A History of Urban Parks

Urban parks, in the United States, have changed quite a bit since their inception playing an different, important roles in urban life. Many early parks began life as “commons”, a shared space/resource. There is a general belief that the Boston Common is the nation’s first or oldest park. Located in Boston, MA, it was purchased in 1634 and set aside to be public land by a vote in 1640. But what makes a park a park and not a commons? Definitions vary. One could argue that designated use dictates whether something is a park or not. I had this come up during my stint working for local parks and recreation when we had to define the difference between parks and zoned open space. The term “commons” is derived from the traditional English legal term for common land. Common land can be defined as “privately owned land over which other people have certain rights, such as to allow their livestock to graze upon it, to collect wood, or to cut turf for fuel.” These uses would definitely not fly in parks today nor would they have in parks during the late 1800s, often referred to as “pleasure gardens”.

Pleasure gardens typically consisted of an ornamented landscape composed of lawn, trees, shrubs, flowers, intersecting walks, and decorative structures. These were the first incarnation of what we, today, would think of as parks in the US with some distinctions. The pleasure garden period lasted roughly from 1850 to 1900 and were typically large and located on the edge of a city as it was difficult to plop a bit of “wilderness” into an already established urban fabric. “Meadows accommodated picnicking families and church groups. Rowing on ponds provided a pleasing contrast to urban routings. Open meadows and sequestered rambles were laid out for strolling. Benches encouraged people to stop and look at others on parade.” Many activities specifically associated with lower classes and immigrants were banned which, paired with their locations away from city centers, meant that, though parks were intended to be used by everyone from the start, they largely appealed to the upper-middle class.

During the early 1900s the vision for urban parks started to change. Thanks to the larger reform movement of the Progressive Era, reform parks were born. The longest lasting feature of which is the neighborhood playground but they also introduced field houses. A field house was a sort of club house for neighborhood residents. “Progressives interested in neighborhood reform argued that recreational needs should be met daily at nearby sites, rather than on occasional outings to the city’s outskirts.” The typical neighborhood park was one or two square blocks surrounded largely by housing. Paths in the reform park was frank and straightforward featuring right angles, grass pushed out by sand and blacktop.

By the mid-1900s the divide between recreation and the park was in full swing. The “recreation facility” was created. It was at this time that parks were recognized as a functioning part of cities. Athletic leagues were being organized including sports like: softball, tennis, table tennis, basketball, and golf. The idea of “togetherness” was rekindled and all reference to class issues was abandoned replaced by discussions of efficient management and “service to the community”.

Beveridge, Charles E. 2000. “Olmsted—His Essential Theory”. Olmsted.Org. https://www.olmsted.org/the-olmsted-legacy/olmsted-theory-and-design-principles/olmsted-his-essential-theory.

“Common Land”. 2014. Webarchive.Nationalarchives.Gov.Uk. https://webarchive.nationalarchives.gov.uk/20140605104731/http://www.naturalengland.org.uk/ourwork/landscape/protection/historiccultural/commonland/default.aspx.

Cranz, Galen. 2000. “Changing Roles Of Urban Parks”. SPUR. https://www.spur.org/publications/urbanist-article/2000-06-01/changing-roles-urban-parks.

Cranz, Galen. 2008. “Urban Parks Of The Past And Future”. PPS. https://www.pps.org/article/futureparks.

“Parks, Parkways, Recreation Areas, And Scenic Reservations – Frederick Law Olmsted National Historic Site (U.S. National Park Service)”. Nps.Gov, 2022. https://www.nps.gov/frla/learn/historyculture/parks.htm#:~:text=Olmsted%20believed%20that%20in%20a,gathering%20and%20entertainment%20of%20crowds.

Walls, Margaret. 2009. “Parks And Recreation In The United States: Local Park Systems”. Resources For The Future. https://www.rff.org/publications/issue-briefs/parks-and-recreation-in-the-united-states-local-park-systems/.

