaries go out there to rest and relax. I can't remember exactly who it was, where it was. But you had to plan your own thing. We only went out there once. In that camp, we had to prepare meals, plan them, take all of our food, get TB tests so we could work in the kitchen, all that, you know. I think that's how much I enjoyed camp. We would do all of that so that the kids could go to camp for a week. That's the impression that I got from Camp Mueller. I thank God for that. Let me tell you.

Michelle Epps [00:14:44] It's a life-changing experience.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:14:45] It sure is. It was from, from that camp. Yeah.

Michelle Epps [00:14:50] How long were the sessions? You mentioned that the sessions were.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:14:53] You know, I thought that, I thought the sessions were over a weekend. You know, like two. And you would go home like. Maybe near the weekend and another group would come like that Monday. I think it was like that in the beginning.

Michelle Epps [00:15:10] And getting, I guess, back to the camp itself, where did you, you know, was there like a latrine or a washhouse? Where did you, you know?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:15:24] There was. They had like where you washed-up, it was altogether kind of outside, too. And you would all, you know, have a place that you could wash up right here and everything. It was, it was, it wasn't enclosed you know, it was outside. The water was cold. But it was, it was nice. It was, it was nice. Rainy days it wasn't so nice, but you, you did it anyway, you know, you did it anyway. But I can remember the water coming through the pipes like there. But it was plenty of places to wash up and things like that. You had to take the soap and stuff like that with you to camp.

Michelle Epps [00:16:14] Wow. Now when I was going through some of the photographs at Phillis Wheatley, they had some of the pictures had written on the back Camp Merriam. Does that ring a bell at all?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:16:24] Camp Merriam. That sounds familiar, but I don't know. You know what it was? I don't know whether that was before Camp Mueller, probably. And maybe that's why I thought I had been to camp earlier than before '38.

Michelle Epps [00:16:47] Okay.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:16:47] You know?

Michelle Epps [00:16:50] Interesting.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:16:50] Yeah, but [I] don't know. But I know I went to camp and I enjoyed it.

Michelle Epps [00:16:57] Did you have a best friend at camp that you saw?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:16:59] You know, I can't remember any. I have always been very poor with names. Unless a person made a big impression. Faces I never forget. But you know that. That's how I can remember Ms. Fox. I can see her right now, you know, because of the activities and things at the Kingsley Arter Center. But I did not have a best friend that I can remember.

Michelle Epps [00:17:34] Was there a guidance counselor or not guidance counselor, but a camp counselor that stuck out in your mind?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:17:37] Oh, no. Not even one of those because they changed and they intermingled. And you mostly had one that would be asleep with you in the, you know, in the tent itself. You know, you had some an adult or some older person sleep with you. But I can remember a lot of talk with girl talk. A lot of girl talk. You know, when we would get together, especially rainy year or something and your stuck. They always be talking about being courteous, courtesy in how you spoke, and obedient. It was always the principles, and you know what? When I look back over that, that was what it was all about, teaching you how to be a young lady, you know, it was teaching you how to be a young lady. Quiet, not boisterous, because some of us were loud. Our family was loud, you know? Come from a family that talks loud. And that's when I begin to realize, you know, you got to quiet down there. But, you know, things like that. It was always something about, about being a lady and how to carry yourself, things like that.

Michelle Epps [00:19:07] Was there any ever any activities that incorporated the boys from the camp, as well? Did you ever do activities with the boys?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:19:13] No.

Michelle Epps [00:19:14] No?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:19:15] No. Sometime the campfire, you know, you would be more there. I can't remember doing anything with, with boys except the campfire at night. Now, I told my, I would told my brother. My brother said there were no boys there. That's a girls camp. I said, I know we had some boys somewhere at that camp, you know, and there were, there were. There were boys mostly around the campfire. I remember them with the singing. I can't remember a song we sang around that campfire. But I know we used to close that campfire out with the song, like, You Tell Me Your Dreams, and I'll Tell You Mine. We used to always end up with that campfire song, whatever it was, but the song that I remember, the girls singing was Camp Mueller the Girls are High-minded. Did anybody tell you that one?

