The color of Scouting during World War II

Two photographs by John Rous for Office of War Information (from Farm Security Administration-OWI Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, call numbers LC-USW36-473 and LC-USW36-479, links below)
Two photographs by John Rous for Office of War Information (from Farm Security Administration-OWI Collection, Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division, call numbers LC-USW36-473 and LC-USW36-479, links below)

This year marks the one-hundredth birthday of the Boy Scouts of America. In a new guest post up today over at The Lazy Scholar, I discuss my nagging interest in the Scouts’ history and suggest some ways the digital archive can allow historians to pierce the organization’s own mythology and examine its place in American life. Have a look. (And my thanks to Stephen for the platform.)

One archival resource that I ran out of room to discuss in the post is the Prints and Photographs Online Catalog of the Library of Congress (LOC), which offers several hundred images of Boy Scout activities. Many of these were created by Office of War Information (OWI) photographers during World War II, and they hint that at how Scouting’s social composition became part of the government’s wartime propaganda effort. A 1942 image, taken by an OWI photographer at the Ida B. Wells Housing Project in Chicago, depicts the African American members of Troop 446. Others depict a multiracial group eating dinner at a Scout camp in New York and Portuguese American boys in New Bedford, MA.

Most striking are the two seen above. On the left: “colored, white and Chinese Boy scouts in front of the Capitol”, holding a poster celebrating the Allied coalition. On the right: a second photo of the same scene, including only the white boy. (The LOC metadata suggests a July 1941 date for the photographs, but that doesn’t seem right: both the OWI and the term “United Nations” originated in 1942.)

Although I don’t think he examines these specific photographs, George H. Roeder’s vividly-illustrated book The Censored War: American Visual Experience During World War Two (1993) establishes their context. The OWI made sophisticated use of photographic imagery—and distribution channels segmented by race and region—to celebrate social harmony on the home front without upsetting existing social arrangements. This pair of images offers powerful evidence that the Boy Scouts participated in both prongs of this effort.