Back to Summerlane

Editor's note: In the heated summer of 1963, when racial turmoil was erupting all across the South, Camp Summerlane — an experimental, radical-for-its-time venture — was launched near the tiny town of Rosman, about 10 miles southwest of Brevard.

On the move: With their bus' front window still shattered from a shotgun blast, a band of Summerlane's campers are seen here shortly after they survived the siege in Rosman. They relocated to a New Jersey camp. photo courtesy Wisconsin Historical Society

A mere week after the integrated camp opened, incensed locals attacked Summerlane and ran it out of North Carolina. Lurid rumors of free love, nudism and communism proved to be the combustible mix, inciting residents of an easygoing mountain town to lay siege to a camp full of unsuspecting children.

Mountain Xpress resurrected Summerlane's obscure history with a four-part investigative series in 2008. Former Xpress Managing Editor Jon Elliston is now writing a book about the incident. His continuing research has turned up key details concerning this harrowing culture clash. (To view the original stories as well as newly discovered materials, go to http://www.mountainx.com/cruelsummer.)

A camp in the cross hairs

From the beginning, Camp Summerlane set out to be something decidedly different. All participants, from the youngest camper to the oldest staffer, would have an equal say in choosing daily activities. It would also bring an interracial mix to an area that had been bleached white for decades.

In the end, the camp hosted only a pair of mixed-race sisters, but their mere presence was enough to send some Rosman residents reeling. In May of 1963, a U.S. District Court judge in Asheville had ruled that Transylvania County's remaining all-white junior and senior public high schools must integrate by the following fall. Meanwhile, an advance team of about 10 Summerlane staffers arrived to prepare the 100-acre campus for the opening in early July.

At first, Summerlane seemed to have established a safe haven in the South, but as hard facts and outlandish rumors spread among Rosman’s roughly 500 all-white residents, it set the stage for the camp’s untimely demise. And while fear of racial mixing was clearly the main fuel for the attack, a flurry of other worries also provided kindling. Some locals, viewing Summerlane as a den of assorted iniquities, resolved to evict the campers from the community, even if by taking extraordinary measures.

The late Carter McCall, then Transylvania County’s sheriff, supported the move to banish Summerlane, according to one of the attackers and a state Highway Patrol report. Rumors of atheism, free love and nudism inflamed local residents, he told reporters later. But the presence of black campers was the final straw. “When they brought in Negroes and told it over town before they did it, they were inviting trouble,” said McCall. “We never had any trouble until they brought in the colored people and integrated the camp.”

Mapping the attack: Summerlane’s dean/science instructor Leo Koch kept this sketch and added notes on key events in the camp’s demise, including arson, assaults and gunfire.

No one died in the violence at Camp Summerlane. But nearly 50 years later, the beatings, burnings and gunfire are still seared into survivors’ memories, and the story of what happened that summer — stitched together out of documents, interviews, old news clips and newly discovered photos — is finally coming alive.

A simmering storm

Among the early arrivals was Leo Koch, Summerlane's dean/science instructor.

A former assistant professor of biology, Koch was fired by the University of Illinois in 1961 for condoning premarital sex in a letter to the student newspaper. The episode sparked a legal battle over free speech in academia, which Koch ultimately lost when the U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear his appeal in the fall of 1963.

In the interim, however, the case occasionally cropped up in the national news, and it figured prominently in anti-Summerlane literature that helped incite the attack. Six weeks before the camp opened, Koch arrived with his wife and one of his sons, and throughout the summer he was a prolific correspondent. Koch’s candid typewritten letters to friends, family members and professional contacts — obtained by Xpress from an archive of his papers and published here for the first time — chronicle the simmering storm that ultimately destroyed the camp.

At first, Koch wrote mostly about the area’s natural beauty and the hard labor needed to bring the camp up to code. “Lots of heavy work, digging, carpentering, general repair of drains, buildings, ponds, etc.” he wrote to friends on June 19. “Lots of fun though.” In another letter the same day, he judged the spot “a nice place for a peaceful summer.”

Trouble was already brewing, though. Attending a Brevard Chamber of Commerce meeting that same week, Koch noted “some concern about our admitting negroes to the camp. It seems that Rosman hasn’t allowed a negro to stay in town overnight for the last 60 years. Of course just 12 miles away [in Brevard], the schools are integrated without any incident whatsoever.”

But Rosman was hardly Brevard, as the Summerlaners soon learned. In a letter to one of his daughters shortly before camp opened, Koch wrote: “A gang of local yokels has told us that if we bring any niggers here they will kill them.”; The group, he reported, was “loaded with white lightning.” (Some Summerlaners say they got a taste of the area’s active moonshine culture during happier moments.)

“So we bought a six-shooter, a rifle and shotgun and now we sleep with them at our sides,” Koch’s letter continued. “When camp opens we may have trouble but we hope our trouble-shooters will handle it.”

