Observing From a Lens of Equity

August 19, 2021, Feature, by Kristine M. Fleming, Ed.D.

2021 September Feature Observing From an Equity Lens 410

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Recognizing the impact of segregated recreation

Among park and recreation professionals and academics, there is a push to establish equitable parks within communities across the United States. While much work needs to be done in this area, recognition of past injustices toward marginalized groups must be acknowledged. Although the country is rich in recreation opportunities, not all residents have equal or equitable access. The willingness to recognize the history of segregation in leisure and recreation as it relates to African Americans is needed to establish equitable parks for all communities to access.

Parks and the Civil Rights Movement

For some, recognizing the United States was established on principles of racial inequities is difficult to grasp, but cannot be denied based on the history of policies and practices put into place to legalize segregation in public institutions, such as schools, transportation, and parks and recreation. The decision to legalize segregation occurred as a result of the 1896 Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson, which involved the arrest of Homer Plessy, a man who was one-eighth (12.5 percent) African American, for sitting in the whites-only section of a train car after purchasing a first-class ticket without any issues. Only after being asked to verify his race by the conductor was he arrested for sitting in the whites-only section. The Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson would legalize the “separate but equal” policies and practices that spawned during the Jim Crow era.

While the roles of the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Rosa Parks and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. during the Civil Rights movement are often discussed when learning about segregation and discrimination, the Jim Crow era that involved legal forms of segregation took place from 1896 to 1964. During this time, African Americans were forced to follow local, state and federal agency policies legalizing and enforcing segregation in parks and recreation programs. Although the period of legal segregation may seem long ago, for most, we are within one to two generations of knowing someone who grew up at the end of Jim Crow and was impacted by the laws of segregation put into place to deny access to parks and recreation. Using a critical lens of equity, professionals and academics who are committed to establishing equitable parks and recreation programs must be willing to understand the extent to which policies and practices were established throughout history to legally segregate and deny access to spaces for leisure among African Americans that continue to impact communities today.

Throughout the 20th century, parks and recreation-related programs were established, including the National Park Service, state park systems and various youth organizations. While these institutions are instrumental in the history of parks and recreation, at the same time, the 1896 Supreme Court decision of Plessy v. Ferguson prevented African Americans from accessing these programs — especially among citizens who were white. Even more telling is the fact that many African Americans helped establish these systems, but were denied access to these spaces. For example, African Americans were legally denied entrance into National Parks until 1945 despite the fact that Black troops helped establish Yosemite and Sequoia National Park, as well as other outdoor recreation areas. Although national parks were legally desegregated in 1945, the presence of African Americans in some parks did not occur until after the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was signed.

Local Governments Resist Desegregation

While the National Park Service made efforts to desegregate federal parks, local and state parks continued to reinforce segregation, meaning places where African Americans could enjoy the outdoors were few and far between. Accessing these limited designated spaces often required traveling on different roads and using entrances strategically placed away from white guests. More importantly, state parks often made available to Black people were of lesser quality with a lack of camping areas and amenities found compared to the “whites-only” areas. In addition, city ordinances were put into place to outlaw integrated forms of recreation to prevent African American and white community members from interacting with one another. Examples of integrated recreation considered to be illegal included playing sports and board games with people of different races. In Alabama, even walking through a park was illegal for Blacks. Laws of legal segregation would continue to exist even after the 1954 Supreme Court decision of Brown v. Board of Education that challenged Plessy v. Ferguson to end legal forms of segregation in public schools. Although public school segregation was challenged in Brown v. Board of Education, the decision would open the door to allow citizens to challenge legal forms of segregation in other institutions, such as parks and recreation.

Although many attempts were made to desegregate parks and recreation programs at federal levels, many local governments would continue to reinforce policies and practices of legal segregation. This occurred even after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which indicated discrimination may not occur based on race, religion or gender. The intent to desegregate public places proved to be more difficult to accomplish than imagined as communities that did not support desegregation efforts took it upon themselves to close or defund recreation programs or establish private club memberships to allow agencies to select their members. This was evident in communities where city park pools were filled with concrete or city golf courses were leased to organizations for $1 to establish members-only golfing in an effort to maintain segregation. Building private pools also became more popular after the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which maintained efforts to segregate Black patrons from accessing pools with white patrons.

The efforts that were made to maintain segregation in parks and recreation after legal segregation had ended continue to have an impact on African Americans’ equitable access to parks and recreation programs today. This is apparent when analyzing the number of park and recreation spaces, programs and resources available in predominantly Black communities. More specifically, some economically and racially segregated cities, such as Tallahassee, Florida, offer equitable distribution of parks; however, the park size and acreage available increases in areas of the city that include predominately white, middle-class citizens. Furthermore, communities with fewer Latino and Black residents received higher park ratings using The Trust for Public Land’s ParkServe data.

Depending on the size and demographics of the area, the disparities that exist today are connected to the history of policies and practices put into place to maintain segregation. This is demonstrated through the federal housing policies that implemented segregation by creating suburban neighborhoods specifically for working and middle class white families. As a result, African Americans were excluded from opportunities to purchase homes or mortgages at comparable rates, known as “redlining.” Subsequently, these areas received less government funding, thus impacting resources available to establish equitable and accessible parks and recreation programs. Moreover, as African American communities grew and sought equitable access to parks and recreation programs, the interaction between neighboring communities increased. With the majority of well-funded parks and recreation programs exclusively located in predominantly white communities, attempts were made to displace African American communities or close and defund parks and recreation programs. These efforts to close and defund, rather than desegregate in an attempt to integrate, continue to demonstrate the need for some peoples’ willingness to recognize and acknowledge the inequitable access to parks and recreation programs.

Learning From the Past

As park and recreation professionals and academics continue to focus on the need to establish equitable parks, the willingness to recognize and evaluate the history of segregation in leisure and recreation as it relates to African Americans must be considered. Obtaining historical information into how parks and recreation programs were established helps to provide additional insight into how programs are managed and the need for additional support and resources to establish equity in programs. While the responsibilities of each park and recreation professional and academic varies depending on the role, we must be willing to own the responsibility if equity is truly our intent. To formulate a strategy to combat the factors of inequities, we must be able to recognize historical policies and practices put into place during the Jim Crow era, which continue to impact parks and recreation.

Equity in Parks and Recreation: A Historical Perspective

Parks and recreation are critical infrastructure to society, adding beauty, clean water, clean air, places for exploration, recreation, socialization and peace. However, they also represent places of discrimination, segregation, trauma and disparity. Historical and contemporary land-use policies have shaped the contours of public park and recreation spaces across the nation in ways that continue to make it easier for some, and much harder for others, to experience open spaces.

To expand access, one must first understand the factors that have shaped the unfair access and distribution of park and recreation facilities across communities. The new NRPA resource, Equity in Parks and Recreation: A Historical Perspective, explores U.S. history, the evolution of parks and recreation and urban planning, and how it brought us to the inequities in access to parks and recreation that exist today. The resource’s story map is a snapshot of policies and stories of park inequities throughout U.S. history and the opportunities and challenges ahead. It is designed to acknowledge and reflect upon the experience of unequal access and abject practices. Most importantly, the story map is meant to inspire the transformation of a just and equity-driven park and recreation system for all.

To view the story map, visit NRPA's Equity webpage.

Kristine M. Fleming, Ed.D., is a Visiting Associate Professor in the Department of Health, Physical Education and Recreation at Florida A&M University.