Until Justice Be Done

cover of Until Justice Be Done: America's First Civil Rights Movement from the Revolution to Reconstruction by Kate Masur
Until Justice Be Done: America’s First Civil Rights Movement from the Revolution to Reconstruction by Kate Masur

Kate Masur highlights the fundamental difference between the anti-slavery and the Civil Rights movements reaching backward from the Reconstruction through the early American republic. Masur emphasizes police powers of the states and the poor law traditions as rivals to the tradition of individual rights shining light on the decades long making of the 14th amendment.

The Second

Cover of Carol Anderson's book, The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America
The Second: Race and Guns in a Fatally Unequal America by Carol Anderson

In her book, The Second, Carol Anderson provides an overview and examination of the racially rooted popularity of the Second Amendment, outlining the hypocrisy of the people that defend it. Anderson highlights the consistency with which Blacks’ Second Amendment rights have been denied throughout US history from slave codes to Jim Crow and beyond. It’s quick and concise and I highly recommend the read.

Protesting the Black Codes: The Streetcar

Before we dive in, a brief descriptor of “Black Codes.” They were restrictive laws that were designed to limit the freedom of African Americans. Largely, they were created as a way to the continued availability of a cheap labor force after slavery was abolished. This set of laws was applied blanketly to both freemen of color and freedmen; that is, those that were born free before the Civil War and those that were freed after it. Around four million African Americans had been given their freedom but the postwar South left many questions surrounding their social status. This lead to the creation of the Black Codes which, in many places, required Black people to sign yearly labor contracts or, for the previously free people, even find white sponsors to vouch for their character. Failing to comply with these codes meant arrests, fines, or even being forced into unpaid labor. (Pictured above: A free Black man being sold to pay his fine. Monticello, FL, 1867. ) Again, these codes were indiscriminately applied to all black people including those that were biracial and/or were freemen before the war; this will be important in a moment.

Contrary to popular belief, there were integrated areas antebellum. These places, namely New Orleans, LA, and Charleston, SC, saw color lines blurred quite openly. A person of even the darkest complexion could have all the rights of a white person based on their family ties rather than their skin color. That was, however, when New Orleans was controlled by France and Spain and Charleston still had strong ties to the Caribbean. It wasn’t until the Union took over these places during the Civil War that the old racial binary was truly enforced. Freemen and freedmen were lumped together as “Blacks” and the people that were born free antebellum lost a great deal of privileges as the “one drop rule” became prevalent. The “one drop rule” was the thought that a single “drop” of African American blood made one wholly Black in the eyes of the law and society. There were groups of mixed race people that formed in an effort to fight to regain their lost rights like the Brown Fellowship Society in Charleston and the Creoles of Color or Gens de couleur libres (free persons of color) in New Orleans. There is a lot of interesting history surrounding these groups, their creation, and their fight for equality but that’s for a whole other post. The important part for now is that they existed and, antebellum, enjoyed the rights of full citizens.

When most Americans think of civil rights laws and protests they likely think of the 1950s and ’60s. We all know the story of Ms. Rosa Parks’ and the Montgomery Bus Boycott that ensued but the story of transportation integration really began in the 1860s. Streetcars had been an issue for people of color in New Orleans since their implementation in the 1820s. A few rail companies operated Black-only cars sometimes demarcated with a black star. However, “Star Cars”, as they came to be known, were few and far between. After the Union occupation of New Orleans in 1862, General Benjamin F. Butler ordered that the streetcar lines be desegregated but rail companies complained and it didn’t stick. Butler’s successor, Major General Nathaniel P. Banks, was able to persuade the rail companies to allow African American soldiers to ride white-only streetcars in 1864 but this did little to help other African Americans. One spokesman is quoted as saying it was “a shame that a colored solider be received in the cars, and his mother be expelled.”

