Struggle for equity

The Chicago Reporter's story about inequities among community parks prompted a three-year federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. In May 1983, after almost a year of negotiations, the park district agreed to upgrade park facilities and services in the city’s minority wards. [Photo illustration/The Chicago Reporter, May 1978]

The Chicago Reporter's story about inequities among community parks prompted a three-year federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Justice. In May 1983, after almost a year of negotiations, the park district agreed to upgrade park facilities and services in the city’s minority wards. [Photo illustration/The Chicago Reporter, May 1978]

In 1975, The Chicago Reporter sent Stephan Garnett, an African-American reporter, to Marquette Park to see what the baseball diamonds and swimming pool looked like. At the time, it wasn’t a safe park for black people.

Marquette Park became famous in 1966 when a rock-throwing mob met Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. there as he protested segregated housing in the surrounding neighborhood. Less than a decade later, animosity was as strong as ever. Seven white men jumped Garnett as he walked back to his car after photographing the park. According to the Chicago Tribune, as many as 20 people looked on as a mob smashed a beer bottle over his head. Garnett was “bloodied and semiconscious” when a police officer found him wandering in the street. While being treated at a hospital, the mob destroyed his car windows with a trash can. Then, they set his car on fire.

The Reporter used pictures from Marquette Park and other parks across the city to demonstrate inequity in the Chicago Park District. White wards had more field houses, pools, softball diamonds and day camps than black or Latino ones. The stories caught the U.S. Justice Department’s attention and sparked the investigation that resulted in the 1983 consent decree to make city parks more equitable. But change didn’t come swiftly. Some of the projects at black and Latino parks remained unfinished when federal oversight ended in 1989.

The city has “the greatest parks and recreation system in the world,” a former recreation director boasted. But before the consent decree, most of the facilities were in white neighborhoods that were off-limits to black and Latino youth. And the threat of integrating recreational areas and unequal services often resulted in violence.

In 1919, for instance, a black teenager was stoned to death for drifting into a whites-only swimming area on the lakefront. Witnesses identified his killer, but police refused to arrest him. In a week of rioting, angry white gangs killed 23 black people and torched the homes of 1,000 African Americans.

In 1960, white people at Rainbow Beach on East 77th Street showered black and white youth with rocks when they tried to integrate the public beach. Bad as it was, that violence didn’t compare to other events in that decade—especially in 1966.

That year, black youth clashed with police over an unplugged fire hydrant on the West Side. James Parker, 17, and his friends refused officers’ orders to cap the hydrant because kids were splashing in the water. “We told them that if they shut off the hydrants that flowed all night in the Italian neighborhood, we’d shut ours off,” Parker told the Chicago Defender. When police arrested Parker and his friends, neighbors rioted.

The event became a defining moment in the city’s racial history. “The fire-hydrant confrontation didn’t just precipitate the riot—it revealed an underlying cause as well,” Jeff Wiltse wrote in his book “Contested Waters.” The lack of summer recreation outlets—and pools, in particular—underscored a political system that benefitted white communities most.

Civil rights activists asked Mayor Richard J. Daley to create safe passages that summer so black people could go swimming in public pools. Daley had another idea: Bring water to black neighborhoods.

“Portable swimming pools were being trucked in. Sprinklers were attached to hundreds of hydrants, and there was water gushing everywhere,” Mike Royko wrote in his book “Boss.”

“City Hall,” Royko wrote, “embarked on a crusade to make Chicago’s blacks the wettest in the country.”

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