Michelle Epps [00:20:22] No.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:20:23] Oh, Camp Mueller girls are high-minded. Bless my soul. They [unintelligible] it. They work hard and don't mind it. All day long. And there would always be somebody that would say do mind it. You know we would sing, we would sing this song but I remember singing, Camp Mueller girls are high-minded. Bless my soul. They [unintelligible] it. They work hard and don't mind it. All day long. I remember that song.

Michelle Epps [00:20:58] So did you guys have to do chores when you were at camp? Besides the, you know, keeping your tent clean.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:21:05] In the kitchen, you know, we would work in the kitchen and we had chores with dishes and things like that. We weren't responsible for it all. There would always be adults there telling us what to do. But we did it. We had to prepare, wash the tables like it would be your turn to wipe off the tables after breakfast. You know, you could always have your chores listed and they would change from day-to-day. You may have to pick up all the paper that people threw. Maybe you, all the, all the paper that you would see on the grounds would be a chore. Where you went to the toilet area and things like that. Yeah, there were chores. We'd have to keep the grounds clean. But you know what? I didn't realize where I was in respect to Cleveland. Do you know, as a child, I thought I was far, far away somewhere. I never... I knew that I could never find my way back home if I left or anything like that. Somebody would have to take me. The distance, you know, seemed so far away.

Michelle Epps [00:22:28] Do you remember any of the girls in your camp going home for any reason? Like if they got sick.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:22:34] Scared?

Michelle Epps [00:22:36] Okay, yeah.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:22:36] Cry babies, that's what we'd call them. Cry babies, they didn't want to stay. At night, it was dark. I mean, dark, dark like it is in the south dark. It was dark out there. You'd have lights and things, you know. We had, we had to take flashlights with us and some of the girls were afraid, and they would cry, and they would get homesick, and they would go home. They would go home.

Michelle Epps [00:23:04] Was somebody?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:23:05] Not me. Somebody would take them home.

Michelle Epps [00:23:10] And how did you get to Camp Mueller? Was there a bus or did your parents take you?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:23:13] A bus. It seemed like a bus. My parents didn't have transportation. We were, we were poor, like I said, and on welfare. And if there was a fee involved, I don't know. I know my mother did day work in whatever she, she had to put in or whatever she had to do. She just always promised me that I would get to go. So that made me be obedient around the house. Nobody else wanted to go to camp. I had one sister. She never wanted to go. And I would, I would be good, good, good, so I could go to camp. I remember that. Doing exactly what I was told to do without the backtalk, whatever, so I could, so I can get to go. And I don't know, you know, what it, what the fee was, or anything, or [how] did, you know, that all came about. I can remember going to Goodwill and buying like shorts and socks with my mother, things like that. Getting clothes together because you would need them because if you'd get wet out there, you know, ain't no washers and dryers. You had to hang them on the line outside the tents and let them dry. They had clothespins or throw them over, throw them over, you know, these ropes and things. Sometime we'd have an awful lot of clothes waiting for that sun to come out and dry those things because they were wet, you know.

Michelle Epps [00:24:56] Did you ever have a time you went to Camp Mueller when it was raining the whole week?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:25:00] No. Thank God. No, but [when it] did rain, it still was nice. You were indoors. You had to care. You had to have like a little rain gear. You had to have boots because it would be muddy, like, you know, for your shoes to get wet, your tennis shoes and things like that. So you had to take rubbers or your, your galoshes, or whatever you had. You took those to camp. But I, oh, I can't remember it raining for a whole week. I would have been so sad, but if the sun if I was thinking the sun was gonna come out the next day. Oh, I was okay. It was okay.

