Norma McLaughlin Nelson Interview, 2010

Norma McLaughlin Nelson was born in Alcorn, Mississippi on the college campus of Alcorn A & M (now Alcorn State University) where her father was a professor. The family later relocated to Greensboro, North Carolina, when Norma's father took a position as Dean at North Carolina A & T. Norma's mother was a friend of Jane Edna Hunter, the founder of the Phyllis Wheatley Association and was given a job as a dietitian in the cafeteria. Due to this relationship, Norma and her sister attended Camp Mueller three times, the first two times with their mother and the last time as a junior camp counselor. Norma remembers her camp experience fondly and recounts certain details about the camp and other campers she re-met later in her life.

Participants: McLaughlin Nelson, Norma (interviewee) / Epps, Michelle (interviewer)
Collection: Phillis Wheatley Association
Institutional Repository: Cleveland Regional Oral History Collection

Interview Transcript

Michelle Epps [00:00:09] Hi, my name is Michelle Epps and we are here at the Phillis Wheatley Association. It is May 8, 2010, and we are interviewing Norma. So Norma, if you could state your full name, when, and where you were born. And this will kind of get us started just to get into the interview.

Norma Nelson [00:00:19] Okay, thanks very much. My name is Norma McLaughlin, maiden name Williams, first marriage name Nelson. So it's Norma McLaughlin Nelson. I was born in 1932 on the college campus of Alcorn A&M College in Mississippi. However, I grew up in Greensboro, North Carolina, spent my formative years there, and left when I was 16 to go to college at Howard University in Washington, D.C. I lived most of my adult life in Washington, D.C. I married someone from there and eventually was transferred to Cleveland by the U.S. Small Business Administration to become district director of the Cleveland District Office of the U.S. Small Business Administration. So that's what brought me to Cleveland officially.

Michelle Epps [00:01:24] How, what is your relationship then with the Phillis Wheatley Association and with Camp Mueller?

Norma Nelson [00:01:30] The Phillis Wheatley Association for me goes back as long as I can remember. The founder of the Phillis Wheatley Association was Jane Edna Hunter and she was born in a little town very close to where my mother was born. And my mother's mother, my grandmother, and Jane Hunter were very good friends over the years when I was growing up. When Jane Hunter would travel to Cleveland, she would always spend nights at our home in Greensboro. This was back during the segregated South, a period of time when there were no hotels available to people of color. And Jane Hunter always spent nights with us. And I have items that I can show you, the guest book from our home and so forth. But that was, that was my connection. My mother, when she was trying to get through school, worked, I was working a job one summer in New York City at some factory, and Jane Hunter found her there and said your mother would have a fit if she knew you were here. By this time, my mother's mother had passed away. And so she said, come out to Cleveland. So my mother worked here as a single woman when she was trying to get through school. And then when she finished South Carolina State, she came back to the Phillis Wheatley as assistant dietician in the cafeteria, which was very widely known, I guess, among people here in the city of Cleveland, lots of people, the so-called intelligentsia. And those, the people came for good hot meals here, and my mother was here then and she worked until she married my dad.

Michelle Epps [00:03:21] So when you came to Cleveland, it was just natural for you to come to the Phillis Wheatley Association because of your relationship with Jane Hunter.

Norma Nelson [00:03:27] It was when I came to Cleveland, as, in 1990, as an employee of the Small Business Administration, it was natural for me, yes. To seek out to come to look at the Phillis Wheatley, to drive by it, to come in, to try to, to try to, to make some kind of connection. And at some point shortly after I came here, I met someone who became a friend at that time, and she became executive director of the Phillis Wheatley. And on one occasion, she needed to go out to Camp Mueller to prepare it for a retreat of some organization that was coming out. And so I offered to come with her to, to go with her, rather, to, to help clean up that main building. So it was an opportunity for me to go back after all those years of never having, having been back. I went initially. Well, I was, I was at Camp Mueller three different times. The last time in 1948. The first time was in 1940, I believe. My sister and I, my mother brought my sister and me to the camp and mother was doing some kind of work for Aunt Jane maybe in the kitchen or something like that. I don't know exactly what, but that was the first time that we came too that we went to Camp Mueller. The next time I believe was 1943. And then the last time in 1948, Jane asked me to come as a junior counselor, and so that was just before my last year, my senior year of high school.

