Juan is the son of 90-year-old Herman Flora. Herman was there to watch his grandson, Juan’s son Justice Flora, become an Eagle Scout.
As parents fussed with their sons’ neckerchiefs and straightened badge-heavy sashes, Scoutmaster Ben Taylor went over the time-honored choreography for the soon-to-be-Eagles: Enrique Evans, 18; Johnathan Batts, 16; brothers Jalen Mack, 17, and Nicholas Mack, 16; and Justice, 17.
Herman took a seat near the front.
Guest speaker Gregory Robinson, program director for NASA’s James Webb space telescope, talked about how when he was growing up in segregated Danville, Va., the public high school had three curricular tracks: academic, vocational and general. Black students like him were shunted into the vocational and general tracks. Rather than accepting that, Robinson just started taking a seat in advanced math classes.
Don’t let anyone turn you around from your dreams, Robinson counseled. “America has many good things to offer you,” he said.
It was the last day of Black History Month, and Robinson’s speech resonated with Troop 29, all of whose members are African American.
Taylor walked to the microphone for the part of the ceremony that was inscrutably labeled in the program “Special Presentations.”
Taylor sketched a quick history of Scouting and about the obstacles black Boy Scouts once faced. In parts of the country, especially the Deep South, Scout troops were segregated, the result of local custom.
There was a particular impediment to boys who wanted to reach the pinnacle of Scouting, as these five young men had done. Eagle Scout status required the swimming merit badge, and that badge could be earned only in a regulation-sized swimming pool. In many Southern cities, those pools were off-limits to African Americans.
Herman turned to his family. “That sounds like my story,” he said.
It was. Taylor introduced Herman, and as the crowd rose to its feet and applauded, Justice led his grandfather to the podium.
Herman joined the Boy Scouts in Norfolk in 1943. At the time, there was no pool in the area that allowed blacks to swim. There was the river, but that didn’t meet the merit badge requirements. He earned other badges, but the swimming badge eluded him.
Even so, he stuck with Scouting. In 1944, Scouts of the Tidewater Council were asked whether they would head to Virginia’s Eastern Shore to pick vegetables. The Caribbean workers that normally performed those jobs couldn’t come that year.
Herman went, bonding with the other Scouts. Some talked about going to college, something he had never considered.
He later learned that some black Scouts were using the pool at the Norfolk Navy base for their swimming test, but by that time, he had lied about his age and enlisted in the Army. He was 16.
In the Army, Herman kept remembering what some of those Boy Scouts had said: College was the place for them. After the Army, he went to Howard University and earned a business degree. He embarked on a successful career in Washington real estate.
“Scouting did so much for me,” he said. “It ignited me.”
Troop 29 has turned into something of an Eagle Scout incubator under Scoutmaster Taylor. Saturday’s ceremony raised to 15 the number of Eagle Scouts who have been promoted in the past three years.
Among them, the five latest Eagle Scouts earned 142 merit badges. Their Eagle Scout projects were impressive:
Enrique conducted a seminar on financial management for graduating high school seniors. Justice collected 1,000 pairs of shoes to send to a school in Sierre Leone. Johnathan designed and constructed bike racks for the Largo/Kettering/Perrywood Community Center. Nicholas managed a fire safety seminar with the help of the Silver Hill Volunteer Fire Department. Jalen put together a scholarship workshop, informing middle schoolers of college funding opportunities.
And they did a lot of camping and a lot of hiking — swimming, too. Justice earned his swimming merit badge at the Henson Scouting Reservation on Maryland’s Eastern Shore.
Justice presented his grandfather with a shadow box filled with pieces of his Scouting past, including a hat and fabric patches from the 1940s, his membership cards and a black-and-white photo of him in his uniform. The Tidewater Council also sent a letter thanking him for his devotion to Scouting.
“He could have been bitter,” Taylor told me later. But Herman wasn’t. He never stopped believing in the Boy Scouts.
“It is what made me what I am,” Herman said.
For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/john-kelly.