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Restoring Camp Katharine Parsons: Phyllis Wheatley's Historic Legacy

As long as Phyllis Wheatley Community Center has existed, it's stayed ahead of the curve in terms of anticipating and meeting the needs of the people of North Minneapolis. And, long before the environmentalist movement took hold, the organization was providing an invaluable outdoors experience for kids who would not otherwise have had the opportunity — camp.

Camp Katharine Parsons restoration project
Campers from North Minneapolis at Phyllis Wheatley's Camp Katharine Parsons, some time in the 1990s.

Phyllis Wheatley Community Center has always worked toward a singular mission — to create educational, recreational, and restorative opportunities for African American families to thrive. Our goal is for individuals to discover their strengths and take control of their futures. To help meet this goal, throughout most of our long history, PWCC has provided camping and outdoor recreation experiences that teach, heal, and inspire through nature.

PWCC has evolved alongside the African American community in North Minneapolis from the organization's early beginnings rooted in the Settlement House movement through to today, keeping pace with community needs including childcare, education, recreation, health, and emotional and social wellness. We do this through a number of different training, restorative, and enrichment programs designed to create opportunities for our historically marginalized community.

PWCC also has a rich history of providing outdoor and camping experiences for youth and families reaching back to the 1940’s, when it leased a camp in Savage, Minnesota. The organization lost that space due to the war, and subsequently engaged in various efforts to continue to offer the camp experience, taking kids to Brainerd and attempting to buy a spot in Amery, Wisconsin.

Finally, in 1956, a long-time board member and PWCC supporter, Ms. Katharine Parsons, arranged for the purchase of a parcel of land on Oak Lake in Carver County and hired renowned architect and early environmentalist Lloyd B. Sharp to build the camp that we now seek to restore. Katharine Parsons, who herself grew up in Fergus Falls, MN, was motivated by her belief that children in the PWCC community, many of whom never had the opportunity to get outside the city and into nature, should have the same opportunities as almost any other Minnesota kid — the chance to attend summer camp, partake in outdoor adventure, learn appreciation for the environment, and build character along the way.

As part of a developmental strategy aimed at providing youth with experiences that create great citizens, PWCC created programming to expose African American kids to the outdoors and to nature — long before the environmental movement took hold in the United States.

For the next nearly 50 years, PWCC staff spent summers taking busloads of youth to Camp Katharine Parsons every day, exposing generations of Northside kids to camp experiences, a time-honored and critical piece of Minnesota’s cultural heritage. There, campers from the PWCC community learned valuable life skills that prepared them for success as adults; they experienced nature and all of its benefits for the mind and body; and they found mentorship, guidance, stability, safety, and structure. Some campers went on to become camp counselors and then leaders in the wider Minnesota community, in just the same way that many other Minnesota children have.

In the early 2000’s, the Camp’s infrastructure fell into disrepair and PWCC ended the summer sessions out of concern for children’s safety. Since then, sadly, PWCC was unable to sustain the beautiful property and its buildings, utilizing it only occasionally for special events. Leadership at PWCC sought many times to revive and restore the camp but were pulled away by other unforeseen circumstances requiring more critical intervention in North Minneapolis (such as the national recession in 2008 and the devastating tornado of 2011).

The camp stands as a testament to its importance to the community, as, remarkably, PWCC has retained ownership of Camp Katharine Parsons throughout difficult financial times. During that time, the property has grown into a wildlife refuge for all sorts of birds and plant life. And a refuge it shall remain — today, PWCC is committed, through an agreement with the Minnesota Land Trust, to preserve 90% of the property as a natural resource and restore the other 10% to its original purpose of serving our community and providing educational outreach to our Carver County neighbors.

With PWCC’s impending centennial celebration and a statewide focus on environmental justice and equity, the time is ripe to see the camp through to its full restoration, in keeping with modern safety standards, zoning, and environmental restrictions. A full generation of young people have now missed out on the opportunities that their parents and grandparents had — to thrive and build awareness and appreciation for the greater Minnesota outdoors, along with community values and leadership skills.

Our goal is to provide the critical enrichment experiences and outdoor adventures the camp once offered youth and families from our community. This offering was mostly in the form of summer day camps, with limited overnight camping experiences, and we do not intend to exceed that scope. In undertaking the restoration of our camp, we honor and recognize Phyllis Wheatley's long history of working for equity and equality, creating opportunity where there was none, and helping people find their natural skills and build upon them.

The Settlement House movement provided the resources to aid in the development of responsible, committed citizens. At Camp Katharine Parsons, we will create a pathway for youth, teens, and young adults to discover their individual strengths and love for the outdoors.

We take pride in PWCC's heritage in the outdoors and camping spaces, and its commitment to environmental equity, begun over 80 years ago, and now revived. As a movement toward the reclamation of outdoor spaces by BIPOC people gathers momentum nationwide, PWCC is reaching back to its historical roots in providing leadership through the restoration of its long-cherished Camp Katharine Parsons. Bringing that dream to fruition will help revive the social health and well-being of our equally beloved PWCC community members, reuniting them with their natural roots in Minnesota's majestic outdoors.

Be a part of the restoration of Camp Katharine Parsons and help build a generation of healthy, productive, happy future leaders.

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