Michelle Epps [00:05:14] So you, you were living in the South though...

Norma Nelson [00:05:18] Yes.

Michelle Epps [00:05:21] So you actually, your parents would take you up to Cleveland to go to camp.

Norma Nelson [00:05:22] Yes, we would come on the train. We would, we would come on the train. And it was a big deal to ride the train and to, to get off. I think we had to transfer in Pittsburgh to come out here. And there was this, this horseshoe curve somewhere along the way, because my mother used to talk about that as being one of the sites that we would want to be sure to see, this horseshoe curve where you could see the end of the train from the begin[ning], from the front part of it there where we were required to sit. So, yes.

Michelle Epps [00:05:55] Wow. So, your experience is a little different than the other people we have been speaking to because you're coming from outside Cleveland.

Norma Nelson [00:06:02] Yes.

Michelle Epps [00:06:08] To go to the camp. So were, you were living in North Carolina correct?

Norma Nelson [00:06:09] Yes.

Michelle Epps [00:06:10] What, were you living in a rural area or?

Norma Nelson [00:06:10] No.

Michelle Epps [00:06:11] It was.

Norma Nelson [00:06:11] No, Greensboro is a city and it's basically a college town. And we, when we left, when we were in Mississippi, my dad was teaching at Alcorn, and that's how my sister and I happened to be born on that campus. And he was an alumnus of North Carolina A & T. At that time, North Carolina A & T State University, now was called simply A & T College. And my dad was an alumnus and he was called back. He was in agriculture and he was called back to be dean of agriculture at A & T College, and so that's what took us back to Greensboro, North Carolina. And we lived in the city. Yes.

Michelle Epps [00:07:04] So tell me I guess then, you know, going from, you know, like a city setting to this, this camp in Cleveland, well in the Cleveland area. Tell me the differences between the two areas. Did you notice anything as a child like the noises maybe and the wildlife? Was there a difference?

Norma Nelson [00:07:13] Well, actually, for me, no, because most... While, while my father and mother and my sister and I lived in the city of Greensboro, most of my relatives, my mother and father's sisters and brothers, lived in rural areas. My... I had one grandparent. I knew one grandparent. That, that was the only one who was living when I was born. And we would often go back, go down to visit them wherever they were from my, my father's people, from North Carolina, from rural areas of North Carolina and my mother's people in South Carolina. And so I was familiar with rural areas and with outside sounds and that sort of thing. So it was not really strange to me. Also, I soon became a brownie and then a Girl Scout. And so I went to the camps and eventually became a counselor there. So I was very accustomed to being outdoors and the sounds of nature and all those all that the outdoors had to offer.

Michelle Epps [00:08:22] So coming to Camp Mueller and this is, this is obviously a long trek to come from North Carolina. What was your feeling like the first, very first time you knew you were going to camp up this distance away from home? Take me through the night before.

Norma Nelson [00:08:34] I, I really don't remember because, as I said, I came with my mother and, in 1940, and at that point I was 7 years old. So I don't remember. We just went wherever she went. It was always an exciting time to go some way I always loved to go and still love to go places. I can remember, though, the, how cold it was. We lived in, in tents. There were no cabins at that point. There was the main building on the campsite of Camp Mueller, but we stayed in a tent. And I remember mother somehow heating bricks to keep our feet warm at night. Now from the... Being from the South, we were simply not accustomed to this kind of cold, certainly not in the summertime. But we, and we, just we managed to, to stay warm somehow at night. And I don't remember, you know, being particularly excited or anything. It was just another experience to come to the camp. And I guess at that point, I probably had not been to a camp at seven. I think I became a Girl Scout at eight or nine. But I had been down to the what we call the country, we call the rural areas, the country. So I was familiar with all the farm animals and all that sort of thing.

Michelle Epps [00:10:12] Now you had mentioned your mother warming bricks. Did she stay at the camp with you?

Norma Nelson [00:10:12] Yes. Oh, yes. We were in the same tent with her when, when we came the first time we were in the tent with, with her because my sister was a year and a month younger than I. So we were six and seven years old. So, yes, we stayed with her.

Michelle Epps [00:10:30] Now, you know, going back to Jane Edna Hunter, was she there at the camp during this time kind of running it?