In 1865, there was some progress made, at least temporarily, when General E. R. S. Canby, Banks’ superior, issued an order that stated that “the attempt to enforce police laws or regulations that discriminate against negroes by reason of color, or their former condition of slavery…will not be permitted.” In essence, this made all streetcars fair game for whomever wanted to ride them, star or no. Unfortunately, the rail companies took to the courts and, a mere two weeks later, the edict was nullified as it “infringed upon the basic right of a private corporation to refuse service to any group or individual it desired.” Then came the Civil Rights Act of 1866, one year postbellum, which declared that all people (males at least) born in the United States were thus citizens and had certain inalienable rights and enjoy the full protection of federal law without distinction of race, color, or previous condition of slavery or involuntary servitude. One might think that this would aid in the fight for streetcar equality as the star cars were incompatible with the Act.

Alas, the streetcar segregation controversy continued coming to a head during the spring of 1867 when it became the focal point of racial unrest. Fearing a race war, federal authorities asked anyone who felt their rights had been violated to file a formal complaint. Such a complaint was filed with the Freedmen’s Bureau on April 17 by Mary P. Bowers, an African American Charlestonian, when she was asked to leave a whites-only car despite claiming that she had ridden such cars many times before. Little is known about Bowers but it seems likely that, based on her claims and description, she was mixed-race and born free antebellum and had enjoyed the privileges that came with that. It was also likely that she had been chosen by local activists to make a test case in the courts to force the Reconstruction authorities’ hand. The following Monday, a representative of the Freedmen’s Bureau wrote to the president of the Charleston City Railway Company informing him that “public carriers have no right to exclude individuals from their conveyances on account of color.” The company stalled for time citing court cases in other Southern cities that ultimately ended with the creation of star cars but such half-measures wouldn’t fly.

Frustrations were growing in New Orleans as they followed the news out of Charleston. On April 28, William Nichols, an African American man in New Orleans, took a seat upon a whites-only streetcar. He was physically removed from said seat by Edward Cox and arrested for “breach of peace.” The charges were dropped and Nichols took Cox to court, suing him for assault and battery. The rail companies, determined to retain segregation, but also eager to avoid lawsuits, settled on a policy of “passive resistance.” Streetcars boarded by Black riders would simply stop, and drivers were ordered to wait the activists out. This new policy was tested by P. Ducloslange, a Creole of Color, on May 3 when he boarded a whites-only car and refused to budge. The driver, as instructed, refused to move as well which resulted in an hours-long endurance battle that left just the two men on the car. Eventually, Ducloslange gave in and left the car; empty but victorious, the car started on its way again. That wasn’t the end of the protests though, that weekend would see more.

As long as the star cars rolled, the chance of protest loomed over any whites-only streetcar that dared to enter the Creole wards. The Friday after the passive resistance policy was adopted, Joseph Guillaume, young Creole of Color, boarded a whites-only car and, upon being told to leave, he stole the reins of the horse drawn streetcar and drove it down the street himself. (Pictured above: A horse drawn streetcar in New Orleans.) Guillaume was eventually cornered and taken into custody. A mob grew, “squads of colored men, fifteen or twenty in a gang, armed with clubs” a police officer reported, jumping on passing cars and threatening their drivers.

In Charleston, on May 3, the Charleston City Railway Company’s board of directors gathered passing a resolution that “the cars be thrown open to the public, and that instruction be given to the several conductors to recognize the right of all persons to ride therein.” On Sunday, May 5, the unrest in New Orleans came to a head. Despite threats made against the streetcars, the rail companies kept them running. Roughly 500 protesters began to amass on Congo Square, the main African American public space, taking up positions on either side of Rampart Street. As star cars came by, the protesters encouraged riders of color to get off and join them. When whites-only cars showed up African American riders hopped aboard. The police finally came brandishing weapons to intimidate the crowd. This is when the mayor, Edward Heath, appeared and tried to calm the protestors stating that there was no need for violence, peaceful protest is the right of every American citizen.

