GADSDEN, Alabama (AP) _ The throngs filling campgrounds across America this past holiday weekend included hardy outdoors types and those who prefer creature comforts, but they have at least one important thing in common: Nearly all of them are white.
A small but committed group of campers is trying to change that by growing a generation of black campers, one person at a time.
The National African-American RVers Association is composed almost exclusively of black people who camp, although it includes a few whites and Hispanics. The group doesn't have much money to buy ads or solicit new members.
Instead, it always holds its major national gathering in July when schools are out so children and grandchildren can come along.
“We cater mostly to the family so that our young people will be able to grow up understanding the outside world and seeing the creation that God has created for us and how beautiful it is,'' said the Rev. John Womack of Boston, the group's president.
Getting more blacks into the woods would mean breaking decades of stereotypes and overcoming a long-standing leeriness that members say many have about camping. Bad things happen to black people in the woods, the story goes, and they can't afford recreational vehicles.
At least that's the way Lawrence Joseph always heard it, and it all gets a chuckle from him as he shows off his 32-foot (nearly 10-meter) Winnebago Brave, one of about 160 campers packed into the River Country Campground for the Southern regional rally of the black campers' association. Joseph bought his RV four years ago seeking the same things that draws whites to camp.
“I like the closeness, the friendship. You meet people from different venues, from different professions,'' he said. “I have two kids, and it gets them out of the house from playing video games.''
Womack and his wife Bertha got hooked on camping years ago during a cross-country trip with their three children in 1983. He said outdoors recreation wasn't very practical or attractive to blacks for generations.
“In the early years we didn't have the resources to camp. We didn't have the time off to camp,'' said Womack. “And for many people, life itself was camping. Our homes were like tents. We weren't anxious to run from one set of woods to the next.''
Lemuel Horton, Southern regional director for the black campers' group, said that for years many blacks were simply afraid to camp.
“They felt like a black person out by yourself just wasn't personally safe,'' said Horton, of Decatur, Ga. “But traveling all over the United States and Canada since the 1970s, I've had no problem.''
Joseph said the idea of camping creates an uneasiness among some blacks that's strong enough to prevent many from ever venturing into the outdoors, yet difficult to explain.
“It's just a feeling that it's not somewhere they ought to be,'' said Joseph.
A survey commissioned by industry groups estimated that as many as 30 million Americans have camped, but only 300,000 of them are black, said Linda Profaizer, president of the National Association of RV Parks & Campgrounds.
States including Washington and California have launched programs to get minorities interested in outdoors recreation including camping, and so has the National Park Service.
Longtime park ranger Shelton Johnson, who is black, said he began telling the story of black buffalo soldiers at Yosemite National Park in California partly to lure more black visitors. Johnson has seen more minority visitors in recent years, but there's still not many.
“As far as I'm concerned it's a major issue,'' said Johnson. “As the so-called browning of America goes on, if black people and other people of color aren't visiting campgrounds and parks, how is the National Park Service going to reach the public in the future?''
Founded by a small group of enthusiasts 16 years ago, the National African-American RVers Association has about 3,000 member families nationwide. Most are in the warm-weather South, and hundreds of rigs show up at regional gatherings called rallies.
Walk around a campground filled with black people and it's a lot like being in a campground filled with whites. Members arrive in everything from small, Katrina-style trailers to plush motor homes that sell for more than $1 million. Friends sit in lawn chairs between campers telling stories and laughing while kids fish and ride bicycles. Cooking is a daylong activity.
Gladys Curtis of Houston is active in both NAARVA and mostly white camping groups, and she has noticed at least one difference between the way the races camp.
“When we go to the (white) rallies we hear a lot of country and western,'' said Curtis, president of a black camping group from Texas. “We've had a Motown review, big band, blues. Not a lot of country.''
On the Net: National African-American RVers Association, http://www.naarva.com