In April 1963, seven Camp Summerlane staff members journeyed to Western North Carolina from assorted points around the country. “The dogwoods were just starting to bloom,” one of them remembers, and at first, springtime in the mountains seemed to offer a welcoming setting for the new camp.
Granted, there was much work to be done to prepare the facility—an inactive summer camp about 15 miles southwest of Brevard, near the tiny town of Rosman. Fifty-some children, along with 10 or so additional adult staffers, would be arriving in July.
And while they would need the usual amenities for a summer of hiking, swimming, roasting marshmallows and such, Summerlane was also preparing to implement an unusual social experiment: At this camp, children and adults would be given an equal say in determining most camp rules and activities. There was also a social-service component, as some of the older campers would be doing outreach work with migrant laborers. And even as civil-rights battles flared around the South that summer, children of all races were invited to attend.
Tomm Friend was snoozing in his cabin when gunfire and the whoosh of flames pierced the night quiet. “I was awakened by a blast,” Friend remembers 45 years later. That summer, the 15-year-old was attending a camp on the outskirts of Rosman, N.C., a small mountain town about a dozen miles southwest of Brevard.
Dressing quickly, Friend bolted into the dark. “I ran down in the direction of the blast, and a woman dropped out of a tree with a machete, right in front of me,” he recalls. Recognizing her as a camp counselor, a relieved Friend blurted out that they knew each other—that he was with the camp, not the mob that was assaulting it.
“She was basically hiding in a tree, protecting children. She had a machete because she didn’t have a gun,” Friend explains; the camp’s few firearms were in other hands. “Then she told me to be careful and climbed back into the tree.”
The camper pressed on, as shouts and gunshots split the hum and gurgle of crickets and streams. Down a hill, in the cove near the camp’s entrance, Friend came upon a surreal scene: A small lake was on fire, the flames wafting across the water.
When Jon Elliston’s investigative series, Cruel Summer: The Attack on Camp Summerlane, was published in 2008, Xpress posted 14 key documents from the camp, the N.C. governor’s office and law-enforcement agencies, which are posted below. Our July 2010 followup story, Back to Summerlane, added new records to the collection, which are interspersed below and marked […]
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