Elijah E. Cummings' South Baltimore Cub Scout pack was so poor that members shopped for uniforms at secondhand stores, made their own patches and shared a single manual. And when their den mother needed rope for an activity, she cut pieces of clothesline for the boys to share.
Today, youths growing up in similarly rough city neighborhoods think joining the Scouts is too expensive and, even worse, uncool, said Cummings, now a Baltimore-area congressman.
A new partnership between the Maryland NAACP and the Baltimore-area council of the Boy Scouts of America hopes to change that perception, encouraging youngsters from some of the city's toughest areas to excel in the Scouts.
"This is not about money, this is about time," Cummings said yesterday during an announcement at the Boy Scouts' Baltimore headquarters, as two dozen uniformed Scouts stood at attention behind him. Cummings said he plans to help raise the estimated $10,000 to fund the initiative.
"Sadly, in our communities today, people look at Scouting and think it's something corny," he said. "But its not. It's preparing them to be men."
Called the First Class Camp, the program aims to attract 150 boys and girls from the city's poorest neighborhoods and pair them with mentors. The youths will engage in activities in the Boy Scouts and in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and sport Scout badges bearing both emblems.
NAACP leaders said they hope the programcan be duplicated nationwide.
"Today, we are faced with an awesome task to make sure our youth escape crime and violence," said Gerald G. Stansbury, president of the NAACP's Maryland state conference. "We need to draw our young men away from gangs and the street."
The program is a response, in part, to a Father's Day mobilization effort this year, in which fathers, sons and activists urged black men to rebuild and restore their communities. The meeting, "A Call to Action," made a plea for hundreds of tutors, volunteers and role models.
But convincing inner-city kids that the Scouts is worth their time could prove difficult, supporters acknowledged.
"Growing up in today's world, kids see folks on the corner with tennis shoes worth $150," Cummings said. "They live in a country where they expect instant gratification. It's similar to kids who get teased for being smart. So imagine a kid seeing another in a Boy Scouts uniform. That's not cool to them."
The Boy Scouts have tried for years to combat that image, said Ron McKinney, the Boy Scouts' Baltimore field director. More than a decade ago, the council tried to start a Cub Scout pack at the city's struggling Murphy Homes. It failed.
"What we have to do is instead of speaking Scout lingo, we have to let them know that a merit badge is nothing but life skills," McKinney said. "Parents, too, they don't always get it. We have to re-educate and allow them to understand the whole experience."
Daryl Jones, an Anne Arundel County councilman who was on hand for the announcement, said the NAACP's involvement could help engender community trust.
"In some schools of thought, Scouting is something seen as a county thing, a suburban thing, as opposed to an urban experience, when it can be all of the above," said Jones, who became the first black Cub Scout in his Glen Burnie pack 37 years ago. "I think having the NAACP involved in Scouting will hopefully begin to crack those barriers and demystify the Scouting experience."
Not all youths need such motivation. William Blake, 10, and his brother, James Blake, 13, of Northeast Baltimore, roll their eyes at kids who tease them for being Scouts.
"If they think it, then they are wrong about what it's all about," said William, who stood beside Cummings wearing a broad smile as the congressman offered his remarks. "It's cool because there are Scouts all around the world. In Japan, everywhere."
"I guess you could say it's like family," said Jordan Peace, 11, a fellow member of Troop 133.