Koch later drafted a detailed narrative of the camp’s trial by fire, which was never published. In it, he wrote that Rosman’s mayor told him about the town’s “fifty-some year old tradition of racial discrimination. The last Negro who stayed overnight in Rosman died there. This confidential report was corroborated independently and matter-of-factly by Sheriff Carter McCall.”

The day before the attack on the camp, Koch’s account notes a final round of warnings: “July 10, mountaineers assembled along the road bordering Summerlane Camp. They were rumoring: ‘Those people have six nigger families hiding up in them hills and are going to bring them out in September to integrate the Rosman High School.’ Another rumor being spread was: ‘Those people are bringing two buses of Negroes in tonight.’”

And so, Koch wrote, "The plot was complete and the stage set for violence."

Monitored at Midvale

The violence erupted the night of July 11: Two buildings were burned, counselors and campers were beaten, and gunfire echoed into the wee hours. The attackers even doused two lakes with gasoline and set them aflame. Eventually, state Highway Patrol officers arrived to quell the assault.

Early the next morning, Camp Summerlane’s residents hastily accepted the patrol’s offer of an armed escort to the North Carolina/Virginia border. After a restless, 60-hour road trip during which they gradually surrendered about half their number to anxious parents, the remaining kids and counselors disembarked at Camp Midvale, a left-wing retreat in Ringwood, N.J., that had operated since 1921. Summerlane already had a satellite operation there that included a half-dozen African-American campers sent to Midvale because they were considered too black to be safe in Rosman.

It proved to be a brief respite, however: After three weeks, Summerlane relocated again.

Midvale had its own problems, including local hostility and federal surveillance. The FBI had long been watching the camp, which hosted children and families from the Northeastern wing of the labor and civil rights movements.

On Aug. 5, the Newark, N.J., FBI office updated Director J. Edgar Hoover on Summerlane’s status. A detailed, confidential report obtained under the Freedom of Information Act summarized press coverage of the camp’s hurried move, noting that a “Summerlane School might be located in Ringwood in the future.” The memo said it was “submitted for information purposes and no investigation will be conducted by Newark concerning Summerlane.”

But that wasn’t exactly true: As the bureau continued to monitor Midvale, its agents recorded and investigated the license-plate numbers of the vehicles that shuttled Summerlane from North Carolina to New Jersey, those same declassified records show. The FBI also noted that mere weeks after Southern racists ejected Summerlane, Northern neo-Nazis picketed Midvale.

Transitioning from a summer recreational facility to a year-round school, Summerlane moved on to two campuses in New York state during the next two years before relocating to Florida, with assorted controversies dogging it along the way.

Waiting for Godivas

Meanwhile, back in Rosman, the Summerlane saga had a brief, bizarre coda that played on some of the community's worst fears.

In the wake of the attack, numerous news outlets reported some locals’ concern about reputed nudism at the camp (which proved to be mostly unfounded, though some counselors allow that they might have gone skinny-dipping before the camp opened). But a nudist prankster seized the opportunity to poke fun at the paranoia, putting Mayor Austin Hogsed on the alert again.

Hogsed, now deceased, had made no secret of his distaste for the camp. His daughter, Sharon Hogsed (who still lives in Rosman), was a young girl at the time, but she vividly recalls her father’s concern before and after Summerlane evacuated. As she remembers it, the campers “threatened to bring Lady Godiva riders into Rosman on horses.”

Strange as that might sound, Mayor Hogsed did have some reason to fear a procession of nudes down main street. A week after Summerlane left town, he received a letter from California resident Robert Clogher, then one of the country’s most prominent advocates of nudism. Clogher offered a naked threat, telling Hogsed that the town would soon be visited by "more Lady Godivas than your policemen can shake a nightstick at." The spectacle, Clogher wrote, would be in retaliation for the ouster of Camp Summerlane (which, Clogher falsely asserted, was a chapter of his quixotic nudist organization, The Perfect Christian Divine Way Inc).

“You can count on the most dramatic, non-violent demonstration you can imagine, occurring very shortly in Rosman, with the demonstrators emulating Isaiah 20,” Clogher wrote. (A favorite among Christian nudists, that chapter exhorts: “Go and loose the sackcloth from thy loins, and put the shoe from thy foot.”

Keeping track: The FBI filed secret reports on Summerlane as it relocated to Camp Midvale in New Jersey. This is the first page of a memo from the bureau's Newark office to Director J. Edgar Hoover.

Nudists, Clogher prophesied, would descend on prudish Rosman “like a swarm of locusts.”

The nudists never came, but the threat pointed up the potential for genuine local problems stemming from the attack. "There have been serious talks going on ever since the Camp Summerlane episode, as town and county officials ponder the impact of the unfavorable publicity the area received over the invasion of the camp," a local reporter noted in an article prompted by the apocryphal Lady Godivas.