Michelle Epps [00:25:48] What do you remember your feelings being like before you went to camp? Taking you back to like your first time before, before you knew how great it was. What was your initial feeling the night before?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:25:58] There was, there was anxiety because I did not know what to expect on any level. And, you know, you didn't have like anybody telling you what you were gonna go through. I knew I was gonna sleep in a tent that was okay. And I knew the kind of bath where I'd have to go to the bathroom, you know, the no flushing thing. Because as I grew up in Cleveland, you know, born in Cleveland, we did have the flushing toilet. We didn't have outhouses. I didn't grow up with an outhouse. That was my first experience with outdoor that kind of way. But we had the toilets with the water up here in a box. Have you ever seen those? And the water would. That kind was in our, the house that we, you know, we grew up in. So I wasn't quite used to what was going to be out there, you know. So that was, that was a first experience. You would always think something was going to come up out of there and bite you in the behind. I didn't know, so that was like a first, first experience. I had been in, I had been in a pool, I think, before. But not, not for your body and people. A lot of people and things like that, you know, were because I didn't experience that till I went to, I went to old Fairmount where Bob Vila used to go. It's been gone from there. But we used to have swimming. We would go to Murray Hill School in Little Italy where I lived in. I grew up in an Italian neighborhood. Even when they even had a Luna Park up there off of Woodhill, you know, it was an amusement park where, where Quincy ends, and you go Quincy and then you go up Woodhill. It was an old Luna Park, it was called. And they had some rides and things up there at that time. But we were allowed, we, we were going to Murray Hill School for swimming. I went to Observation School, which was on Stearns Road. In some kind of way, we, we went to up in Little Italy, you know, up there for swimming.

Michelle Epps [00:28:49] So you knew how to swim before you went to Camp Mueller?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:28:51] I did not because I don't remember that experience until I really got into junior high to junior high. No. We used to go years ago. We had friends when they built the projects down on Cedar down that way. In the projects, they had a swimming pool in the projects for those kids that lived in that area. I didn't live in that area. But I had friends that lived in that area. And that was the experience that I have more with the pool, but I was a little older, you know, getting older then.

Michelle Epps [00:29:36] So when you went to Camp Mueller, and you had this experience with the pool being one of your first experiences with a swimming pool like this. Were you nervous about getting in the water and having to, I mean, did you, did they teach you how to swim when you were there?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:29:49] Yes. They, they tried, they tried to teach you how to swim there. We didn't learn very much trying to float or something, you know, from the beginning, just getting so that you wouldn't be afraid of the water was a good thing. You know, because I know from that experience, I was never afraid of the water after, after that. Never afraid of the water.

Michelle Epps [00:30:24] Some of the ladies had mentioned, that we talked to said they remember synchronized swimming or remember having water shows. Do you remember anything like that?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:30:32] No, I don't. I don't remember that, anything like that at Camp Mueller.

Michelle Epps [00:30:43] Did, getting back to the activities. Did you, did they take you on hikes or fishing or?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:30:46] Yes, we went, we went hiking, did a lot of handcrafts. We always had something to bring home. You know, I liked that because you could have make things and take, got a present for your momma. You were going to give this to momma. Are you going to give this to grandma? You know, when you were so proud of the things that you had made. We have a lot of, a lot of handcraft. I do know that. But I don't. I remember hiking a lot and I liked it very much.

Michelle Epps [00:31:22] What were some of the animals that you saw when you were hiking?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:31:24] Mostly horses. We saw, we saw, there were cows. I can tell you that. We did see those kind of animals out there, but not a lot of, we didn't go like horseback riding or anything like that.

Michelle Epps [00:31:42] Was there any instances of, you know, ghost stories being told?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:31:46] Always.

Michelle Epps [00:31:46] And the girls getting scared?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:31:48] Always. You always, you always tried. If you didn't know any, you tried to make up a good old ghost story to scare this one over here because you know she was going to be, be afraid. And the flashlights, if you hold the flashlight under your chin, you look ghostly. I learned that at camp. You look, you know, this way and that was always frightening but that was always a lot of fun too. But I used to scare my sister, scare my brothers and tell him. Back then they had something on the radio where they would say, turn out your lights and all of that. And we would be sitting on the couch and they'd be afraid to get up off the couch. It was on Sunday night and my mother would let us and they would all cling. I never was kind of spooked person, you know, if it ain't real let me, let me see if it's real first. And then if I had a reason to be afraid, then I would but I ain't going to be afraid if it didn't if there was no. It was funny. It was funny. But that was a part of camp being scared, you know, somebody trying to scare you. Yeah, it was.

