Black Chicagoans, The Great Migration, and Nature

People playing chess in Washington Square Park, New York (Wikimedia Commons)

In Landscapes of Hope, author Brian McCammack brings together topics such as recreation, celebration, resistance, class conflict, protest, and activism.  McCammack firmly places these triumphs and struggles in the parks, resorts, camps, and wilderness spots in and around Chicago during the first wave of the Great Migration, 1910-1940, when the African American population sextupled from “44,000 to nearly 280,000” (p. 2). Particularly revealing is how integral places such as Washington Park were to the lived experiences of Black Chicagoans. This was a massive park where families were able to escape the ever-crowding tenements and environmental pollution while also enjoying sports and leisure time. The author effectively analyzes the experiences and connections to nature through extensive archival research and vivid quotations that focus on the hopefulness of the African American migrant population consistently pushing to expand the limits of freedom and respectability.

Along with moments of leisure, the parks and camps also became microcosms of the larger societal issues regarding race and class. During the early migration years in Washington Park, resistance to racial violence and threats from white Chicagoans were frequent until the later Depression years when segregation was reinforced by redlining and restrictive covenants. The Depression years exposed more intra-racial strife when working-class African Americans took notice of communist rallies in the park and became disconnected from the Black elites who favored a more traditional approach to combatting poverty. Through all of this, McCammack exposes multiple viewpoints to show how important and influential nature was to many African Americans in Chicago, regardless of race or class. McCammack argues that the everyday experiences in these natural spaces was important far beyond the “political proxy for racial inequalities: it was good in and of itself, freighted with multifaceted cultural significance” (7).

The book is organized into two parts. The first is The Migration Years, 1915-1929 and the second is The Depression Years, 1930-1940. Within these parts the chapters are arranged thematically by location(s) and their multiple uses. There is some variance to this organization in the last chapter which centers on the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC)  the various places. The first chapter focuses primarily on Washington Park which becomes a central reference point throughout the book. The park was located alongside the Black Belt, a primarily African American populated section of Chicago. Inside Washington Park, McCammack reveals a whole world that includes the sub-themes of the book such as recreation, resistance, activism, and most importantly a way for migrants to “in some small way, reconnect to the texture, flow, and sensory experience of lives and folkways they had left behind in the South” (19). Other places of analysis include several beaches and the small Jackson Park which was later expanded and renamed Madden Park through the efforts of Black reformers, also referenced throughout the book as the Black cultural elite. The second chapter centers on the elite segregated African American resort Idlewild along with campgrounds that varied by tuition or class. Chapter three centered more on political protests and activism especially in Washington Park during the Depression years. In chapter four, attention is given to an expanding number of campgrounds and how experiences varied depending on who operated them. The last chapter concentrates primarily on the Civilian Conservation Corps, a New Deal initiative that was presented by McCammack as problematic through its intended purpose of getting young people involved with healthy and rejuvenating aspects of nature while making money, contrasted with the lived experiences of African Americans who found it dismal and disheartening.

A major strength of the book is McCammack’s multiple perspectives in regard to how different groups connected with nature. When discussing Washington Park, the author shows how although the park was a refuge for all, it was experienced differently according to one’s race or class. African Americans resolved as a whole to fight against racial threats and violence by white Chicagoans. Black elites who lived close to the park in integrated neighborhoods sometimes had their houses bombed unlike working-class Black Chicagoans who lived farther away from the park in more segregated areas. At the same time, working-class migrants were criticized by the Black cultural elite who often “paternalistically policed behavioral boundaries” such as folk music and dancing in the park (21). McCammack constructively presented these types of multiple viewpoints throughout every chapter. Another example of multiple perspectives is shown in the various campgrounds mentioned in chapters two and four. McCammack explains that some official reports from the YMCA and other organizations promoted the healthy and productive aspects of camping and nature, but individual quotations from campers often disclosed dissatisfied and/or racially charged experiences.

Another notable strength includes McCammack’s follow-up or return to places such as Washington Park, camps, and Cook County Forest Preserves in part two of the book. This is done  to show the evolution of how nature was experienced in certain places, putting it into context with the changing times. Washington Park became less integrated during the Depression years through redlining and restrictive covenants in the surrounding neighborhoods and primarily utilized by African Americans. McCammack notes how this decreased racial violence in the park. Moreover, the music and dancing that was previously deemed inappropriate by the Black cultural elite was now acceptable. Washington Park also became the sight of many rallies and protests for the working-class which caused nervous government agencies and reformers to build and expand in several parks, including new pools in Washington and Madden Park, in an attempt to divert “attention from communistic ideas and associations” (140). The Depression years also brought more camping opportunities via organizations such as the YMCA. Unlike the earlier years when the camps were segregated and sometimes exclusionary through their tuition, the Depression years brough more charity camps owned and operated by white reformers, which in turn resulted in problems with racial prejudice. Looking at each location during different timelines underscores that change over time or the evolution of place is indispensable to the understanding of nature and the Great Migration in Chicago.

A work that covers so much ground with solid research is commendable and there is much about the book to celebrate. One area that could benefit from more discussion is one regarding Southern migrants compared to those working-class Black Chicagoans who lived there for several generations. While there are quotations from migrants or first-generation Black Chicagoans, the book often conflates working-class with migrants due to the large number of migrations that took place during the years examined. I cannot help but wonder if the differences that were highlighted between Black cultural elites and established working-class African Americans had a similar dynamic between long established working-class and newly arrived migrants from the South?

Landscapes of Hope follows a wonderful trend in African American history alongside books such as The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson and Black Detroit by Herb Boyd that incorporate interdisciplinary methodologies uncovering new and exciting territory. The thematic approach of each chapter was uniquely interesting and yet undeniably cohesive to the themes of the book. There are no wasted words here and every example is important and poignant. McCammack’s use of imagery and quotations from Black Chicagoans transports the reader into the Landscapes of Hope while simultaneously keeping one eye on the importance of analysis. Most importantly, Landscapes of Hope opens up several new possibilities or areas of study for future research.

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Jason Martin

Jason Martin is a fourth year PhD student in the history department at The University of Texas at El Paso. His research interests include the history of Black resistance and how systemic racism affected communities where resistance had a lasting impact. His work also considers the uniqueness of those same factors in small to mid-size towns where African Americans are the majority population. In addition, Jason is interested in identifying de facto racist policies and practices in Northern states, along with complicating historical narratives that portray racism as a predominately Southern problem.

Comments on “Black Chicagoans, The Great Migration, and Nature

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    I intend to buy this book.THE REVIEW was well done.

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