Karamu means a central place of joyful meeting in Swahili. This title was eventually given to an arts theater associated with a neighborhood on the east side of Cleveland called the Playhouse Settlement. The concept began in 1915 by two individuals named Rowena and Russell Jelliffe. They were both social workers and graduates of Oberlin College. Supported by the Second Presbyterian Church, they began to dream and establish a settlement that brought all races and ethnic backgrounds together. In 1917, they began producing plays that included an interracial cast that helped people enter into the community. Visual arts and theater made up the Settlement House in those early days. In 1919 they dropped their ties with the church and formed the Neighborhood Association. In 1927, the word Karamu was used in relationship to the theater and was eventually adopted by the settlement in 1941 to be named the Karamu House.
But what does this have to do with Cleveland Metroparks? Not only did the Jelliffes believe in the arts, but they also believed in fresh air. In a paper written by Cora Geiger Newald, she reflects on the Jelliffe’s this way. “Russell and Rowena Jelliffe realized that the children needed to get away from searing heat and soot smeared streets, to the down-to-earth world of nature.”
With the vision and determination of William Stinchcomb and the Park Board, a way was made for The Neighborhood Association to form a camp along River Road and Chippewa Creek in Brecksville Reservation in 1923. They were given permission to use an area to be later called Plateau Picnic Area, a clearing for 30 campers and six tents on platforms: four tents for campers and their counselors, a mess tent, and a general headquarters tent where the Jelliffes stayed made up Chippewa Valley Camp. Each camp lasted two weeks in duration: three camps for boys and two camps for girls. Many weekends were set aside for adults to come stay and enjoy the great outdoors too. This camp was opened to all races, in an era where most camps were white-only and strictly segregated.
Camp Karamu Tenting Area - Brecksville Reservation - 1940
Photos courtesy of Cleveland Memory Project
Chippewa Valley Camp from its humble beginnings offered softball, volleyball and two horseshoe courts. Simple meals were served, but each meal was well balanced and plentiful with fresh milk provided by a local farmer. The average weight gain by the camper in a two-week period ranged from ¾ lb to 11lbs!
Camp Karamu Dining Hall - Cleveland Metropolitan Park District - 1940
Photo courtesy of Cleveland Memory Project
The camp served more than food and fun activities. Each day was filled with nature education at every turn. Hikes along woodland paths and river banks opened up a new world for these campers. The lessons told through a colorful flash of bird wings, fascinating fossils, secretive mammals and crustaceans in the creek abounded. Walking underneath the towering deciduous trees, studying summer wildflowers and gazing at the planets and constellations fed the young campers’ senses of creativity and wonder. It was said that each camper over many visits could walk away knowing 70 birds, 36 flowers and 20 trees. Sitting around the campfire sharing tall tales, skits and songs accompanied by banjo and guitar would add to the day’s adventures in Cleveland Metropolitan Park District’s Brecksville Reservation.
Camp Karamu - Headquarters - Brecksville Reservation - 1940
Photo courtesy of Cleveland Memory Project
Miriam Evans recalls two of her best friends at Camp Karamu: a crow named “Jerry” and a woodchuck named “Whissy.” The hours of observation and fun with these two camp critters kept the campers down time exciting and meal times interesting. Jerry the crow served as the camp rooster, cawing instead of cockle-doodle-doing to get everyone up in the morning. The crow also became a predictable meal-time guest flying from table to table until someone locked him outside. Each week and season had its own stories and incidents to share.
With each passing year, improvements were made and the camp kept growing. Then the Depression hit. Money was tight, but the Jelliffes, an army of volunteers and Cleveland Metropolitan Park District kept the camp from closing. The Civilian Conservation Corps, Civil Works Administration and Works Progress Administration in the 1930s and early 40s were put to work in the park system and Brecksville Reservation benefited greatly. In fact, Chippewa Valley Camp’s name was changed to Camp Karamu as improvements were made and permanent structures where created. A new road was excavated and an historic home was moved to the park system along with a mess hall “The Lodge” and a recreational hall, “The Hall.” The camp in 1935 had sound buildings and room to grow. Because of Roosevelt’s “New Deal” projects, the park system grew by leaps and bounds. The camp was revived and thrived until the late 40s.
Faded map of Chippewa Valley Camp/Camp Karamu off of River Road - 1936
Eventually, Camp Karamu could not sustain itself and held its last camp in 1947.
Several thousand inner-city children’s lives were changed and touched in the 24 years this camp served. The Jelliffes did a major part in breaking ethnic and racial barriers in a calm and serene setting. Cleveland Metroparks was the matrix in which the arts, nature study and wholesome fun was the Central Place of Joyful Meeting.
Rowena Jelliffe - The Plain Dealer 1992 announcing her passing.
Very few remnants are found of the old Camp Karamu since its closing 67 years ago. But… we still salute you, Russell and Rowena. We are also filled with gratitude for all those who poured their lives into these children to enrich their experiences and make their futures brighter.
Do you know anyone who attended Chippewa Valley Camp/Camp Karamu in Brecksville Reservation? If so, please contact me: Foster Brown at 440-786-8530 or email me at: firstname.lastname@example.org