The next morning, the presidents of the various companies met to discuss next moves. Major General Philip Sheridan, federal official, gave the executives an ultimatum: “Erase your stars and make all your buses open to all.” With the previous night’s unrest fresh in their minds, they saw little alternative but to cave in to the demands. Hours later, the official word was out that the streetcars would now be open to everyone. When Nichols arrived in court that Wednesday his case was already won and there was no need to move forward so he dropped the charges. Within days, the stars on the star cars had been painted over. In Charleston the change seemed to happen and be accepted overnight. In New Orleans, however, it was a little slower going as Black riders still seemed to segregate themselves (supposedly) though white riders were said to have taken to the change rather quickly (supposedly). Success! But it was not to last, bills to segregate cars were defeated in 1894 and 1900 but they were desegregated by state law in 1902 this time by moveable screens within the same car.

Bardes, John. 2018. “The New Orleans Streetcar Protests Of 1867”. We’re History. https://werehistory.org/the-new-orleans-streetcar-protests-of-1867/.

Brook, Daniel. 2019. The Accident Of Color. New York: W. W. Norton & Co.

Fischer, Roger A. “A Pioneer Protest: The New Orleans Street-Car Controversy of 1867.” The Journal of Negro History 53, no. 3 (1968): 219-33. Accessed May 28, 2021. doi:10.2307/2716217.

Gates, Henry Louis. 2019. Stony The Road. Penguin Publishing Group.

“How The Black Codes Limited African American Progress After The Civil War”. 2021. HISTORY. https://www.history.com/news/black-codes-reconstruction-slavery.

The Green Book

The Green Book, also know as the “The Negro Motorist Green Book”, was created by an African-American, New York City mailman named Victor Hugo Green. It was published from 1936 to 1966, during the era of Jim Crow laws. Throughout this time, discrimination against people of color, specifically African Americans, was conspicuous and often legally backed. Green’s book aimed to aid marginalized groups find inclusive businesses and avoid discrimination, and often danger, on their travels. Segregationist practices meant that facilities for African-American motorists were limited. So, it provided a rundown of hotels, guest houses, service stations, drug stores, taverns, barber shops, and restaurants known to be safe for travelers of color. The book also helped people avoid Sundown Towns, municipalities in which Blacks could not remain after dark.

To be brief about Jim Crow Laws, they began around 1865 after the ratification of the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery in the United States. Also known as “Black codes,” these were strict local and state laws that determined when, where, and how formerly enslaved people could work and how much they could be paid.. They were a legal way to put Black citizens into indentured servitude, take voting rights away, and control where they lived and how they traveled.

Green was likely inspired by earlier publications for Jewish audiences, who also faced discrimination. The first edition the book covered only the New York City area. Soon the book expanded by, brilliantly, gathering field information from fellow postal carriers and readers. In a few years, the Green Book was host to thousands of establishments across the country, all either black-owned or verified non-discriminatory. Eventually, the Green Book expanded from a motorists’ companion to an international travel guide as later editions included information on airline and cruise ship journeys to places like Canada, Mexico, the Caribbean, Africa and Europe.

Victor Hugo Green died in 1960. His wife, Alma Green, took over as editor and continued to release the book. In 1964, the Civil Rights Act banned segregation in restaurants, theaters, hotels, parks, and other public places rendering the Green Book essentially obsolete, just as Green has hoped would eventually happen.

“There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment.”

Introduction to 1948 edition of the “Negro Motorist Green Book”

Today, the Green Book is back in the form of an app called The Green Book Project. The app allows users to share their experiences of businesses, filter by intersections, post alerts when things are unsafe, and support inclusive business owners. It is unfortunate that such a thing should have to exist but I’m glad that people are looking out for one another. There is also a effort to save locations mentioned in the Green Book.

AuMaroc, J. How the Green Book Helped African-American Tourists Navigate a Segregated Nation. Smithsonian Magazine. Retrieved 7 March 2021, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/history-green-book-african-american-travelers-180958506/.

Jim Crow Laws. HISTORY. (2018). Retrieved 8 March 2021, from https://www.history.com/topics/early-20th-century-us/jim-crow-laws.