Norma Nelson [00:10:31] No, no.

Michelle Epps [00:10:38] Okay.

Norma Nelson [00:10:39] No, no, she was not. I seem to remember Jane coming out to the camp maybe once, you know, just to see what was going on. But. But not being there. Not actually being there. No. I also had an aunt and uncle. My mother's, my mother was the youngest of 14 children. My mother's oldest brother was the third oldest of that family of 14. He and his wife, Aunt Rebecca, Uncle Henry was his name. And Aunt Rebecca, did not have any children, and they came to Cleveland and worked for Aunt Jane and among other things, worked out at the camp. And in that first experience, Aunt Rebecca was the dietician cook and Uncle Henry did the errands, and the shopping, and went to Akron and just kind of maintained. He was the handyman kind of person. The, the other aunt and uncle, the other uncle, my mother's youngest brother, the one right next to her and his wife, Uncle Booker and Aunt Eliza also worked for Aunt Jane. And Aunt Eliza is the one who was actually a niece of Aunt Jane. And they lived for a short time in the house with her, I believe. I know that, that Aunt Eliza was, was Aunt Jane's personal maid and Uncle Booker got a job somewhere, and but they had two, two children, two sons, Stewart and Ward Thompson. Thompson was the family name, my mother's maiden name. And so Uncle Henry, Aunt Rebecca, Uncle Booker, Aunt Eliza's last name was Thompson. And they lived in Cleveland and worked for Aunt Jane Hunter here at the Phillis Wheatley and out at the camp. Now, Uncle Booker and Aunt Eliza. I don't remember them actually working at the camp. They worked here at the Phillis Wheatley or in Aunt Jane's home. So.

Michelle Epps [00:12:51] You must have a long history with Phillis Wheatley.

Norma Nelson [00:12:54] Yes. Yes.

Michelle Epps [00:12:58] Well, since you know, as a child, do you remember any of the other children. Specifically, did you have like a best friend in the camp?

Norma Nelson [00:13:07] I don't remember any of the children from the first couple of experiences and the second experience at, at Camp Mueller is just really very hazy. I know I was older and I know that I came. I don't remember much about that either. '43, somewhere along in there in 1943, '45. But I do clearly remember 1948 when I came as a junior counselor just before my senior year in high school. And I remember well the most unforgettable person that I remember was a senior counselor. Her name was Alice Nesbitt, and she still lives. Alice Nisbett Hamilton lives here now. I happened to see her when I came out here in 1990. A friend, also a college mate, lived here and she hosted. She took us, my late husband, to a dance. And I saw this woman over there. Hair was completely white. But I looked at her and I said, that looks like Alice Nesbitt. Now we are talking 1991, 1948 to 1991. But I said that looks like Alice Nesbitt and sure enough it was. That's who it was. But there was one camper that I remember and she, she might have been my age. She might have been maybe a year younger, but her name was Cora. And I don't remember her last name, but I remember this. She was tall, and slender, and she could dance. I always loved to dance, still do love to dance. And this girl showed me how to do how to dance the Cleveland way. And at that time, there was something called the Cleveland drag. When you would kind of do a, a back step. It was a drag that you did. And she taught me how to do that. And when camp was over, we stayed, my sister and I were staying with my aunt and uncle Aunt Eliza and Uncle Booker. Aunt Cora said, well, I'll take you to a dance when you come back in town. And she did. And so I was able to practice that dance. And when I went back to Greensboro, I could, I could do that dance and oh that was so, I thought I was really the cat's meow able to do that. But she's the only, only camper that I remember from that time. Early, a time that second time, I do remember being in, in swimming and I tried to find the picture. I will eventually find that picture now and I'll share it with you. But it was a picture that my mother took when we went swimming in that pond and that was close to the road in front of there. And there was this girl named Alice McGee, and she's a Clevelander also. And she came to Howard. She went to Howard University as I did. Now, my sister was one class behind me at Howard. Alice might have been in my sister's class or the class behind her, but I have seen her since I have McGee I don't know what her married name is, but a little aloof. And so we haven't really connected about the camp. But I do remember that she was there. And when she came to Howard very shortly, you know, a couple of years after that, I remembered that I had initially met her at Camp Mueller.

Michelle Epps [00:16:33] [Inaudible]

Norma Nelson [00:16:35] Yes. Yes.

