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Issue #1932      September 14, 2020

Review: Tales Of Wo-Chi-Ca: Blacks, Whites And Reds At Camp

By June Levine And Gene Gordon

Having always revered the great Paul Robeson, I found this book on a possibly little-known part of his life extremely relevant during this painful time in America’s history which has given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Wo-Chi-Ca was the abbreviation for the Workers’ Children’s Camp, an interracial co-educational summer vacation camp in New Jersey, sponsored by the International Workers’ Order, a left-wing insurance plan of the pre-World War II years.

The camp was made up of the summer vacation homes designed for people with ties to the Communist Party and were originally inter-generational. However, realising that young people needed their own summer community, the first interracial camp was set up in 1934, after a New Jersey farmer and his wife donated 127 acres of land. It began as “Camp Unity,” supported by the communist party in the United States, but was later called the Workers’ Children’s Camp or Wo-Chi-Ca for short.

It operated for twenty years in the “wilds” of New Jersey, and became an ideal world of its own for the thousands of young children of all races and nationalities, most of whom were from the crowded, poverty-stricken areas of New York. Their time at the Camp was a high point in their lives, until forced out of existence by a combination of the McCarthyite forces during the height of the Cold War in 1954 and the Poliovirus.

The turmoil of the times during the camp’s existence provides an invisible thread throughout the book, but for me the highlight is the humanity of Robeson which shines through. He was an African American with a powerful bass baritone voice that delighted the world. Born into a Quaker family in 1898, Robeson spent his life fighting for peace and equality, becoming the target of “witch hunters” in America during the Cold War years, when many artists were ruined because of their political affiliations – real or otherwise.

Robeson first went to the Camp in 1940, but returned every year to sing and take part in their activities. He was a man of many talents and passions: an accomplished concert singer and recording artist, an athlete and actor, as well as being active in the civil rights movement.

But aside from Robeson, many other artists, such as Charles White, Canada Lee, Kenneth Spencer, Pearl Primus, Ernest Crichlow, Elizabeth Catlett, Jacob Lawrence, Rockwell Kent, and political figures such as Mother Bloor, Albert Kahn, Howard Fast and Dr Edward Barsky, also went to the camp, sharing their experiences and struggles to change the world.

The book – published July 2002 by Avon Springs Press – is a compendium of personal memories, along with accounts of daily life at a camp that stressed interracial harmony and respect, and social and political consciousness, combined with cultural, sports, and varied other recreational activities. The authors are June Levine, whose dream it was to write a book about Camp Wo-Chi-Ca, and her partner Eugene (Gene) Gordon formerly a reporter for the Daily Worker. In their book, Levine and Gordon say that “Half a century has flown since Wo-Chi-Ca folded its tents forever, and yet Wo-Chi-Ca lives on, not only as a long-lost utopia or childhood dream, but in lifelong principles and progressive ideals.”

It re-awakened my memories of Cuba, where children from many different ethnic backgrounds are educated in a society proud of its egalitarian principles.

Next article – Now is not the time to scale back Jobkeeper

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