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The deep roots of outdoor recreation’s diversity gap

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05.09.2021

During the blistering summer of 1919, an oppressive heat wave lingered over the South Side of Chicago, and Eugene Williams had turned 17 just a few months back. Williams, who worked as a grocery store porter, had built a homemade raft with his friends, and on a brutal Sunday afternoon, they decided to take it out onto Lake Michigan for a ride. The raft drifted over the water and inadvertently crossed over to the 29th Street section of the waters. The White section.

According to several historical accounts, a White beachgoer hurled stones toward Williams and his friends, one of whom reported that a rock hit Williams in the head before he slumped into the water. Other accounts — including the coroner's jury — stated that Williams was trying to avoid being hit when he let go of the raft and drowned. When a police officer refused to arrest the person who was seen throwing rocks, tensions rose and riots ensued, heightening a season of racial violence throughout the U.S. that came to be known as the Red Summer.

That was more than 100 years ago. But you can draw a straight line from the tragic death of Eugene Williams — a kid who was simply attempting to enjoy the great outdoors — to the underrepresentation of Black Americans in outdoor spaces today. Until the 1964 passage of the Civil Rights Act, Black people in many states were legally barred or subjected to segregation at national and state parks, and other public lands. The National Health Foundation has identified historic segregation, along with racial violence and economic inequality, as factors underlying the "diversity gap" in nature-based outdoor recreational........

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