Mobile student is the first Black female Eagle Scout in Alabama: ‘A lot of people are looking at me’ –

Science & Technology

Jakayla Armstrong is Alabama's first Black female Eagle Scout. She is from Mobile, Alabama, joined Scouts BSA in 2019 and achieved her rank in April 2022. Credit D’Ambro Chapman / Mobile Mayor’s Office
Jakayla Armstrong was initially caught off-guard when a church member asked her if she’d ever consider joining what he called Boy Scouts.
“At first, I was skeptical,” said Mobile’s Murphy High School senior, who was already juggling two jobs, early college classes, three sports, honor societies and – on top of all that – Girl Scouts.
But after some hesitation, Armstrong agreed. She took time off of work that summer to attend Camp Maubila, a scouting camp in Mobile, where she prepared meals in the kitchen and eventually worked her way up to a troop leader.
Three years later, she’d become the first Black girl in Alabama to earn an Eagle Scout badge.
“She had to do everything the boys did: building fires, and sleeping out in the grass without a tent in a sleeping bag at night,” said her Scout Master, Fred Young, with Troop 283. “She would never let them intimidate her. She knew what she wanted, and she wanted to be an Eagle Scout.”
Making history
Eagle Scouts is the highest rank that a Scout can receive, and it can take years to complete all of the classes it requires. Eagle Scouts also are required to take on leadership roles within their troop and their community, and complete a community service project.
On average, about 6% of Scouts achieve the rank each year. And until recently, all of them were boys.
Boy Scouts of America, now called Scouts BSA, introduced its inaugural class of about 1,000 female Eagle Scouts in 2021, after formally allowing girls into the Cub Scouts in 2018 and into older troops in 2019.
In Alabama, Armstrong joins a wave of female members from every corner of the state to recently receive the honor.
“It’s still unbelievable, to be honest, and of course it’s an honor, but it also comes with a lot of pressure,” Armstrong said. “…A lot of people are looking at me.”
Young, the scout master, recruited Armstrong to their church’s troop in 2019. At the time, he had to register Armstrong as a Lone Scout, since she was the only girl in the troop. He had faith that Armstrong could handle scouting with 10 other boys, he said, but he was wary at first.
“Some boys didn’t want girls in the Boy Scouts,” he said. “And you have to be prepared for that.”
Young said a handful of girls have joined other troops in the area, but none are African American – and his troop is the only all-Black troop in the region.
For Armstrong, that first year in the program was a “very weird experience,” she said.
She was the only Black girl at the summer camp, where Scouts spend a couple of weeks bonding and taking classes together. And as she took on more leadership roles, Armstrong said she also struggled to gain respect from the boys, who sometimes called her “bossy.”
“I was really looked at as an outsider,” she said. “It was hard enough to keep up with my classes, let alone [the boys’]. It was a hard experience, but I’m also glad for that experience because it taught me a lot.”
‘It taught me a lot’
Eagle Scouts have to earn at least 21 merit badges, which help Scouts hone skills like personal management, values like citizenship and test athleticism.
Young said he was especially amazed at Armstrong’s archery skills – she managed to outshoot more than 100 Scouts and earn the highest honor in the class.
But she did have one weakness, he joked.
“The fishing was the worst one for her,” Young said, laughing. “She did not like gutting no fish. She had those little Latex gloves on and she still didn’t like it!”
Aside from cleaning fish and shooting arrows, Armstrong said she learned how to be a leader, and to be patient. She also learned a lot about her community, she said, while researching and preparing care packages for a local orphanage as part of her final service requirement.
“I don’t think a lot of people around me knew that there was even an orphanage in Mobile, because I didn’t even know,” she said. “So it was kind of like… not only can I help, but you can help, too.”
Mentors at Armstrong’s school said they weren’t surprised at all by the honor. Armstrong showed the same dedication and resilience at Scouts, they said, as she did in cheer practice, or in student government, or as an ambassador for the school.
“She will be able to do anything she wants to do in life, I think, with her dedication,” said Kim Finch, Armstrong’s cheer coach. “When she decides ‘I’m gonna do this,’ she does it, and that’s just who she is.”
So far, Armstrong has spoken to crowds big and small about her journey, and she’s received letters from Gov. Kay Ivey, and former U.S. Presidents Bill Clinton and Jimmy Carter, who congratulated her on her accomplishment.
Armstrong also has inspired other girls to follow her path, said Young, who decided to start another troop with the local Boys and Girls Club.
“They want to be Eagle Scouts now, because they met Jakayla and she’s talked to them and they see what they can achieve,” he said. “She’s opened the door for them, she really has.”
Opening the door
Eagle Scouts is a lifelong commitment, and it can come with long lasting benefits. Scouts can earn anywhere from $2,500 to $40,000 in scholarships from the national organization.
One Scout, Young said, recently received $10,000 to attend Tuskegee University. Others are working in the school system, or went on to the military, where they were automatically promoted to a higher rank after basic training because of their Scout affiliation.
“Once you put ‘Eagle Scout’ on any application, it opens doors for you that you never thought would be open,” he said.
But the national organization, which segregated many local troops for decades, has noted that it hasn’t always done a great job informing parents of color about the benefits of scouting.
A research firm hired by Scouts BSA found that Black, Hispanic and Asian American parents have an overall positive view of scouting, but say they lack knowledge about the program and feel disconnected from the scouting world.
Young has coached 15 members to become Eagle Scouts since he joined the staff in 1999, with Armstrong earning the most recent title.
Young believes the program has the potential to truly teach children how to accept and appreciate their differences, especially when various troops come together at camp.
“One thing that we try to instill in our kids is diversity,” he said. “That’s where you get to meet new friends, new people, you get to see different personalities. And you learn to deal with that because you’re with these people for a week at a time.”
The organization now provides diversity and inclusion training for its employees, and has recently boosted hiring and outreach efforts to help diversify its staff, according to a 2021 diversity report. It also recently announced a new merit badge that will require Scouts to “understand different perspectives and experiences, and learn how to encourage an inclusive and welcoming culture” in the organization.
Armstrong said she hopes the program will do more to let girls know that scouting isn’t just for boys. She also has some advice for other girls who might follow in her footsteps: “Don’t give up,” she said, and “aim high.”
“Don’t let people saying ‘Boy Scouts’ discourage you from joining scouting,” she said. “Because it’s full of great opportunities.”
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