The Green Book Project. The Green Book Project. Retrieved 7 March 2021, from https://www.thegreenbook.io/?.

The Green Book: The Black Travelers’ Guide to Jim Crow America. HISTORY. Retrieved 7 March 2021, from https://www.history.com/news/the-green-book-the-black-travelers-guide-to-jim-crow-america.

The Green Book: The Black Travelers’ Guide to Jim Crow America. HISTORY. Retrieved 7 March 2021, from https://www.history.com/news/the-green-book-the-black-travelers-guide-to-jim-crow-america.

The Negro Motorist Green Book. En.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 7 March 2021, from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Negro_Motorist_Green_Book

Sundown Towns Pt.2: The Nadir

It wasn’t only towns, counties, and suburbs blacks were expelled from. Before the Nadir there were black masons, carpenters, foundry and factory workers, postal carriers, and more. After 1890, however, in both the North and South, whites pushed blacks out of these jobs. They were also pushed out of professional sports, as blacks had played major league baseball in the 1880s but the last player was forced out by 1889. In 1911, blacks were excluded from being jockeys in the Kentucky Derby. Boxing was still allowed but it served to reinforce the stereotype of black men being dangerous fighters.

It’s interesting to note that blacks were arguably treated more poorly in the North than the South after the end of the Reconstruction. In the South, whites would happily employ black folks to do any job deemed inferior. In the North, on the other hand, the attitude seemed to be that if blacks were so inferior why hire them at all? The lack of employment opportunities meant that many went jobless and their joblessness fed into negative stereotypes. Ironically, the worse the Nadir got, the more whites blamed blacks for it. Northern whites came to see blacks as disaffected, lazy, and dangerous. “They must not work hard enough, think as well, or have as much drive, compared to whites,” was apparently the consensus.

During the Nadir, stereotypes of white supremacy permeated all of American culture. Oddly enough, historians played a major role in this line of thought. After Reconstruction was overthrown in 1890, historians painted the era to be one of oppressed whites, “beset by violence and corruption.” The historical record became so distorted that interpretations of the Nadir in American history textbooks are still shaped by it today.

Minstrel shows, which were widely popular, perpetuated stereotypes of blacks as being ignorant, irresponsible, wide-grinning, loud-laughing, happy-go-lucky, shuffling, singing, banjo playing types that were devoid of any character traits valued among whites. In small towns across the North, where few blacks existed to correct the impression, these stereotypes were the bulk of what whites “knew” about blacks. Eventually minstrelsy gave way to vaudeville and vaudeville gave way to movies but the stereotypes remained. Unfortunately, this set the scene for, perhaps the most racist major picture ever, The Birth of a Nation in 1915. It praised the first Ku Klux Klan (1865 – 1875) as the savior of the “white race,” specifically white Southern civilization, which led to the revival of the Klan.

Worse than these spectacles, science was used to back up feelings of black inferiority with Social Darwinism, “an evolutionary rationale for the inevitability of poverty,” which gave way to eugenics. These were the ultimate way of blaming the victim. Not only was being poor their own fault but they were beyond help because they just plain had bad genes. While technically about improving genetic quality, eugenics was more about preserving white supremacy. People who found themselves targets of the eugenics movement were those who were seen as unfit for society: the poor, the disabled, the mentally ill, and specific communities of color like blacks, latinx, or Native Americans. Organized eugenics got its foothold in a meeting of The American Breeders Association in 1904. I wish we were talking about animal breeding. Margaret Sanger, American birth control activist who established organizations that evolved into the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, was unfortunately quoted as saying “we do not want word to get out that we want to exterminate the Negro population.”

