‘A place of refuge’: Bird-watching takes flight on Chicago’s South Side

Why We Wrote This

Access to nature is an intangible and often underappreciated privilege. One community activist is rejuvenating Chicago with urban oases for both birds and humans, bringing nature – and birding – to the inner city.  

Amanda Paulson/The Christian Science Monitor
Sherry Williams stands by a garden in the Douglas Tomb State Historic Site in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood Aug. 7, 2019. The small park is one of two bird sanctuaries that Ms. Williams helped to establish.

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As a young girl growing up in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood, Sherry Williams struggled to find nature. She lived on a busy street that had no backyards or front yards. The nearest park was across a tacitly understood racial line: Black people weren’t welcome. 

That lack of access to green space led Ms. Williams, as an adult, to reclaim and transform under-used parks on Chicago’s South Side. More than 15 years ago, she also created the first “Afrobirding” group, which meets monthly, often at one of two bird sanctuaries she helped create.

In the process, she’s diversifying and broadening a pastime known for its narrow demographics. Despite the typical birder stereotype of older, white people, Ms. Williams says it’s a hobby that fits naturally with African American heritage. She often begins bird walks by pointing out to people the parallels between the Great Migration that many African Americans, including her grandparents, made from the rural South to the urban North and the migration that so many bird species make every year.

As Ms. Williams points out, “Both birds and humans come for the same thing – a home, a place to raise their families, a place of safety, a place of refuge.” 

When Sherry Williams arrives at the Douglas Tomb State Historic Site in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, she has her 13-year-old granddaughter with her – and an assignment. “Find three different bird species before we leave,” she tells Shanti.

It’s fitting, given the importance that Ms. Williams’s own grandmother played for her, particularly when it came to the natural world.

“She taught me birds and trees and bees and bugs, she taught me sunrises and sunsets, constellations, to name the stars,” recalls Ms. Williams, from beneath the dual shade of a catalpa tree and her big, floppy, white hat. “I then passed that to my daughters.”

And she’s been passing it on to others in her community too. More than 15 years ago, Ms. Williams created the first “Afrobirding” group, meeting monthly in her neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side, often at one of two bird sanctuaries she helped create.

In the process, she’s diversifying and broadening a pastime that’s often known for its narrow demographics.

Despite the typical birder stereotype of older, white people, Ms. Williams says it’s a hobby that fits in naturally with the heritage of many cultures – particularly that of African Americans. She often begins bird walks by pointing out to people the parallels between the Great Migration that many African Americans, including her grandparents, made from the rural South to the urban North and the migration that so many bird species make every year.

“Both birds and humans come for the same thing – a home, a place to raise their families, a place of safety, a place of refuge,” says Ms. Williams. It’s a story that resonates with many immigrants whose families came from other countries too, she says.

Rebeccah Sanders, senior vice president of states with the Audubon Society, remembers getting that message when she first went on one of Ms. Williams’s bird walks. Ms. Williams had created a migration path around the site, with wooden stakes featuring laminated photos of both birds and local community members, recalls Ms. Sanders. Each photo had a paragraph about its “migration story” and how it – bird or individual – came to Chicago.

"The invisible church"

“She connected people’s stories to nature stories,” says Ms. Sanders. “When we think about birding or the conservation movement, it’s about meeting people where they are, recognizing that we all have a shared interest in having a healthy environment, but we all may have different entry points to how we get there. Someone like Sherry has opened that door to a whole bunch of different stories.”

Ms. Williams’s family’s migration story started with her grandmother, who brought her daughters north to Chicago from Inverness, Mississippi, in 1942. On annual summer treks back south, Ms. Williams learned from her grandmother about their history in that state, about why her grandmother felt the need to move, and about the systemic racism and abuse that her family and other sharecropping families suffered. Her family had established a church in 1904, but for her grandmother, says Ms. Williams, nature offered a sort of “invisible church” all around, freed from the constraints of an oppressive ideology, with roots in remembered heritage from Africa.

“She wanted me to understand more deeply about the invisible church. She’d take me to those creeks and those bayous and all of the trees, and she’d show me and identify what they are,” recalls Ms. Williams. “I began to understand the goodness and grace of God in those alone moments.”

Back in Chicago, Ms. Williams struggled as a young girl to find nature in Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood. She lived on a busy street that had apartments above the storefronts, but no backyards or front yards.

The nearest park was across a tacitly understood racial line: Black people weren’t welcome. The closest one Ms. Williams could use was a mile away, and that was only open to her at certain times.

Not having access to that green space is a big reason why she decided, as an adult, to start reclaiming and improving some under-used parks on the South Side, turning them into places welcoming to both birds and people.

“The term now is called ‘occupy.’ I didn’t ask permission,” laughs Ms. Williams. “I thought, if we build bird oases, that could very well represent some of the remnants of the ‘invisible church,’ but at the same time we’re reflecting and recognizing and celebrating our survival.”

She had noticed that birds were attracted to the debris around the old Pullman clock tower, which had been damaged in a fire and had a flourishing weed garden. Ms. Williams got materials from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology about local birds, and started inviting friends to show up weekly to the Pullman site for her newly created “Afrobirders club.”

One member made a huge breakfast buffet every week to lure people out of their beds early. Ms. Williams and other volunteers helped people find inexpensive binoculars, and created paths on the site, including the photos and stories that so enthralled Ms. Sanders.

“The original intent here was a burial ground for Stephen A. Douglas,” Ms. Williams says, looking around at the paths and flowers around her, including trees and shrubs and native species that volunteers planted. “I’m looking at sites beyond what was intended.”

A grant allowed Green Corps volunteers to plant more than 100 trees and shrubs at the Pullman site, and in 2012, Ms. Williams became an Audubon fellow, which gave her more funding that went to improving the Douglas site: planting white oaks, black oaks, and other native trees, shrubs, and flowers. 

Bridging historical gaps

As she looks around the Douglas site now, Ms. Williams is disappointed. She’s been largely absent for a year, getting a masters degree in library and innovation sciences from the University of Illinois, and the state has hired a manager. The gates are now closed at night. Some of the benches are stacked up. Signs she created are missing. 

“Stuff like that shows me there’s a disconnect,” she says, shaking her head, and vowing to get changes made.

She’s eager to get back to regular Afrobirder gatherings, and hopes they can help advocate, again, for better access to sites like the Douglas park. And she’s pleased to see that her granddaughter, as she’s been talking, has found several birds, including crows and robins, Shanti’s favorite.

Many of the birds that come to her bird oases are common ones but that doesn’t make Ms. Williams treasure them less. As a conversation starter, she often asks people what their favorite bird is, and hers is clear: the crow. “He’s so intelligent it’s mindblowing,” she laughs, as she spots a crow light on the ground near her. “I don’t mess with them.”

The oases Ms. Williams has created are small, but in a city, those tiny spots of green can be important for both birds and people, says Ms. Sanders. “Someone like Sherry can help bridge the historical gap between communities that don’t see themselves reflected in these outdoor spaces, and she provides that path for them,” she says, adding that the only way people start to care about nature – whether huge biosphere reserves or local parks – is by experiencing it.

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