Over a hundred years ago, on a steamy summer day,Chicagoans were enjoying the city’s Lake Michigan beaches. Temperature records from the 27th of July 1919 say it was a scorching 35C outside (96F). Chicago only had four municipal beaches at the time. These four beaches were in the north part of the city, far from where most of the fast growing Black population had settled. Instead, the South City residents used a sandy strip of land in the south part of the city, between 25th and 29th Streets, as their local beach.
That day, a 17 year old Black teenager named Eugene Williams was at this beach with his friends, floating on a raft they had built together. By all accounts, the raft was a “tremendous thing to behold.” It had taken Eugene and his friends two months to build the raft. Atop their raft, Eugene and his friends accidentally drifted across a colour line in place in the water at the 29th Street Beach. To be clear, there wasn’t an official segregation line in the water; rather, the White community had created an invisible division in the water to separate the Blacks from themselves. Regardless of invisibility, this line was deep. A White beachgoer named George Stauber began throwing rocks at Eugene, so indignant was he that Eugene had crossed over to the White section. Other White beachgoers joined in, hurling bricks and rocks too.
Eugene died in the water, hit in the head. He drowned under the rock attack. Eugene’s friends and other Black beachgoers demanded that Stauber be arrested. The White police officer refused. Instead, a Black man who protested the murder unfolding on the beach was arrested.
The Chicago Race Riot began there, on that unofficial South City beach. It lasted seven days and claimed 38 lives, most of them Black. More than 500 Black Chicagoans were injured. Over 1,000 lost their homes to fires and homemade bombs. Eugene, and his friends, and their beach day are often lost in this story. Eugene had moved from Georgia with his family as part of the Great Migration from the South. He worked at a grocery store. He was smart. He had a ton of friends. Friends who wanted to build a raft and go to the beach with him. And he was killed by White beachgoers because he crossed an imaginary line between 25th Street and 29th Street. In 2015 this stretch of beach was renamed Margaret Taylor-Burroughs Beach. You can read about Margaret here.
A century later, Black people continue to live their lives subjected to violence and systemic racism. And racism is not just police brutality. Systemic racism means less access to clean water, to beaches, to fun days in the sun. Black people, Indigenous people, and People of Colour are disproportionality less likely to have access to clean drinking water; to clean, accessible, and safe beaches that they can visit with their friends and family; to fruitful fishing spots and places to put their boat in the water; to beautiful and wild places to get outside and connect with nature.
Since I began working on Swim Guide in 2014, I learned that I can look at our Swim Guide map and point out where there are beaches and where there are none. Beaches are noticeably absent from BIPOC communities, or have poorer water quality. As an organization focused on water Swim Drink Fish can do better in recognizing that this is not an equal fight. You can read Swim Drink Fish’s Statement Against Racism and Hatred here. People of colour are unfairly and disproportionately impacted by pollution, habitat destruction, and limited access to nature. These are injustices that the environmental movement, including Swim Drink Fish, have an obligation to address. We take that obligation seriously.
At Swim Guide our goal every day is to build a community of people working towards swimmable, drinkable, fishable water. Swim Guide’s goal is to ensure that the public can find clean places to swim for a great day at the beach. But, that challenge itself is unequal. The fight for water, the fight to the water, the fight for a normal, stupid day at the beach with your 17 year old friends, testing out a homemade raft is going to be harder if you’re Black. It’s going to be harder for you to ensure that the water that comes out of your tap or your lake is drinkable if you’re Black, Indigenous, or a person of colour. Black lives matter. Indigenous lives matter. And the lives of People of Colour matter.
When we talk about beaches, we also have to talk about those who have no beach, and those who struggle just to have a place to relax on the weekend, and have a good time.
We need to listen. We need to make changes.
Swim Guide is committed to using our platform to showcase incredible BIPOC voices celebrating water and beaches, and covering the past and present access to clean water and beaches as it relates to Black, Indigenous, or people of colour.
I invite you to introduce us to people and voices we should be including in our platform. We can work together to improve. We’re just getting started.
Keep connected, to us and to each other.
Director of Swimmable Water Programs
Swim Drink Fish
© SWIM DRINK FISH CANADA, 2011 - 2020