Mayor Hogsed said he wasn’t too worried, adding, “We’ll have some more meetings and try to figure out what to do.”

The Transylvania Times, the county’s newspaper of record, had editorialized strongly against Summerlane, but after Clogher's nudist missive made a splash, the paper published a satirical column that poked gentle fun at Rosman.

Transylvania “was shocked, then indignant, then vindictive as she discovered a colony of nudists, beatniks and color transgressors festering on her slopes and angrily thrust them out, only to have them threaten an army of Lady Godivas riding back to haunt her,” the column observed. “No group of oddballs could find a more austere and straightlaced community to haunt.”

Second-guessing Summerlane

While some observers appreciated the humor in the situation, others made a heavier assessment. Though all the Summerlaners contacted by Xpress said they felt the attack was unjustified, some now say that with children’s lives potentially on the line, the camp should have heeded the warnings and relocated sooner.

That would certainly have spared Michael Goldblatt some pain. A camp counselor from New York state, Goldblatt was one of three young men who tried to exit the premises at the height of the attack to check on a staffer who was guarding a separate part of the camp. But an armed mob was blocking the exit, and as soon as Goldblatt and another counselor stepped out of their bus to try to negotiate, the group swarmed them.

“They beat the hell out me,” Goldblatt recalls. Briefly knocked unconscious by punches and kicks to the head, he sustained the worst injuries of anyone that night. Once revived, “I went back to the camp and got a gun,” says Goldblatt. “I had never held a gun before, but I felt murderous at that point and I wanted to kill them. Luckily, I kept my head.”

And though he has no love for his attackers, Goldblatt now believes the camp’s leaders should have realized they were in the wrong place at the wrong time. “It was all a mistake. … We were too young, and we didn’t have enough appreciation of the local people and the way they were. They thought we were trodding on their beliefs and morals.

“It could have been handled better, with more maturity,” he adds. “We shouldn’t have flaunted our new ways of thinking in their faces, period. That was a major mistake.”

Summerlane’s director, George von Hilsheimer, concedes that the organizers were “insanely idealistic” in trying to set up shop in a secluded corner of the South. But they were as mindful of and responsive to the threats as they could have been, he maintains, and in girding up to deal with them, he drew on his experiences as a Baptist preacher and an Army veteran.

“We anticipate a few problems,” among them “the reaction to our pathetic ‘integration,’” von Hilsheimer wrote in The Realist magazine shortly before the attack. But overall, he concluded, “We feel confident to cope.”

Fifteen-year-old Eve Olitski, one of many Jewish campers who hailed from in and around New York City, learned a lot about coping that night. She remembers huddling in a cabin while men with flashlights and rifles came through the creaky wooden door, hollering, "Where are the niggers?"

It was a surreal, bracing and transformative experience, Olitski says now. And though she drew many valuable lessons from it — about the virulence of racism and the importance of the civil rights movement, along with more personal insights about what it means and takes to be "different" — she also believes Summerlane should have cleared out as signs of local hostility mounted.

The camp’s directors “had the warnings but, idiots that they were, they went ahead and decided to bring Jews and Negroes, as they were called then, into a Ku Klux Klan society,” Olitski declares. “They didn’t want our kind there.”

Marching on Washington

Six weeks later, Summerlane found a measure of redemption when its remaining campers witnessed an event that would ultimately herald the triumph of the civil rights movement. On Aug. 28, 1963, a quarter-million people — including some 30 Summerlaners — assembled at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Blacks and whites of all ages joined in common cause while Martin Luther King Jr. gave his historic "I Have a Dream" speech, and a young Bob Dylan and gospel legend Mahalia Jackson sang songs of liberation.

In Super 8 film footage 13-year-old camper Andrew Weiss shot that day, the Summerlaners seem relaxed and jubilant, considering their recent trials. And stenciled across the front of their still bullet-scarred bus are two words: “Love” and “Joy.”

[Asheville-based writer Jon Elliston can be contacted at jonelliston@gmail.com.]

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About Jon Elliston
An Asheville-based mountain journalist: Former Mountain Xpress managing editor. Investigations and open government editor at Carolina Public Press. Senior contributing editor at WNC magazine.

One thought on “Back to Summerlane

  1. Stephen Jones

    In the spitit of settingthwe record straight regarding remarks made by George von Hilsheimer recounted here, it should be noted that in the years following the events in Rosman von Hilsheimer frequently proclaimed, (often in the form of braggadocio), to me and to many others that he wanted a confrontation with the local racists in Rosman.

    As it was during the 10 years follwing the Rosman affair before his ‘schools’ were closed amidst scandal and disgrace, there was never really much indication the welfare of the kids placed in his care was ever a forethought or a prominent element in his thinking at Rosman either.

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