Ten years ago, Charlotte’s Boy Scout Troop 67 nearly folded up.
The predominantly African-American troop chartered by Ebenezer Baptist Church in 1931 was down to two Scouts, and prospects were dim for adding more.
A mother of one of the remaining Scouts led the troop and couldn’t go camping, so activities were limited. Some church deacons wanted to close it.
But seven years ago, deacon Bill Lowe, involved with the troop since 1961, approached church member Ted Johnson to take over as Scoutmaster. Johnson’s son, T.J., was in the Troop, so Johnson jumped in.
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Now look at Troop 67: It’s got 21 Scouts, most African-American, with some Hispanic members, and for the first time in more than 60 years, the troop has something rare in American Scouting: Eagle Scouts, the organization’s highest rank.
Not just one Eagle, but four.
“Troop 67 has come a long way,” said Johnson, a sales representative for an Internet marketing company.
Each Monday, Johnson drives 45 minutes from his Union County home to the north Charlotte church to preside over troop meetings.
“Our kids – young black boys – need discipline and structure in their lives, and Scouting gives them that,” Johnson said. “All the parents of these boys realized that value in Scouting, and their support has been tremendous.
“But I give most of the credit to the kids: It’s been up to them to get the big reward.”
The big reward came Monday for Johnson’s son T.J., a junior at Marvin Ridge High in Union County; Keon Regisford, a senior at North Mecklenburg High; Desmond Woodburn, a junior at Hickory Ridge High in Concord; and James Carter, a junior at Rocky River High in Mint Hill.
The four follow in the footsteps of Andrew Lightsley in 1953 as the troop’s only Eagle Scouts.
The rank means the Scouts all spent years performing the work to earn 21 merit badges, including a required dozen in such skills as first aid, hiking and camping, lifesaving and citizenship. The Eagle hallmark is a service project, requiring at least 100 hours of work and recruiting and supervising volunteers.
Once a month, they go camping, and in summers they’d go to Boy Scout camp or Philmont Scout Ranch in New Mexico for 80 miles of hiking. “My time with them allowed to have teaching moments – to teach them to become leaders,” Johnson said. “I used that time to dispel myths about stuff that was going on and build up the truth.”
None of the four had to be dragged to the finish line.
“We supported each other and decided that we’d all go through this together,” said T.J. Johnson. “If one of us made Eagle, we were all going to make Eagle. Quitting never entered our heads.”
‘Doesn’t have to do it’
To give their accomplishment some perspective: consider that only 4 percent of boys who start out in Cub Scouts achieve Eagle Scout by 18, when Scouting ends.
Add that to the challenge of getting minority children involved in Scouting; of the nearly 10,000 scouts in Mecklenburg County, about 20 percent are minorities, said Gary Moore, field director of the Mecklenburg County Council.
The council has special programs to reach out to minorities.
“But it is a challenge,” said Stan Murrow, director of the Boy Scouts Hornet’s Nest District that comprises north Mecklenburg troops. “The fact that Ted and the other leaders of Troop 67 were able to bring their troop basically from the brink of extinction to what it is now is a testament to their leadership and their belief in Scouting.”
Getting African-American men involved in troop leadership was a challenge, too.
Johnson took over Troop 67 from Wanda Wilson, a Scout mother, Lowe said. “Every time I got a man into that position, he’d leave – so it was hard to keep a male Scoutmaster in that position,” he said. “So I asked Wanda to keep it going. She wanted to move the troop. But I said, ‘No, we’re going to keep it here at Ebenezer and pray.’”
Many of the Scouts, like Regisford, come from single-parent homes. Finding a man to mold their lives was difficult until Ted Johnson and assistant troop leaders including James Turner and Terrence Conley stepped in to fill that role.
Johnson credits the Scouts for their accomplishment and breathing life into the troop. Regisford credits Johnson.
“He honestly doesn’t have to do it,” said Regisford, who plans to study marketing at UNC Greensboro. “But think about it: It takes him 45 minutes every Monday to make the drive after working all day, and most Saturdays and Sundays he takes out his time to be with us, so we can achieve this. He and the other leaders told us: ‘You don’t quit on us. Just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’ll get easier later on in life.’
“That means a lot. I haven’t seen my own father since I was 5.”
‘Far from the stereotype’
Johnson said he gets just as much from Troop 67 as the Scouts.
“It’s my ministry,” he said. “It’s my way of getting involved and creating change in a kid’s life.”
Johnson and his assistant leaders have helped the Scouts balance their lives. Growing up with distractions such as laptops, iPods and eventually cars, girls and sports, merit badges and three-finger salutes seem a little nerdy.
Scouting has rarely been regarded as cool, but the four new Eagle Scouts say they don’t care how others view them. They’re having too much fun, and besides, they point out, a few presidents, astronauts (including Guy Bluford, the first African-American in space) and star athletes (including Major League slugger Albert Belle) were Eagle Scouts.
“It’s far from the stereotype,” T.J. Johnson said. “I think people understand it takes a lot of hard work, and they respect us for that.”
Besides, Eagle Scout looks good on college and job applications.
Regisford applied to 10 colleges and was accepted at eight. He recently got his first job as a clerk at a CVS pharmacy near the church. “The lady who interviewed me gave me a different look when I said I was up for Eagle Scout,” he said.
Respect is what Ted Johnson hopes Scouting will give his Scouts. He’ll continue with the troop after T.J. ages out next year.
“Boys that age get distracted. But with me being a black man, they listen, because I’ve experienced some life,” he said. “From the start, I tell them: ‘The goal is to become an Eagle Scout – a leader – and to go to college, and if you don’t want to buy into that, you’re in the wrong place.’”