Grow bags with young kale. St. Sabina buildings in background.

Histories for EE in Chicago, Illinois

"The cold, bitter and icy winter is almost over. There are a few signs of spring. The winter winds have calmed a little, the sun is shining beautifully, thawing out ground. And the life that has been inactive all Winter has finally started on its way again toward an unknown destination, some of our birds that make their Winter home in the South are flying homeward again to the North."

—African American enrollee in the Civilian Conservation Corps, late March 1937, as quoted in Landscapes of Hope

In this blog post celebrating Black history, we take a look at access to environmental education and nature for Black Chicagoans. This is one intimate look, but one among thousands that are frequently forgotten in lived experience. How can we, as environmental educators, better share the histories of landscapes?

The Lakefront

Chicago’s summer is a reward for those who have endured the cruel winter. However short it is, joining the happy swimmers, cyclists, and picnickers at the glistening lakefront makes one forget all previous doubts about their chosen residence. 

Yet the lakefront has not always been a space for everyone to embrace the sunshine. In 1919, “of the eight public bathing beaches, three were in Black communities. But the city’s white residents expected Black Chicagoans to confine themselves to just one of these – the 26th Street beach,” writes Dr. Dorceta Taylor in “Dying to swim in Chicago: Race riots and the ‘Red Summer’ of 1919.” As the summer heat swelled, "the Chicago Defender and the Whip, two of Chicago’s leading Black newspapers, encouraged Black Chicagoans to make use of the other public beaches as well,” appropriately seeing these as “democratic spaces that should be enjoyed by all residents of the city,” Dr. Taylor further tells.

While an extended read of Dr. Taylor’s article is highly recommended, I will skip to the painful date of July 27, 1919. Eugene Williams, a seventeen-year-old African American, recent graduate, and well-liked grocery store porter, headed to the 26th Street beach with four friends. They boarded a raft and paddled out towards the 29th Street beach. Spotted from afar, a white man began throwing stones at Eugene and his friends. Eugene was hit on the head, and fatally drowned. When a Black police officer attempted to arrest George Stauber, the man accused to have thrown the stones, a white cop intervened and justice was never served. This event led to a week of race riots and the deeming of the summer of 1919 as the “Red Summer,” as well as increased use of racist policies as reported in this Time article.

In Landscapes of Hope, Brian McCammack refers to an excerpt from Dempsey Travis’ An Autobiography of Black Chicago, writing:

The race riot undoubtedly and justifiably cast a shadow over black Chicago’s relationship with outdoor recreational space for generations; one South Side resident who was born the year after the riot recalled that, for his parents who refused to swim after that day in 1919, the “blue lake always had a tinge of red from the blood of that young black boy.” 

Nature holds histories of racial violence, and this can’t be ignored in environmental education.

Organizations like Outdoor Afro reestablish Black connection to nature, providing regional opportunities for community such as the Chicago and Northwest Indiana chapter. National efforts such as National Wildlife Foundation’s Safe Spaces Initiative are also underway to provide support for environmental educators who are engaging with difficult but needed topics, and NAAEE’s webinar with Youth Outside is a useful resource for program design.

Camp Wabash

The Great Migration was a mass movement beginning in 1915 of over 7 million African Americans who left the South, heading north or west. For many, Chicago was the "Promised Land”—a place abound with opportunity for jobs, education, and fame. But the urban landscape of Chicago, with the exception of the lakefront and Washington Park, was a harsh and dreary contrast to the lush flora of the South. 

In response, the segregated Wabash Avenue YMCA (which  founded the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History from which Black History Month stems) worked in conjunction with Boy Scout troops and churches in South Side to run a summer camp for African American boys that would provide swimming, hiking, fishing, and other outdoor recreational activities.

In Landscapes of Hope, McCammack writes that by 1925, Camp Wabash was so popular that it owned its own space. Embracing the philosophy of Booker T. Washington, an orchard and large truck garden was planted to provide for the daily camp meals. Not only did campers benefit physically from the produce, as well as learn how to plant, harvest, and can vegetables, but also the camp fees cost much less than any other camp in Chicago. A 1932 report quoted by McCammack shares how several campers experienced “how to live out next to nature, secure their food, make friends with the animals, and learn about the many varieties of wild flowers and trees.” 

Meanwhile, Ada S. McKinley, an African American social reformer who founded the South Side Settlement House (SSSH) in Chicago, established a Camp Fire Girls chapter to provide outdoor recreation opportunities for local girls.

Moving Forward

Some embrace environmental education because of a love for nature, others because of its impact on health and wellbeing. Environmental education is a fantastic space to teach civic engagement, and is all the more important as climate concerns weigh heavy.

At its best, environmental education works alongside environmental justice, reducing the inequities that make environmental education itself less equitable. However, Chicago provides a case study of when environmental education distracts from justice. In Landscapes of Hope, McCammack finds:

One [Chicago Parks District] report contended that although the parks were “originally intended to conserve health,” officials had since decided that “in times of general irritation and unrest, the parks have been a steadying influence. No radical or revolutionary movements have gained foothold among those busy in parks schedules of recreation.”

The recreational programming, which included lessons on birdhouse building and sandcastle competitions in addition to conventional sports, sounds enjoyable and wonderful. But it does not eliminate the sinister implications that recreational use of public green space was intended to distract, not empower.

Today, however, environmental education walks hand in hand with opportunity and justice. While many suburban families took to victory gardening this past summer to supplement groceries, Chicago families lacked access to uncontaminated soil. In response, the grassroots collective Chicago Grows Food distributed grow kits, predominately to Black and Latino communities in Chicagoland. The Black-and women-led Urban Growers Collective is mitigating food insecurity through its agricultural services and is directing the Green Era Project, a nine-acre renewable energy and urban farming campus to be built in Auburn Gresham. People for Community Recovery, founded by the “Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement,” Hazel M. Johnson, is now run by her daughter, Cheryl Johnson, and provides environmental education and other resources to bring environmental justice to far South-East Side. Blacks in Green, led by Naomi Davis, is promoting energy efficiency, green jobs, and sustainability in Chicago’s Black communities.