You can read a version of this story and more in the Summer 2021 issue of The TRiiBE Guide: Heritage Edition. Visit reshapethenarrative.com to find a copy of The TRiiBE Guide near you. Cover photo features Kannon Purnell, the 5th great-grandson of 19th century Chicago abolitionists John Jones and Mary Richardson Jones.

Chicago’s beautiful urban parks were introduced in 1891 when J. Frank Foster, superintendent of Chicago’s South Park System, argued the working class deserved spaces for passive recreation and picnicking. Black folks who had recently migrated from the South immediately recognized the value in these green spaces. Before 1931, the city opened only one playground in Chicago’s Black Belt, where migrants were concentrated, so Black Chicagoans were forced to risk their lives and safety to use the city’s first public spaces. 

White Chicagoans reacted to Black people’s use of the city’s parks and beaches with racist tension and violence. In the five years before the Chicago Race Riots of 1919, white people attacked Black recreators at nearly a dozen parks, playgrounds, and beaches on the South Side. The 1919 Riots began In July when a white mob killed a 17-year-old Black boy at the 29th St. Beach. 

 However, by the 1960s, Chicago’s Black population had grown exponentially and white people had altogether deserted urban areas surrounding parks such as Washington Park, Grant Park, Garfield Park and Jackson Park. As the population grew, Black folks became more comfortable in the urban parks right outside of their homes. 

For decades, Black people have been fellowshipping at “The Circle” in Garfield Park on the West Side. In the 60s, park-goers may have been young women walking through the park on their way to church. In the 70s and 80s, they may’ve been teens affiliated with the Vice Lords or Four Corner Hustlers. By the 90s, men sitting in their parked, shiny rides on Lake Street might’ve seen Chicago rapper Twista driving past. Today, Garfield Park hosts back to school drives, music video shoots and barbeques for lost loved ones daily. Guests check-in at “Garfield Park” on social media platforms such as Facebook to make known they’re, “Chilling at The Circle.”

Jackson Park sits by the lake in Woodlawn. Since the 1990s, entertainment group Chosen Few DJs has thrown an annual house music picnic in Jackson Park. Even though the event draws thousands of Black Americans to the park, it always feels more like an intimate picnic. Groups of friends, gathered under their own gazebos and seated in beach chairs around smoking grills, each has their own personal party amid the larger celebration. Jackson Park’s beach location also makes it a prime grilling and fishing spot all summer long. Black Chicagoans have also been fishing in the Jackson Park harbor and other South Side beaches for smelt, steelheads, crappies, and salmon for generations. 

Every August, the 91-year-old Bud Billiken Parade winds its way through Washington Park, which hosts celebrations of Black culture and arts all summer long. The International Festival of Life has filled Washington Park with Black Caribbean music and culture every July Fourth weekend since the 1990s, and the African Festival of Arts, held in the park on Labor Day weekend since 1989, was the city’s first festival of African culture when it started. The DuSable Museum of African American History has been located in Washington Park since 1973. 

In all of the urban parks in between and beyond Garfield and Jackson Park, Black life and leisure is happening everyday.

is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She recently covered housing as a 2020 City Bureau fellow.