Michelle Epps [00:33:13] Getting back to how you got to Camp Mueller. Do you remember the, the drive and the bus down there?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:33:21] I, you know, it wasn't until a long time before I knew exactly where that campgrounds were located, that park and everything down there. I didn't know. I was only familiar, you know, like I said with like, Garfield Park, where we used to, where we used to go. Now, I wasn't familiar with that. I was familiar with Wade Park because we lived on 105th and we could walk from my street all the way down to Wade Park and we could skate in that pond that's still there now. My mother worked for people that had daughters. She had two daughters. And the things that they had were passed on to my sister and I, and they had ice skates. My mother never bought us ice skates, but we would take them down there and tried to swim on that pond would get frozen enough until we were out there, that little pond that's right there by East Boulevard right there. We used to play right there on that pond. We used to walk around the park there. But I wasn't familiar with where we were there at the told you we was way out somewhere.

Michelle Epps [00:34:45] That's great. Well, I think that pretty much covers all the questions I have. Is there anything that you'd like to add that we didn't cover?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:34:50] No, but just how much I appreciated it. That, you know, [I] know that at that time I appreciated my mother so much for allowing me to go and making a way and I appreciated the Kingsley Arter Center so much as a kid because it gave us something to do. You could go there just about every day [and] for Ms. Fox. And my mother would, you know, she would go with us there so she knew Ms. Fox and she would know what was going on. A lot of times things would be going on at the Phillis Wheatley and we were able to go to the Phillis Wheatley for different functions. And that was in back in, back in the day when Jane Hunter was around, you know, at the Phillis Wheatley so that was a long time ago, you know? But I just appreciate that experience so much as a child. And I know it had a lot to do with, with how I developed, you know, as a person. I'm sure it started me. My mother was, was a Christian woman, and she instilled good principles and this, this is what they were doing as well as young ladies, you know, and, and then, you know, it seems like my life kind of followed. There was, there was an organization. I don't know if it's still here called the Future Outlook League. And there was a man, Mr. Holly was in charge of the Future Outlook League, and he had the opportunity that there was a Cleveland Trust on 55th and Woodland and there was an F R, F. W. Woolworth next door to it and they had never hired black people. Now they were going to hire black people. Do you know that when I was 16 in high school that I was one of the first people to work in that Woolworth as a black person. And I can remember before not in the Cleveland Trust Bank, but as a student, and we would have classes like we'd go to Mr. Holly's office or somewhere and here was the same things, how to greet people, how to talk to people, how to present yourself, and things like that. That I could remember working in that outgoing thing has been because I think I've learned a whole lot from the camp to that to whatever, you know? And that's what I try to instill in my children, you know, coming up as well.

Michelle Epps [00:38:10] What was that experience like that for you, being one of the first?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:38:14] It was a wonderful. It was a wonderful experience. It was a wonderful experience. Kind of, kind of shaky. You didn't want to do anything wrong, you know, you'd listen to Mr. Holly and the instructions that you were given. You didn't want to put yourself. You didn't want to look bad for nobody else because you were gonna be the first to go into that Woolworth store and work, you know? So you were like setting the pace, you know, and, and you were happy about that. You were happy. Happy because they were going to hire black people and, and not so much that you were going to be the first, but you were glad. But you did want to make a good impression because you didn't want to leave no bad impression with the people, you know, you don't want to get fired or anything like that. You know, weird things like that. But it was a, it was a good experience. I like, I like new experiences. And I, I like I don't have to be first, but I just like new experiences and I like challenges even at this age. Because my son that lives here is fixing to challenge me now because he's going to take a job, never lived anywhere but here. In the winters, I've been going to South Carolina. So the last two winters, I've missed the snow and they, my kids say that's a good thing, you know, now that they're in charge. You know how that works, don't you? Okay. But he's going to move. He's thinking about, this is, we're sitting in his living room. I live upstairs. He lives down. But he's going to move to Tampa, Florida. They're building a new plant with a lot of government backing. With the new turbulence and all of that. And he is, they've been calling him and wanting him to come. All of this. And they're going. So I've got four children. Him, who's moving to Florida. I have one daughter that lives in Columbia, South Carolina. I have a son living in Kalamazoo, Michigan, where the president is going to speaking in the high school at the graduation. And in Kansas City, Missouri, now, the two other boys are pastors of Baptist churches in those areas. So I am going to either move to Michigan or Kansas City. Reason being that I don't want to be in the heat all year round. You know what I mean? I'm not used to that. So I'll still go visit my daughter in the South Carolina for the winter. She's not giving that up one daughter. You got to do. So I'm going to. So is that a challenge for an 81-year-old lady? And I don't hate it, you know. You know what I mean? It's still there. This adventure thing is still, isn't it crazy? My grandkids say boy [you're] something.

