I grew up in South Shore, four blocks west of the South Shore Cultural Center. As a kid, I frequented Rainbow Beach and the beach behind the cultural center, which we called the country club back then.
My parents told me the history behind the two beaches. When the cultural center was still the South Shore Country Club, Jews and black people were not allowed in. And in 1960 an African-American police officer and his friends were chased out of Rainbow Beach, which would soon be site of “wade-in” protests for integration. According to the Chicago Defender, the white mob told them, “Why do you come down here? Can’t you feel that you’re not wanted?”
Ever since video of a McKinney, Texas, police officer slamming a teenage African-American girl to the ground at a graduation pool party went viral this week, an episode said to be triggered by derogatory comments made about black swimmers, a lot of old wounds were opened up for Chicagoans who have their own stories of being mistreated in areas where African-Americans were once unwelcome.
Spencer Robinson is a 1994 graduate of St.Francis de Sales High School on the city’s Southeast Side. He played football at de Sales and often practiced at nearby Calumet Park. He remembers what he saw every time the team practiced.
“‘No niggers allowed’ was spray-painted on the walls of the viaduct where we had to walk to practice from school with other races alongside of us,” Robinson said. “Never was erased my four years there.”
Robinson said he thinks whoever put that warning up knew exactly what they were doing.
“As kids we didn’t look at the big picture, just what was in our face. It lets me know that they had a plan that worked. They subliminally traumatized us at a young age.”
South Shore resident Bill Grant remembers how he was treated when the country club was sold to the city and opened to the public in 1975. “Lots of stares and folks moving away from you. The golfers really hated us coming in there.”
Auburn-Gresham resident Anthony Brown grew up in Beverly. He says that several incidents at Ridge Park’s pool during the 1990s prompted him to go to another pool in the area.
“I can recall having trouble getting accurate times and them actually not wanting us to swim in the field house at Ridge Park,” Brown says. “I remember my mom being pissed about it. I understood at a young age that we were experiencing racism and it made me mad too.”
Brown, a financial planner, said he would later use those experiences to educate his son on what we once went through. “As I got older I defied racism every chance I got, which is why I took my son to the pool, so that he could experience something I couldn’t when I was his age.”
U.S. Army veteran KeSean Johnson, 36, grew up in Beverly as well. He remembers a time in the late ’90s when it appeared uneven rules were used at the pool.
“I went to Ridge Park a lot. Sometimes if there was more than 10 of us that would go we will be told that the pool is closed even though there will be people actively swimming in it,” Johnson said. “It didn’t make me feel all that bad but it was sort of the norm. Just something you get used to living in an area like Beverly.”
Atlanta attorney Melanie Davis, on the other hand, frequented Mt. Greenwood’s Kennedy Park while growing up in West Pullman. She says that she didn’t experience any discrimination.
“Most of the campers were black children. We swam every morning we had camp, unless it was raining. I even went to the pool when I wasn’t at camp and didn’t see any instances of discrimination. There were always male and female black children. This was in the early to mid ’90s.”
Our city has a long history of using force to keep people out of certain neighborhoods. In 1997, for example, Bronzeville resident Lenard Clark, 13, was riding his bike with friends into nearby Armour Square when he was jumped by three white kids from Bridgeport. The beating left Lenard in a coma. Sometimes the methods are more subtle, as documented in this 2011 Chicago Reader story about efforts to remove basketball hoops from parks.
Many of the people I spoke with weren’t surprised that there’s still racial tension in places where people are supposed to have fun. However, they lamented the fact that kids are still dealing with racism. Robinson said of the McKinney video: “That’s a ‘there goes the neighborhood’ incident that was caught on tape.”
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