Michelle Epps [00:16:37] So I guess getting more into like the technical aspects of the camp.

Norma Nelson [00:16:41] Okay.

Michelle Epps [00:16:42] You mentioned that your uncle and your aunt were the like working dieticians there at one time. So, I guess tell us a little bit about the food. How was it different from home?

Norma Nelson [00:16:52] Well, Aunt Becky could cook. Aunt Becky was an excellent coo and so the food when she was the dietician was just excellent. The second. When I came, not the second time, but the, as a junior counselor in 1948, the summer '48, the food was good. I just remember wanting more meat. I remember most of the kids were hungry all the time and, you know, we never quite got enough. The food was, was well prepared, but there was, we never quite got enough. I remember that we would take the kids on, on hikes and we would get blackberries and bring them back to the, to the dietician who would then make pies for us, for our dessert, for, for dinner. So that was always a real treat. But that's, that's pretty much what I can remember about the food. For some reason, when, when we were talking, I was, I was thinking about when the other lady was talking about supplies and so I remember, Ipana toothpaste. Now, why in the world that should come to my head? I don't think there's even such a thing as Ipana toothpaste, but it was in a striped tube. I think it was red and yellow, or red and gold kind of color. And some of the kids wanting something to eat sweet would eat Ipana toothpaste. It was just, it was white. It was just that good. I ate some too.But you know, so much for the food, I don't remember anything else much. I don't remember soft drinks. Lemonade, yes. But that's about it for the food. Activities were wonderful.

Michelle Epps [00:18:56] Well, you mentioned that toothpaste, which brings me to my next question of what was your experience like having to, you know, get ready in the morning, like bathing, and, and, you know, using the latrine if there was a latrine? Tell me a little bit about that aspect of it. How, was it really rustic or?

Norma Nelson [00:19:13] It was rustic. Seems to me. You know, I just don't remember the latrine. I remember trying to take a shower in a kind of a teepee like setup and somebody had to pour the bucket of water over your head to help you [to] take a shower. But it was very, very rustic, very rustic. And particularly for somebody, you know, at 15, it was, it was a rough go. But then I was accustomed to camp life. I knew that, I knew what to expect when you're living virtually outside you, you just dealt with it and it taught you the kinds of survival skills that one would need in a real emergency of some sort. I don't remember. I don't remember the, the campers being called poor or being designated or even considering them poor. I didn't, they were from Cleveland, so, you know, that was a big deal for me. Cleveland was a big city compared to the city that I was from. So we looked at, at the, at the kids as, as being children who, who were having a new experience being outdoors. We knew that the city didn't have a lot of, a lot of parks or a lot of outdoorsy kinds of things to do, insects and, you know, trees and that sort of thing. So it was a good experience for them.

Michelle Epps [00:21:03] How did some of the kids react, especially the, the new campers were they, you know, I'm not going to the bathroom there or, you know, I'm not going to be sleeping outside. Were some of them a little reluctant? Can you talk about that?

Norma Nelson [00:21:18] I don't remember that. I don't remember that. It seemed to me that they, that they were all anxious to be here, I mean. I presume that they were groomed or, or given some kind of orientation about what to expect when they, when they got to a camp, when they got to the camp. So I, I just don't remember any reluctance on the campers part to be there. Every once in a while, a child would cry and they wanted to go home. They'ed miss mama or dad. But they were about nine or ten years old. So, they were just glad to be there, as I can recall, and glad to have the variety of activities that were different from school and different from what they had at home.

Michelle Epps [00:22:20] So, tell us about some of those activities. You mentioned that you really enjoyed them. Can you take us through some of your favorite activities as a camper and even as a counselor?

Norma Nelson [00:22:20] Yes, I remember. Let's see, I remember that there were crafts like making lanyards, and there were crafts like carving figures out of soap, and wood, and making string figures with your fingers. Making star and that sort of thing with your fingers. Finger painting, and there was swimming in the pond near the main road. And I particularly remember snakes being in that pond. I don't like snakes, but I was told that the snakes don't bite if they are in the water. That they can't or wouldn't bite when they're in the water. We would go on hikes and as I mentioned, to pick the berries and just to learn about nature, to try to identify trees and shrubs and poison ivy. That was one of the things that we were, that we were taught to identify so that we would steer clear of that and not, not get that on our skins, and there was, there was singing. There was a music. And when I was brought back in '48 as a junior counselor, one of the main reasons was because I could play the piano, and because I had attended Girl Scout camp, and knew a lot of the songs. A lot of camp songs. I led music and played the piano in, in, for many of the activities and for me, the campfires and where we toasted the marshmallows and that sort of thing, it was, it was a lot of fun.

