Jul 3, 2023 - Culture

New documentary spotlights San Antonio summer camp for Black girls, one of first in nation

The documentary "Founder Girls" is streaming on Black Entertainment Television. Photo: Courtesy of Queen Collective

When Gaynell Sapenter Gainer was a teenager in the mid-1950s, she enjoyed both the fun (playing jokes on friends) and annoyances (using the outhouse) of summer camp.

  • When it came time to clean up from the Texas heat, she and the other girls would help fix each others' hair.

What they're saying: "We could feel comfortable in being ourselves," Sapenter Gainer tells Axios. "We didn't have to worry about our hair. We didn't have to worry about anybody criticizing our color, or how we expressed ourselves."

  • "There was a freedom in just being yourself and being around girls that looked like you," she says.

State of play: Sapenter Gainer attended what was then called Camp Elvira in Boerne. Opened in 1924, it was heralded as the first sleepaway camp for Black girls in the country, per a news release. The camp closed in the 1960s after founder Mattie Landry died.

  • Local nonprofit Black Outside, which reconnects Black youth to the outdoors, revived the camp in 2019 with the help of Sapenter Gainer. The week-long program called Camp Founder Girls is now housed at Morgan's Wonderland on the Northeast Side.

Driving the news: Sapenter Gainer told her story in a documentary about the summer camp, "Founder Girls," released last month on Black Entertainment Television and BET Her.

  • It follows the adventures of the summer 2022 campers in San Antonio while looking back at the original camp.
  • The documentary is part of the Queen Collective from Queen Latifah, a series of short films by female and nonbinary Black directors.

Why it matters: The camp gives Black girls a space made just for them where they can feel comfortable in their culture and identity, Alex Bailey, Black Outside founder, tells Axios. It ensures they are welcome in outdoor spaces that aren't always inclusive.

  • Sapenter Gainer attributes her accomplishments later in life to her time at the camp as a teenager, where she learned confidence and responsibility. She went on to found the radiology technology program at St. Philip's College, a Historically Black community college on the East Side, she says.

Details: Camp activities included basketball, jump rope, swimming, crafts and more, Sapenter Gainer says.

  • The food was simple — barbecue, hot dogs — but the kids were always excited to get biscuits or pancakes for breakfast.

Context: The camp opened with 75 campers in 1924. Over the decades, it grew to include a dining hall that could seat more than 150 and a recreation building with room for more than 300.

By the numbers: In 2019, the camp returned with 33 campers. Black Outside canceled the camp in 2020 due to the coronavirus pandemic. But by 2021, it had grown to 70-80 campers, Bailey says.

  • 2022 and 2023 saw about 160 campers each, Bailey says.

How it works: Families pay what they can, on a sliding scale, for girls to attend camp. Black Outside also funds the program through donations to offer scholarships to girls.

  • "Every kid deserves access to nature and the outdoors, especially the magic of summer camp," Bailey tells Axios.

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