All of this leads us back to places like Forsyth County, Georgia, where the sundown county was created by violence. That said, many of the shows or threat of violence have gone unrecorded even by local historians, much like the aforementioned story of Stockton, Missouri. Some towns were cleared out by sheer intimidation by way of massive Klan rallies. Still others created ordinances to keep blacks out of corporate limits after sundown or preventing the sale or rental of property to them. Those ordinances were, in fact, illegal but despite that, they began to appear around 1900 through 1930. Further “freezing-out” or barring blacks from establishments until they could no longer effectively live in a place was another method of creating all-white municipalities. There were also instances of town buying out their black families, or would-be residents, by offering to purchase their property from them so they wouldn’t live there. This sounds almost nicer than some of the other ways but it was made clear that they could not refuse the offer, if they did their property would just be taken either by eminent domain or condemnation.

To be continued…

Jaspin, E. (2008). Buried in the Bitter Waters. Basic Books.

Loewen, J. (2007). Lies My Teacher Told Me. (2nd ed.) Touchstone.

Loewen, J. (2018). Sundown Towns. (2nd ed.) The New Press.

Ortiz, P. (2018). An African American and Latinx history of the United States. Beacon Press Books.

Phillips, P. (2016). Blood at the Root. W. W. Norton & Company.

Rothstein, R. (2017). The Color of Law. Liveright Publishing Corporation.

Taylor, C. (2016). The Roots of Route 66. The Atlantic. Retrieved 15 December 2020, from https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2016/11/the-roots-of-route-66/506255/.

Sundown Towns Pt.1: Racial Cleansing

Starting around the early 1890s, lasting until the late 1960s, thousands of American towns were established for whites only. These municipalities ranged from the small, with a population of a few hundred, to the surprisingly large, with tens of thousands. Race relations, after the gains of the Civil War, worsened. Black Americans lost their ability to vote in the South and were no longer allowed to use the same spaces as whites. While they never lost their right to vote in the North, they did lose the right to live in many towns, suburbs, and even whole counties. Anti-black sentiments lead to the creation of sundown towns, also known as sunset or grey towns.

“The facts about sundown towns prove hard for many people to believe, partly because high school textbooks in American history present a nation that has always been getting better, in everything from methods of transportation to race relations.”

James W. Loewen, Sundown Towns

The assumption of constant, forward progress has blinded many to the reality that sometimes things got worse. Race relations deteriorated during the 1890s to 1930s, this time period is frequently referred to as the nadir of race relations (“nadir” meaning lowest point or point of greatest adversity or despair). Many sundown towns were created from towns that had been integrated. Some towns even touting stories of previously positive interactions between whites and POC. For example, Stockton, MO, had integrated social gatherings, like their large annual 4th of July picnic, until some now long forgotten event caused a rift. Other towns had riots aimed at driving out POC.

One such place, Forsyth County, Georgia, began with the alleged rape of a white woman by a black man one evening in September 1912. The following morning the news had spread and white Forsyth was in an uproar. A team of bloodhounds and a posse of white men were assembled, the men deputized on the spot. Headed by Sheriff William Reid, a known member of the Ku Klux Klan, they rode in search of the attacker. They knocked doors demanding to speak to each family of black field hands and sharecroppers.

The next day Sheriff Reid, and his deputy Gay Lummus, arrested and jailed one black teen and four “accomplices”. The teen, Toney Howell, was the nephew of a well respected residents of Cumming, a town in Forsyth County. The others were all single, illiterate, and lived in the area in which the attack had happened. What stood out about Toney was that he was not from Forsyth but the neighboring Milton County making him unknown, and therefore conspicuous. He was tried and convicted of the rape in February of the following year. A black preacher, Reverend Smith, was beaten near to death by a mob of white men after he commented on “so much trouble being caused on account of a sorry white woman.” What followed these events was the racial cleansing of Forsyth County by bands of white “night riders” who coordinated a campaign of terror and arson. Ultimately, they drove out the county’s over 1,000 black residents. White residents swooped in to claim the now “abandoned” lands and the memory of black Forsyth was forgotten as locals kept Forsyth “all white” well into the 1990s. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

To be continued…

Loewen, James W. 2018. Sundown Towns. 2nd ed. New York: The New Press.

Phillips, P. (2016). Blood at the Root. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.