South Chagrin Reservation is a part of the Cleveland Metropolitan Parks system and has historically been used by the African American community of Cleveland as a place of gathering and celebration. With events going all the way back to the 1930s. South Chagrin Reservation has been used by the black community for picnics, a celebration for the historically black college fraternity Kappa Alpha Psi, the black-run business club the Royal Vagabonds, and camping trips through Mt. Pleasant Day Camp and Friendly Inn. Up until the summer of 1958, South Chagrin Reservation was a place where the black community of Cleveland could gather to enjoy the outdoors while celebrating their community. This was very different from other green spaces across the United States, notably the National Parks system, which were far more exclusionary if not explicitly segregated.
But this would all change on Memorial day weekend of 1958 when six black men were brutally beaten by white police officers from the Metroparks and surrounding towns. Two of the beaten men would be arrested and tried for assaulting an officer and disorderly conduct. The NAACP would sit in on the ensuing trial but it did not have much of an effect, as one of the men was forced to pay a $100 fine. The Metroparks system then went on to publicly defend the police officers involved with the crime. This event created a shift in South Chagrin Reservation, a place that had previously been considered a relatively safe place for the black community. The 1958 beating showed that the prejudice of the broader nation had crept into the park, the beatings and subsequent reaction from the Metroparks system showed that South Chagrin Reservation had become a place of hostility. As a result, there were far fewer events hosted in South Chagrin Reservation by the black community throughout the 1960s.
By the 1970s the Metroparks took notice of the lack of black engagement in the parks. Michael Vitanonio, the Director of Personnel for the Cleveland Metroparks, felt that this was due to a lack of awareness of opportunities in the black community. However, this explanation avoids the Metroparks system’s part in creating that rift. Nevertheless, the Metroparks began to work to engage the black community of Cleveland. The man spearheading this goal was Bourbon Zeigler was promoted from a park ranger to Assistant Personnel Director of the Metroparks. Zeigler worked hard to promote job opportunities and use of Metroparks, including South Chagrin Reservation, to black residents of Cleveland. His efforts proved effective as the level of black engagement with the parks was on a rise by the mid 70s.
While this was by no means a perfect reset of the black community’s relationship with South Chagrin Reservation, it was a start. The black community would have more events hosted at South Chagrin Reservation including a meeting from a historically black lodge and more camping opportunities. These camping opportunities once again gave black children the chance to explore and engage with nature in a safe setting. Despite the earlier incident of violence, the black community of Cleveland was beginning to reclaim a location that they had been using for decades, proving that places that are important to a community are never really lost.
- “Camping Season Opens at Friendly Settlement.” Call & Post. June 29, 1939.
- “Carrie Turner Aides Give Blind a Picnic.” Call & Post. July 27, 1957.
- “City Farms on Camera.” Call & Post. July 13, 1957.
- “Friendly Inn Plans Day Camp for Youngsters.” Call & Post. June 8, 1957.
- “Metro Parks System has ‘Spot’ Participation of Minorities.” Call & Post. October 12, 1974.
- “Mt. Pleasant Center Boasts of Day Camp.” Call & Post. June 22, 1957.
- “Prince Hall Lodges Host Picnic for 300.” Call & Post. August 5, 1978.
- “Silhouettes and Undergrads have Affairs as Kappas End Club Year.” Call & Post. June 30, 1951.
- “Summer Classes at Arts Center.” Call & Post. July 2, 1977.
- “Vagabonds, Vag-Ettes Spend Casual Weekend.” Call & Post. July 21, 1951.
- Sears, Art, J. “Park Beatings ‘Whitewashed.'” Call & Post. June 14, 1958.
- Sears, Art, J. 1958. “FEBI Launches Probe into Park Beatings: Eyewitness Describes Cop Abuse.” Call & Post. June 21, 1958.
- Taylor, Candacy A. Overground Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America. New York: Abrams, 2020.
- Ziglar, Ferne. “A Day in the Life of A Metropolitan Park.” Call & Post. November 9, 1974.