Tobin Miller Shearer published Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America with Cornell University Press in 2017. In his book, Miller Shearer focuses on the history of the Fresh Air program, and, in particular, the voices of the children themselves through letters that they wrote, pictures that they took, and their testimonials. Shearer offers a careful social and cultural history of the Fresh Air programs, giving readers a good sense of the summer experiences for both hosts and the visiting children.
As part of our month-long focus on Black History Month, here is an excerpt from the Introduction.
Since 1877, Fresh Air programs from Maine to Montana brought hundreds of thousands of urban children to rural homes and camps for summer vacations. Through the 1950s, few had criticized the annual ventures. That changed in the 1960s. In 1963 a resident of Bennington, Vermont, noted that African American Fresh Air children became an “economic and social threat” to their former hosts after they reached adolescence. Although younger children could share intimate home space, white residents “repulsed” black teens. Three years later another critic called such social service programs “paternalistic arrogance.” By 1967, black and Latino residents from the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan labeled programs like Fresh Air “irrelevant, discriminatory, and not really committed to integrating.”
But it was not until the 1970s that the most intense criticism erupted. When the National Association of Black Social Workers declared in 1971 that placement of black children in white homes for fosterage and adoption was cultural “genocide,” Fresh Air critics intensified their rhetoric. In addition to ironically calling for city-based “stale-air” vacation programs directed at white suburban children, critics asserted that taking black and brown children out of the city was, in fact, “psychologically damaging.” Busing children to the country or suburbs, asserted the critics, harmed the children by instilling false expectations about their ability to relocate to such nonurban settings. That same year a blistering critique of the Cleveland “Friendly Town” Fresh Air program appeared in the pages of the historic black newspaper Call and Post excoriating the Inner City Protestant Parish for transporting children to “areas which lock them out” the rest of the year. Under the heading “Brushing up on Paternalism,” reporter Ellen Delmonte mocked not only the short duration of the suburban vacations but also the “magnanimous” gift of a new toothbrush given to each child as she or he climbed aboard buses bound for southern Ohio, western Pennsylvania, and rural New York. As Delmonte queried, “[W]as this their way of showing how they love all the little ‘cullud’ kids?”
Together they tell the story of a movement that was active in twenty states, that was based out of more than thirty-five cities, and that connected with more than one and a half million children from its inception through 1979.
Such acerbic criticism marks one end of the Fresh Air movement’s narrative arc. Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America tells the story of the Fresh Air movement’s efforts to bring city children to the country for summer vacations in homes and camps from the onset of World War II through the end of the 1970s. In addition to the words and actions of both adult hosts and critics, the exploits and insights of the Fresh Air children guide this narrative. Together they tell the story of a movement that was active in twenty states, that was based out of more than thirty-five cities, and that connected with more than one and a half million children from its inception through 1979.
That Fresh Air story hinges on four themes. First is the centrality of nature discourse to the Fresh Air enterprise. Promoters returned time and again to the notion that city children had never encountered lawns or green space. In the process, they promoted the countryside by disparaging the city. A second theme focuses on the multiple ways in which guest children protected their interests even while the adult hosts and administrators dismissed their actions as simple recalcitrance. The children surprised their hosts by their politeness as much as their truculence but had to face racial bias about their standards of behavior at every turn. The third central theme, the pursuit and promotion of innocence through age caps, follows from the second. Hosts preferred younger children because the older the guests became, the more problems the hosts perceived. A final theme emerges from the adult promoters’ persistent concern about sex. Program administrators fixated on the children’s knowledge of intimate matters as they tried to keep interracial romance from blossoming. Each chapter expands on these themes and introduces related topics such as health care, religion, swimming, finance, and power.
They took a far more positive view of the programs, contributing to an initiative designed “to bring inspiration, education and fun to children of all races and creeds trapped in . . . [the city’s] stone caverns.”