Michelle Epps [00:24:07] Did you tell a lot of ghost stories?

Norma Nelson [00:24:09] No, I'm not much of a storyteller and I didn't like to frighten, I don't like to frighten people. I don't like to be frightened. And so, no, I didn't tell stories. I just like people to have fun and enjoy.

Michelle Epps [00:24:29] Do you remember anybody telling any ghost stories when you were around?

Norma Nelson [00:24:29] I don't, I couldn't remember the story. There was something about, something or other coming down that chimney. That fireplace, it's in the middle of the. I think it's. I'm trying to recall. It seems like there was a stage and. And then there was this fireplace in the middle of it and there was supposedly something that would come down and come down that chimney. But no, I, I can't remember a story, a particular story associated with that.

Michelle Epps [00:25:00] Well, tell us about the, the nighttime. You know, obviously, you were sleeping in tents and not in a cabin. So tell us if, you know, maybe any of the girls were scared at that time, and I know somebody, some people had mentioned, you know, having to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, you know, and that was really scary. They always tried to get somebody to come with them. What was your experience, you know, in the evening?

Norma Nelson [00:25:23] Well, in, in the evening, my best recollection, of course, is from 1948 when I was a junior counselor. I would have just count it up and that's 62 years ago, for heaven's sake. So how much can I remember? I don't remember going to the bathroom at night. I don't remember anybody else going to the bathroom at night or being afraid. And I, I do, I do remember that the senior counselors could gather, could, they could after they got people to bed; they could go back up to the main building and, and have fun. Do whatever they do. But at 15, I was not and a junior counselor, I was not really invited to come be a part of that activity. So, no, I just, I don't remember that kind of night, nighttime. I don't remember the bathroom thing or going back joining with the other counselors. Before we went to bed, there were always the, the gatherings, the campfire gatherings, the marshmallows, hot dogs, the marshmallows on coathangers. I'd never heard of such a thing. That's where you put the marshmallow on the end of a coat hanger, and that's how you stuck it to the fire and toasted it. And that's the best thing. I love that to this day, I'll take a marshmallow and put it over my stove electric, electric coils. And heat it and get it all nice and brown like that. But. Singing those were, those were the good times. Those songs, All Things Shall Perish from Under the Sun. We sang lots of rounds. And then I remember this song. Camp Mueller girls are high-minded. Bless my soul. They [unintelligible] it. We make women or men. [Humming] All day long. That, that kind of song and lots of other rounds. Whippoorwill, Whippoorwill, da, da, da, da, da. But if I had to, I could, I could remember probably five to ten songs, and being I have shared those with my, with my own sons. I have four sons and now my grandchildren as they have grown up. And whenever we would go on a trip, we would always sing.

Michelle Epps [00:27:46] You mentioned your four sons, did they at all go to Camp Mueller and if not did they go to a different camp?

Norma Nelson [00:27:46] No, no, not. No, no, no. They, they did not participate in Boy Scouts. They never went to a camp except son number three, who joined the Marines. And of course, he had that experience. The other three did not have the military experience and have not been to a camp.

Michelle Epps [00:28:06] Was that their choice or was it yours?

Norma Nelson [00:28:08] Theirs.

Michelle Epps [00:28:09] No interest.

Norma Nelson [00:28:10] It was theirs. No, they had no interest in it. And I should say, back when, when I was at Camp Mueller, it was not a co-ed camp. All-girls. I don't remember. I don't remember seeing any boys.

Michelle Epps [00:28:36] When I was going through some of the photographs here at Phillis Wheatley, there were a couple photographs with Camp Merriam written on the back.

Norma Nelson [00:28:37] Merriam?

Michelle Epps [00:28:38] Yeah, does that ring a bell at all?

Norma Nelson [00:28:38] No, not at all.

