The premise for historian Tobin Miller Shearer’s book, Two Weeks Every Summer: Fresh Air Children and the Problem of Race in America, began with a single photograph. As Shearer rifled through a Mennonite record room ten years ago in Pennsylvania, he discovered a peculiar image. In the photograph, a young African American girl casts her gaze solemnly downward while a group of white onlookers surround her at a train station. The vacant stares of the all-white group provide an unsettling backdrop for the unidentified child’s somber expression. Shearer learned that this photograph was a product of the Fresh Air Fund, an organization founded in 1877 that coordinated rural summer vacations for city children. The program arose out of a belief that nature provided something inherently virtuous that those who grew up in the city lacked. Although Fresh Air initially offered trips to ethnically white children, its efforts shifted to urban children of color after World War II. This shift is the focus of Two Weeks Every Summer, which documents the racial politics of the Fresh Air Fund.
Despite the seemingly niche subject, Two Weeks Every Summer moves past the parochial with topics that remain relevant to contemporary racial issues. Fresh Air’s programming reflected a national trend of whites solely addressing racism through positive interracial interactions, rather than the more effective tactic of dismantling systemic and institutional inequalities. The organization’s activism was also limited by its strict social boundaries. White hosts only extended equality temporarily to carefully-vetted children. Further, only a small fraction of hosts opted to invite their guests back the following year. While certain children of color may have elicited sympathy from white hosts, black and brown teenagers and their parents did not. These exclusions reveal the limits of Fresh Air activism. Ultimately, because of Fresh Air’s unwillingness to address institutional racism, Shearer argues that it “brought about only the most modest of changes in racial and class order.”
Another timely theme explored in the book involves the cultural dichotomy between city and country. The Fresh Air Fund consistently denigrated cities to justify sending urban children to the country. Fresh Air promotional materials conveyed cities as dirty, crowded, dangerous, and corrupting. Rural spaces, however, were wholesome, pure, and sanctifying because of their proximity to nature. This discourse remained largely uncontested until the 1960s, when the Fresh Air programs began to receive backlash. Black Power groups condemned the organization’s condescending tone toward urban culture, and even accused the program of “cultural genocide.” Critics also pointed out the hypocrisy of the trips. Although Fresh Air introduced black and brown children to rural landscapes for brief summer vacations, segregation kept people of color out of many of the host neighborhoods for the remainder of the year. Once again, this demonstrated the organization’s unwillingness to address systemic racism.
While Two Weeks Every Summer analyzes the institutional values and tactics of Fresh Air, it also emphasizes the agency of the children themselves. Despite adult hosts’ expectations about how their guests should behave, the children asserted their autonomy as “independent actors.” Although the Fresh Air Fund’s negatively characterized cities, the children often expressed their fondness for urban environments. Swimming in particular became a poignant site for children to act independently. Pools provided opportunities for children to swim, play, and cross barriers of racial segregation on their own terms, and literally outside the reach of adults. This reflected the national civil rights struggle, wherein swimming pools became strategic protest spaces. Further, visiting children sometimes schooled their adult hosts about the reality of racial dynamics. By communicating their perspectives and behaving according to their own desires, Shearer argues that these children waged their own civil rights struggles.
Overall, Shearer argues that the two most prominent legacies of Fresh Air include “racialized reunion and racialized rejection.” By creating opportunities for people of different races to live together, the organization fostered meaningful integration. Indeed, some former participants later reminisced about the positive bonds they created with their white hosts that cultivated a sense of “reunion” throughout the years. Conversely, the famous marches and sit-ins of the civil rights movement only allowed for brief moments of public integration. In this way, Fresh Air children crossing the color line to live with whites should not be underestimated. (tie in reunion) Still, Shearer highlights the significant limitations of the movement, which led to “racialized rejection.” Some participants recalled the sting of their invitations being rescinded once they became teenagers. Although the summer trips may have facilitated positive transracial encounters, Fresh Air’s strict rules–including age caps and the brevity of trips–made racialized rejection inevitable.
Two Weeks Every Summer exists among a small but significant subfield that examines the intersections of race and outdoor culture. Related works include The Land Was Ours and Free the Beaches by historian Andrew Kahrl; Black Faces, White Spaces by geographer Carolyn Finney; and Landscapes of Exclusion by historian William O’Brien. By bridging the divide between environmental and cultural history, this scholarship forges important new contributions to both fields. Two Weeks Every Summer is no exception. Shearer’s arguments about the divide between rural and urban, as well as the failures of limiting civil rights activism to individual encounters are particularly poignant. Overall, the book provides critical insights about the pervasive problems of race that still linger in the United States.