Michelle Epps [00:41:44] No, that's great though.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:41:47] It is.

Michelle Epps [00:41:48] That's fantastic.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:41:48] Yeah, I think so, too. And God has blessed me. I have four children, 14 grandchildren and 10 great-grandchildren. They're all over the place. So, I just, [I] just like my experiences. I see where the path maybe we'll call, I call it that now that I look back. See, I didn't realize I was on a path, you know, until. But anyway, it was a path, you know. And I just thank God for that path. And, and Camp Mueller was a part of it pushing me along. So, that's what I'd like to say, and I appreciate it very much.

Michelle Epps [00:42:38] That's fantastic. I mean, [that's] a really, I think that's exactly what they were looking for. Is like how Camp Mueller has shaped people's lives.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:42:44] Shaped. Shaping it. Yeah.

Michelle Epps [00:42:54] Kieth, do you have any questions?

Kieth Peppers [00:42:54] You seem like a very spiritual person. Did you attend church on the weekends as a child [and] did going to camp prevent you from going to church? Were there, did you do anything at church?

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:43:06] I, I can't remember doing anything, churchy at camp, you know, churchy. But it was the environment was churchy. Do you know, like singing some of the songs and things like that? I can't remember any speaker like coming to camp. You know, the way I had my camp set up, you know, like that. But I, I've always went to church. Yes, I've always been associated with the church all my life. So Christianity has been my thing growing up until I embraced it for myself and followed that way. You know, that way.

Michelle Epps [00:44:00] Alright. Well, thank you very much.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:44:00] Oh, you're welcome.

Michelle Epps [00:44:01] And we may actually contact you and some of this stuff that you had mentioned. I know that we have other people that are researching certain aspects like Luna Park and the Future Outlook League.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:44:10] Oh, okay.

Michelle Epps [00:44:11] So we may actually contact you again for another interview, not related to Camp Mueller.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:44:14] Okay. Okay. Hey, before I get out of here now.

Michelle Epps [00:44:18] Oh, yeah, that's right because you're moving. All right. Thank you very much.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:44:24] You're welcome. Nice to have met you. And, you know, my heart, I wanted to say something about camp because it has meant so much to me. You know what I mean? And I didn't, I knew that I couldn't go on the 8th, which was in the paper. So that's why I was trying to get somebody to talk to for the 1st, you know, because of that. And then I didn't know if I would have anything to really contribute, contribute, because... What stands out with me are different things and people remember I don't know what. But so I didn't know. And that's why I told you I asked the question, now why did I do this? You know why did I? Why didn't I do this? But that's why I called and it kept after me. Call. And my brother, naturally, he's, he's the one, you know. Call if you feel that way about it. Call and just leave your name or something. You know, tell him you were you were alumni or something. Cause I remember when you went to camp.

Michelle Epps [00:45:38] Well, we're glad you did.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:45:39] Okay.

Michelle Epps [00:45:39] Because you provided us with some great stories.

Bernice Thompson Lavendar [00:45:40] Thank you. Thank you.

Michelle Epps [00:45:42] Thank you.

Phillis Wheatley Association

Interviews with staff and former campers at Camp Mueller, one of the nation's first African-American summer camps, located in what is now the Cuyahoga Valley National Park. The camp is operated by the Phillis Wheatley Association in Cleveland, Ohio.