Michelle Epps [00:28:38] I was just kind of wondering if that was like another girls camp that was a part of that.

Norma Nelson [00:28:43] No, not not being from the Cleveland area. It could very well be, but I don't. I don't have any recollection of that.

Michelle Epps [00:29:03] So as a junior counselor, what would your duties be? I mean obviously, you, you have a responsibility since your not really a camper. So, so take me through, you know, what you would have to do as a, as a junior counselor. What your duties were.

Norma Nelson [00:29:03] Well, I would have to, I would have to make sure that the group of girls that I was in charge of would get up and would get prepared and get, get dressed and get to the, to the dining hall in time for breakfast. And that we, and that they would, would go to the various activities. Excuse me. I'm not sure whether we were, whether they were assigned activities. It seems to me that they all had to participate in all of the activities. Maybe on an alternating basis so that you just didn't do one thing that was done and the activities, as I can recall, took place in the afternoon. So well that kind of activity, the craft type activities, the mornings were usually the nature, the nature, you go for the walks and that's where you'd see the garter snakes with the gold orange stripe down the back, some kind of way like that, and you would find the leaves and so forth. But my, my duties were mainly just to, to just as a contact person for the, for the, the kids that I was assigned to.

Michelle Epps [00:30:32] How many kinds were you assigned to?

Norma Nelson [00:30:32] I would say five, five or six. Not many.

Michelle Epps [00:30:38] And you mentioned your sister had gone with you initially?

Norma Nelson [00:30:40] Yes.

Michelle Epps [00:30:40] Did she continue on as well? Did she become a junior counselor?

Norma Nelson [00:30:42] She didn't become a junior counselor, but she did come. My sister was not an outdoorsy person and she did not like camp. And I don't remember my, my sister had asthma as a child throughout. I have it now, but she had it as a child. And so she did not do well in outdoorsy situations. She did not like bugs and all of it. So as soon as she could say, I don't want to go, she'd said so. And so that 1948 experience was her last experience as well.

Michelle Epps [00:31:24] So tell us a little bit about what you have to do to prepare to go to camp. Like, what things would you have to pack?

Norma Nelson [00:31:33] There were things like a certain kind of knife that we had, I had a Girl Scout knife that had several different blades that would serve different purposes, like open a can, open a can, open a bottle of soda pop, and carve things. Sharp enough to carve things. We would, we had, we had a canteen, something that you would you could put water in. It was something like the preparation that I guess people get when they are going to the service and going to that kind of camp at least way back when. Back then, I don't remember, I don't remember whether we had sleeping bags or not. I know in later years we did have sleeping bags and we had to bring those. But we had to... We, we just had to bring everything that you thought, that we thought we might need. You know, the usual cos, the cosmetics were nothing but some lotion and some. What was that called? Citronella. Something called citronella that you would put on your skin to keep the mosquitoes because mosquitoes were bad. And you would have to use that flashlight to be able to see because when we would leave the main campfire to go back to our tent, it would be night and you'd need the flashlight to kind of get back to the camp. A swimming, swimming suit, swimming cap. Of course, a sweater thing, something to keep warm.

Michelle Epps [00:33:36] Do you remember it raining at all when you were at camp?

Norma Nelson [00:33:37] Seemed like it rained all the time. It rained a lot.

Michelle Epps [00:33:40] And what would the campers do when it would rain?

Norma Nelson [00:33:43] Well, we just have to stay inside, but we get wet. We get wet a lot. Just trying to go from point A to point B from the tent to the main building and back again. But when it would rain, we would just do all of the activities right inside in the main, in the main building. And we would spend a lot of time there.

Michelle Epps [00:34:08] Now, how long as a camper, how long were the sessions? Like how long would you go for?

Norma Nelson [00:34:12] I think a session was a week. I believe I was here three weeks and I was paid $15 a week.

Michelle Epps [00:34:24] As a junior counselor?

Norma Nelson [00:34:25] As a junior counselor.

Michelle Epps [00:34:27] And did you, since your, you know, as a junior counselor obviously, you know, you probably had a little more freedom than the regular campers. Did you go outside of the camp at all during that time?

