Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago

In Madden Park, adjacent to the Ida B. Wells Homes, kindergartners head to class, April 1942 (Photo: Jack Delano, Farm Security Administration, Library of Congress).

Towering skyscrapers dotting the Lake Michigan coastline, “snowy winds,” “blistering suns,” and roaring streets described what Richard Wright aptly called the “iron city,” or the city of Chicago. While Chicago’s landscape has changed drastically since Wright walked the concrete jungle, it remains one of the most prominent cities in the nation. It is home to a large African American population, many of whom have roots in the Great Migration that brought literary giants such as Wright and Langston Hughes to its shores.

The migration of African Americans to Chicago is a well-covered topic in the historical narrative. Dejected sharecroppers abandoned Southern soil in order to find new opportunities in the industrial North. There they found new opportunities, but still faced intense racism and segregation, and charted new social, political, cultural, and religious traditions onto the Chicago landscape. African Americans also established new leisure practices that highlighted how they imagined, ventured into, struggled for, and shaped the distinct natural landscapes they encountered in the Midwest, as highlighted in a new book by historian Brian McCammack.

In Landscapes of Hope: Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago, McCammack uncovers the untold history of African Americans’s migration to Chicago as they constructed both material and immaterial connections to nature. He reveals how race, gender, and class converged to shape African Americans’s outdoor leisure practices from 1915 to the 1940s. Furthermore, he challenges notions that African Americans’ engagement with nature was only forged through their labor and fraught only with discrimination and violence. In the South, African Americans’ interaction with nature was one of forced labor, tilling the land and laboring in the fields. Chicago enabled African Americans to envision a new modernity where nature was a space of leisure, not labor. Nature became an escape from racial oppression, a stage for political activism, and even a training ground for nurturing respectable adolescents and young adults. Even in the midst of racial violence over the contested leisure spaces on the Southside and beyond, African Americans continued to incorporate nature as formative to visions of freedom embedded in Chicago. Through his explorations of youth camps, parks, beaches, and forest preserves, McCammack shows how African Americans saw nature as a landscape of hope, where they cultivated hybrid sites of leisure—recoupling the rural lifestyles they left behind with their new urban identity.

McCammack’s foray into an environmental history of the Great Migration begins in 1915, where he transports his readers off to Washington Park, the jewel of the Southside of Chicago. Washington Park became one of the salient points of McCammack’s odyssey. He outlines the transformation of the park from its inception as a pristine orderly white space that Franklin Law Olmstead envisioned, to its convergence into, what white Chicagoans derogatorily dubbed “Booker T. Washington park,” in response to the majority of Black patrons who utilized the area. The fall of Washington Park symbolized white Chicagoans’ fears of the growing amount of African Americans on the Southside, a direct result of the Great Migration.

When African Americans arrived in Chicago, they were confined mostly to the Black Belt, a chain of neighborhoods that housed three quarters of the city’s Black population by the mid-twentieth century. Washington Park became a space for African Americans to enjoy the beauty of nature and escape urban ills and pollution associated with urban living. At the height of the Great Migration, African American elites created public campaigns to advocate for more natural areas and beaches in the Black Belt, seeing nature as a way to instill respectable characteristics on the Southside’s growing poor Black population. Elites also fled to Black-only nature resorts, such as Idlewild, Michigan, to escape the racism that plagued Chicago. Their experiences immersed in wilderness also inspired elites to advocate for youth camps to spread the benefits of wilderness to poor Black youth and women in Chicago. Thus, not only did nature shape how African Americans designed modern communities, African Americans shaped nature to be a space of racial uplift.

Even throughout the Depression years, where economic decline put immense pressure on Black Belt residents, African Americans from all backgrounds continued to fuse together the pristine and romanticized rural landscapes they left behind in the South with the social and economic promises of modern city living. However, McCammack highlights an important shift in class dynamics in different natural areas. For example, he notes how the Great Depression opened up opportunities for working class African Americans to gain access to spaces like Idlewild and the Cook County’s forest preserves. Idlewild, in particular, stressed African Americans’s changing environmental consciousness. By the 1930s, Idlewild went from the pristine beauty that W.E.B. DuBois wrote so passionately about to one that was more conducive of working class African Americans interests and needs: the introduction of lively music and performances infiltrating the landscape. Where in 1915, elite African Americans chastised poorer Blacks for their loudness and unruliness in nature, now those spaces embodied a more working class idea of nature. In the end, as in McCammack’s overarching argument, African Americans produced hybrid spaces that wove together the Southern and Northern, the pristine and the urban.

In many ways a sign of an intellectually sound monograph, Landscapes of Hope leaves us with many questions. One critical question remains, which historians of race, class and gender constantly struggle with: how do we uncover the interior lives of poor African Americans? It is clear that this is a tension that McCammack struggles with in his own work. While he clearly makes distinctions between elite and working class African Americans, we are still left wondering what meanings working class Blacks inscribed onto nature, especially in the Great Migration years. McCammack attempts to reveal their interior lives by including sections on youth camps and the labor camps of the New Deal era. Even these interventions are mediated by the observations and perspectives of elite African Americans. We see this most clearly in the youth camps and in the Civilian Conservation Corps camps, where working class African Americans are often objects acted upon in history but rarely subjects acting upon the urban landscape for their own purposes. Elite Blacks become our interlocutors in understanding the working class Black experience, an issue that was undoubtedly noticed by McCammack. He consistently gestures to us to keep interrogating intraracial relations in African American history.

McCammack’s work also signals toward all that is yet to be written in the burgeoning sub-field of African American environmental history. Not only does his in-depth study of Chicago lead us to wonder about other cities but also other regions. I do wonder if we ought to add Southern cities to the list of cities McCammack signals to in his introduction. If Black Chicagoans attempted to hold onto the rural landscapes of the South even in the North, how might we understand changing Black leisure practices and understandings of nature outside the well-worn nature as a site of labor exploitation debate? How did Southern soil also imbue a landscape of hope?

McCammock provides one of the first in-depth interdisciplinary studies on the environmental history of the Great Migration. The care with which he takes to highlight the struggles and triumphs African Americans faced in their pursuit of nature creates a pathway for more historians to explore African Americans’s environmental intellectual traditions. His attention to the complex landscapes that African Americans navigated is compelling. For instance, he reveals how nature became an incubator of more radical thought among working class African Americans, and how the Black elite struggled to maintain an integrationist mentality given the unrelenting racism they faced on the Southside. Building on the work of scholars like Colin Fisher, Dorceta Taylor, and Andrew Kahrl, McCammack’s work serves as another challenge for the field of environmental history to center questions of race, gender, and class in their remapping of history through an environmental lens. In the end, as the Southside continues to struggle with a myriad of issues, now more than ever do we need to continue to explore African Americans’s long struggles to build hybrid environments that are racially and socially just. If McCammack’s work tells us anything, it is that African Americans relationship to nature is malleable—much like the many policies and forces put in place to disenfranchise Blacks on the Southside and beyond.

Copyright © AAIHS. May not be reprinted without permission.

Teona Williams

Teona Williams is a PhD student in the Departments of History & African American Studies at Yale University. Her research interests include U.S environmental history, political ecology, race and ethnic studies, environmental justice, digital humanities, and African American history.

Comments on “Nature and the Great Migration in Chicago

  • Appreciate the Andrew Kahrl reference. His most-recent book on the history of Black Americans and the seashore (and the resulting activism around it) was one of the best things I’ve read this year.

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