At some point in the forty years analyzed here, nearly every major urban center in the Northeast and Midwest hosted an initiative to offer short summer stays for children from the city. Although rarely found in the Deep South, each of those programs based in Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, New York, Pittsburgh, Seattle, and elsewhere sent children out and collected them back. The thousands of Fresh Air households who responded to invitations to join in Fresh Air work were usually white, rural or suburban. The hosts were usually home owners with their own children tended by a stay-at-home parent—most often the mother. Although poor white ethnic children had been the programs’ original beneficiaries, the hundreds of thousands of children who received invitations for summer vacations in host homes or Fresh Air–run camps usually were—after the 1950s—black or brown, came from poor families, had been vetted by both social service and medical providers, and (in the vast majority of the cases) lived inside a city’s limits. The cadre of organizers, administrators, boosters, and volunteers who wrote promotional pieces, managed logistics, vetted the children, and raised funds were also white, came from both the city and the country, had become increasingly professional in the course of the twentieth century, and believed fervently that their efforts had long-lasting effects on the children’s lives. They took a far more positive view of the programs, contributing to an initiative designed “to bring inspiration, education and fun to children of all races and creeds trapped in . . . [the city’s] stone caverns.”
Four types of programs structured the movement. Those run by newspapers like New York City’s Herald Tribune emerged during the Progressive Era and outlasted other sponsors. Originally concerned both with generating goodwill for the paper and combating malnutrition, newspapers dropped their official sponsorships by the 1960s as budgets tightened and nonprofits professionalized. The independent nonprofits that remained made nature, race, and poverty their chief concern amid the effects of the second Great Migration and the subsequent white flight. Denominational-run programs like those offered by the Christian Reformed Church proliferated during the middle of the twentieth century, driven by a concern for child evangelism. Throughout the four decades on which this book concentrates, religiously affiliated programs became increasingly focused on racial matters as church groups dealt with the aftermath of desegregation and the advent of civil rights activism. Social service agencies and settlement houses like New York’s Union Settlement Association included Fresh Air vacations among the broad range of programs they offered from the beginning of the twentieth century onward. Although also providing city-based summer programming, such agencies focused more on day trips and longer camp excursions but did help send children to private homes as well, usually in an effort to expose children to nature and white norms. Civic-religious associations like the joint venture run by the Ecumenical Metropolitan Ministry and the Seattle Public Schools or the cooperative initiatives organized by local congregations and Rotary or Kiwanis clubs appeared after World War I. These groups placed racial and class concerns at the forefront of their efforts as civic leaders searched for ways to respond to growing racial foment and urban unrest.
The interlocking but organizationally distinct groups that made up the movement used the same terminology and program design to market their initiatives. As the oldest, largest, and highest-profile rural hosting program, the Herald Tribune Fresh Air Fund provided the model, and others copied it. Independent groups like Chicago’s City Missionary Society and the Episcopal Diocese of New York adopted the Tribune’s “Fresh Air” label to describe their overall efforts and borrowed the “Friendly Town” title to publicize the home-based portion of their initiatives. All involved treated the home stays and camp stays as part of a single effort to save children from the city. To indicate this programmatic unity, “Fresh Air movement,” “Fresh Air program,” or simply “Fresh Air” will refer to the full breadth of rural hosting ventures for children from the city, including both those that sent children to homes and those that sent them to camps. At the same time, the term “Fresh Air Fund” or simply the “Fund” will be reserved for the Herald Tribune’s program. Independent sponsors will be noted where indicated.
The children’s experience during the summer vacations varied widely. Some children returned to the same host family for more than one summer, in a small number of cases as many as six or seven times. About half the children returned to the same home at least twice, but only about 10 percent returned to the same home more than two times. In other communities, hosts rarely offered re-invitations. A smaller percentage got to stay for extended visits of a month or longer, and some programs only offered a week or weekend vacation, but the vast majority returned home after two weeks. Between 1939 and 1979, an overwhelming majority of the children stayed in homes rather than camps. Upon occasion a select group—at most 10 percent of the total participants—spent Christmas vacation with their rural hosts. And although sponsors rarely found it difficult to recruit children interested in participating in the programs, a familial and social rumor network relayed cautionary tales about what to do and what to avoid doing when traveling to the country.