Norma Nelson [00:34:39] Yes, but I don't remember going outside more than. Well, I remember only going outside, taking the group of campus to some park that was not too far away and that was in '48 because. I'm, I saw somebody I saw a young man on that outing who that very fall came to Greensboro to A & T College to North Carolina A & T State as a football player. And we became very good friends that year and he took me to my prom. But we, we decided that we had seen each other and we had seen each other at that park when I was the counselor up here at Camp Mueller. So that was a nice connection. He was from Akron.

Michelle Epps [00:35:43] Okay. So, getting into like your adult life, how do you think the camp experience, you know, maybe affected who you became or, you know, did it have that much of an impression on you if at all?

Norma Nelson [00:35:56] Well, certainly the camp experience provided opportunities for leadership, and for building self-confidence, and in speaking to groups; or in leading groups; or in learning to listen; and just being a cooperative member of, of a group, helping, learning how to, to pull your share of a load and helping other people to as they say now get over helping other people, to, to be able to succeed in whatever it is that they're trying to do as well. Sharing was a big part of that. And it's not just the Camp Mueller experience, so that was important, too. But my, I would, I would have to say my Girl Scout experience and my camp experience. As it turned out, the very next year, at the end of my, my senior year in 1949, my senior year in high school, I was selected to represent the state of North Carolina at the international Girl Scout camp in upstate Michigan. And that was, that was a first for a Girl Scout of color for the state of North Carolina. And I'm sure that my experience with camp at Camp Mueller was all a part of what they took into consideration when they selected me for that, you know, for that honor and for that trip.

Michelle Epps [00:37:35] That's great. What do you think children of today can benefit from going to camp? I mean, of course, there's been video games. There's a lot of competition, you know, for their attention. Do you think that it still holds value for kids to go?

Norma Nelson [00:37:43] Oh, absolutely. I think that while the video games, I understand, provide eye-hand coordination. Children need to know from whence we came. They need to make this connection with, quote-unquote, Mother Earth. They need to, to know the source of our food, the source of, of our homes. They need to see woods and trees and, and flowers and where they from whence they come and the, the foods that, that are provided just in, in nature itself. And they need to know that this is the history of man. That man didn't always had a, have a cultivated garden of corn and, and greens, and lettuce, and cabbage and those kinds of things that our forebears had to go out into the woods. And I guess by hook or crook, they would, they picked the things that, that eventually wouldn't kill them. I imagine a lot of people lost their lives in the really early historical years, just trying out something to eat that was poisonous and they didn't make it. But yes, it has value in addition to the camaraderie of, of making new friends and just learning how to how to be independent. Kids nowadays so often just depend on parents for everything and every decision. And it teaches them how to think, how to make choices. I can if I do this, this will happen. If I do this, this will happen. Or I have choices. Which one? Maybe I could do it this way, this way, this way. While you, you pick one. It, it gives, it teaches you being in a camp gives you, I think, the basis for analytical thinking. So it's, it's just very valuable to me, I wouldn't. I tried to impart that to my sons by just telling and teaching and, you know, in terms of even eventual occupational choices. I said everybody, everybody needs a profession and a skill. And while they are all college trained and so forth, that's it. You need a practical way to make a living so that you can go back and forth, and that's and I, I lived that. That's why I alternate. I pursue those alternate careers as a, as a teacher, and as a federal government worker, and eventually retired as a federal government worker, which began with a little $12 typing course.

Michelle Epps [00:40:45] Wow. So, you mentioned going to, I mean, this is just kind of like, you know, stuff that I understood. Now, you mentioned going to college at 16.

Norma Nelson [00:40:50] Yeah.

Michelle Epps [00:40:55] Was that, I mean, that seems a lot young.

Norma Nelson [00:40:55] Well, I guess back when I, when I started to school, I was born in December. And when we left Mississippi, I was four years old. That was in August before my dad began the school year at at A & T College. And so I turned five in December and I started to school. That was 1937 and so I started to school in January. I guess it was. And it just seemed very, very normal for me to start school at that time. And also, that was a time when you could start in the middle of the year. Schools did not all start in September. Some started, I mean, they were [they] had the school year divided, so there was a September group and then a January or February group. And the grades were the 1A and 1B and whatever. And I remember when I got to the fourth grade, that was when the schools in North Carolina at least went to the all year, you know, everybody begins at the beginning of the year. So I was in the fourth grade, and I spent a half a year in the fourth grade and a half a year in the fifth grade. My mother had started us at the Lutheran school, which was about five blocks up from where we lived on the same side of the street. And she started us there because she was, she was volunteering then. She was not teaching then. She was volunteering at the... I think it's the NYA? Roosevelt was in, obviously... NYA, I think is what it was called. But at any rate, National Youth Administration, I think that's what it stood for, but something like that. But at any rate, she took me out of it. She took us out of that private school, put us in public school because she began teaching and she wanted us to go to the public school where there was a cafeteria and we could get a hot lunch. So that too accounts for, you know, how I how I managed to get out of, out of high school at 16 and I finished college at 20.

