31 Jul The Bay View Coincidence
There is such a thing as coincidence. But it is only when overlapping events are put into their proper context that we can draw substantive meaning from otherwise random occurrences that happen simultaneously. I was recently asked to give a lecture on the campus of the Bay View Association in Petoskey, Michigan. Under an endowment established in the memory of Donald B. Loyd, a 4th generation resident of this resort community just south of the Upper Peninsula, I was invited to share my work on making outdoor recreation more accessible to all people, in particular Black Americans. As part of a series called Bridges: Crossing Cultural Divides, I gave a presentation on the roles that people of color have played in the long history of public land preservation. In this predominately white enclave of wealth and privilege, I was grateful for the opportunity to educate myself as well on how far equitable access to nature has come and how far it has yet to go.
I am often asked to visit places I know nothing about. I’ve found that when I travel to locations I’ve never been to before I can learn about those things in our collective history that are so critical to my understanding of how we got to where we are today. Ironically, this occurred as I crossed over the Mackinac Bridge for the first time.When I arrived in Petoskey, a prime vacation spot near the top of Lake Michigan, I was coincidentally alerted to an online post that popped up on Instagram from the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. Far to the south on this same Great Lake, a tragic event occurred on that very day more than a century ago.
On July 27, 1919, a young Black man of 17 named Eugene Williams and his friends were playing in the waves of Lake Michigan. On a hot summer day, they enjoyed the cool water on the shores of the 29th Street beach in Chicago. When they splashed across an imaginary line of segregation into an area unofficially designated as “for whites only”, a man named George Stauber began throwing rocks at the teenagers to drive them away. Williams was struck and then drowned in the water. Though Stauber was arrested and charged with manslaughter, outrage over this incident began a four-day riot of racial violence that would ultimately claim the lives of 39 people and leave more than a thousand Chicago residents homeless. Sadly, this was among several incidents of death and destruction that occurred during a period called the Red Summer of 1919.
Just a few weeks after the drowning death of Williams, in August of that same year, the writer Earnest Hemingway, then 20, took a week-long flyfishing trip to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, also known as the U.P. Not long after his return from Italy where he was wounded in the earliest American battles of World War I, he came to this place to find solace in nature and escape the anxiety of his traumatic experience. He and two friends hiked along the Fox River to angle for trout in the peaceful surroundings of the woods he had enjoyed since childhood, not far from the town of Petoskey. It was here that Hemingway was inspired to write the short story Big Two-Hearted River, having changed the name of the stream to something he felt was more poetic.
Though he never mentions his experience in the war, this story begins in the darkness of a small town destroyed by a raging fire. We can certainly draw the metaphor of his having found safety and security in nature following a painful tragedy. Many veterans of the Great War sought out the comfort of wilderness to quiet the thoughts of their frantic minds. But during this time in the early 20th century, many of those veterans of African descent and their families were deprived of the same privilege to discover the soothing relief of the outdoors.
While Hemingway explored the wilds of the U.P. in 1919, the social impacts of Jim Crow Era segregation were becoming fully realized. The drowning of Eugene Williams while swimming in Lake Michigan at a beach in Chicago and the deaths that occurred in the days that followed, is a painful example of what could happen in those days when Black Americans sought out recreation. Fortunately, there did exist at least one place in the general vicinity where Black Americans could find a tranquil place in the outdoors. The community of Idlewild in southeast Lake County was called the Black Eden of Michigan. Founded in 1912, this resort community was one of the few places in much of the U.S. where people of color could safely enjoy outside leisure activities such as camping, swimming, boating, fishing and hunting.
But in most other places across the state the very real threat of physical violence and the inability to travel freely without fear of abuse limited access to natural spaces. Even on public land, including our national parks and forests, communities of color were at risk from harm. That would continue to be the case even after the passage of the Civil Rights of 1964, which ended legal segregation in the United States. But the racial disparities of education, intergenerational wealth, home ownership, disposable income and leisure time continued to make outdoor recreation in remote areas of our country almost impossible. That included the Petoskey community of Bay View.
Established in 1875, Bay View was created to be both a United Methodist meeting camp and a Chautauqua gathering place. The site was designed after the national movement of religious revival organizations as a retreat that offered a variety of activities to provide education, entertainment and recreation. To this day, families of multiple generations enjoy the beautiful surroundings of this idyllic place with Victorian era homes restored and maintained in pristine condition.
Like many institutions across the U.S., Bay View had policies that restricted access to its facilities along religious and racial lines. Though covenants of racial discrimination for the purposes of housing and homeownership were technically deemed unenforceable by the Supreme Court in 1948, the practice continued in much of the U.S. through the 1980s. And it was only in 2019 that a policy was overturned, after a federal lawsuit filed with the US Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), that all Bay View homeowners must be people of the Christian Faith.
After more than a century since the death of Eugene Williams and the Chicago Race Riot of 1919, things are beginning to change in the community where Ernest Hemingway spent his summer vacations. As I was introduced to the audience for my lecture at Bay View, I understood that my presence there was part of the continuing effort to become more inclusive of those who were once denied access.
“Before he passed away in 2018, Donald Loyd established an endowment with the Bay View Education Department for his legacy to continue,” said my host, director of education Julia Haley. “In establishing this annual lectureship, Bridges: Crossing Cultural Divides he wanted to provide the means by which speakers would come to Bay View to enlighten and instruct us. He felt that we must all make the effort to go beyond ourselves, to try to understand those of different races, cultures, sexual identification or preferences and religions. He truly believed that we must be intentional in learning in order to increase our understanding.”
Having first read the works of Hemingway very early in my writing career, he has long been one of my literary heroes. As an avid fly-fisherman, the accounts of his experiences in the U.P. had prompted my desire to cast a rod on the Fox River in the very same place where he had one hundred years ago. As a person of color, if I had come here then, I likely would not have been made to feel as welcome in this place as I do today.In the century since the death of Eugene Williams in Lake Michigan a great deal has certainly changed, but much remains the same that must be undone.
Two years ago, in July of 2020 a few residents of Bay View wrote the names of Black people who were the victims of police brutality in chalk on the community’s sidewalks. In support of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis earlier that summer, they aimed to make a statement as part of the “say their names” campaign. But the president of the Bay View Association ordered that the names be removed and threaten heavy fines against anyone who dared to restore them. The final entry of the Bay View Wikipedia page reads “Members asked the Board of Trustees to release a statement condemning racism, which the Board ultimately voted against in a 7 – 2 vote.”
It was indeed a coincidence that I found myself on Lake Michigan on the same day that Eugene Williams drowned 104 years ago. Looking back on this history, I am able to see how far we have advanced since the days of segregation and racially motivated violence. Just as Hemingway was able to find peace in the beautiful woods and waters of Petoskey, I believe that everyone should have the opportunity to feel safe and secure in their communing with nature. I am grateful to the Bay View Association for inviting me to their community. I believe my presence here is an expression of their desire to become more inclusive. It is not my intention to insult their hospitality by pointing out the glaring contradictions of the not-so-distant past. But if we are going to be truly “intentional in learning in order to increase our understanding”, we must be prepared to look boldly in the face of our history and demand of ourselves to do better.
The passage of time alone is no cure for the wounds and trauma of the past. If we forget the injuries that had caused the pain and fading scars we still experience to this day, we are doomed to repeat them. In his wisdom, Donald Loyd realized that the community he loved must come to grips with its own discriminatory history and work toward a more inclusive future. It is only through the intentional commitment to an objective reflection of distant memories that we can share the common joy of our shared heritage. Through recreation in the peace and solace of nature, in the clarity of full disclosure, we all might finally heal.