Michelle Epps [00:43:23] Wow. Were the other students when you were going to college around the same age as you then or were they older and you always a little younger?

Norma Nelson [00:43:26] Most of them. I was a little younger than most of them. Yes.

Michelle Epps [00:43:31] Getting back to the camp, Camp Mueller. What was the water situation like? Did you have to pull from a well or was there like a spigot that you had to get water from or?

Norma Nelson [00:43:44] I'm not remembering clearly. It seems that there was a well. As you face, as you face that main building, it seems that there was a well on the left-hand side, but it seems that there was also a pump. I don't know if you know anything about a pump, but there was, there was something called a pump back in those days. And I remember also that my, my relatives who lived on farms had, had a well and they had a pump and went like this and you get the water up. But yes, we had to haul buckets of water. I think we brought them into the, so that the, into the kitchen so that they would have water to cook with. But no bottled water. No bottled water to drink. None of that.

Michelle Epps [00:44:41] We are kind of spoiled now.

Norma Nelson [00:44:42] Yes, yes.

Michelle Epps [00:44:43] Well, Mike do you have any questions you'd like to ask?

Michael Rotman [00:44:45] No.

Michelle Epps [00:44:45] Is there anything that we didn't cover that you would like to add?

Norma Nelson [00:44:51] Well. I think you've covered everything that I could tell you.

Michelle Epps [00:44:58] Okay.

Norma Nelson [00:45:01] I, I guess I mentioned back in 1995 when this friend was executive director of the Phillis Wheatley, I went out there then. Well since then, in 19, in 2004, my third son's wife and daughter came up to visit me and my friend who lives here who's from Cleveland took us out to the camp. I wanted them to see it. And so we went out to that camp and took a couple of pictures right there at the entrance that said Camp Mueller. But there was a barricade so that we couldn't actually go up in the camp itself. But I do, somewhere among my pictures, I do have a picture of us. This group of girls in swimming and this was from the '40s era. And this was not when, this was prior to that 1948 time. So when I find that picture, I'll be glad to share it with you.

Michelle Epps [00:46:04] Please do!

Norma Nelson [00:46:04] Yes. Yes, I did bring some other things that I can share and show you.

Michelle Epps [00:46:09] Okay perfect. You mentioned going back to the camp in 1995. Did you notice, was there any changes to the, the valley itself, you know, that you noticed between, you know, going there last, your last time in 1948 and then coming back in 1995? Did the landscape change at all?

Norma Nelson [00:46:26] It changed a little bit, but not much. Of course, this was before the camping season and so the, the foliage was thick and had not been cut down and, and all of that. The building was basically the same. Seems that they had been some improvements, some repairs done. I'm trying to remember that the pond where we swam, I don't believe that was swimable anymore. And I didn't get to go down either of the forks on the road to where our tent was and the, the senior girls were all on a different fork. You know, the other side, so. No, I, I don't remember much of a change in, in the landscape other than that pond. But it was just beautiful, it was all so lush and green and beautiful. So, I enjoyed it and I appreciate this time to tell you about it because it's all just been in my head and in my memory. My sister passed away in 2001 and my mother in 2000. So it's, it's wonderful to be able to share that. I can't corroborate any of this that I've told you with anybody, but my sister would hardly be the one to tell you anyway. She did not like camp.

Michelle Epps [00:48:01] That's interesting. Thank you very much for taking the time to speak with us.

Norma Nelson [00:48:03] Sure.

Michelle Epps [00:48:05] And we'll definitely take a look at your photographs and if you find that one we'd gladly scan it and get it into the project.

Norma Nelson [00:48:06] Okay. Okay. Thank you so much, both of you and thank you for doing the project.

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.