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Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters

Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters tells the story of the battle for access to leisure space in cities across the United States. This detailed and eloquent history shows how African Americans fought to enter segregated amusement areas not only in pursuit of happiness but in connection to a wider movement for racial equality.

Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters
The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America

Victoria W. Wolcott

2012 | 320 pages | Cloth $34.95 | Paper $26.50
American History / African-American Studies/African Studies / Cultural Studies
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Table of Contents

Chapter 1. A Tarnished Golden Age: Race and Recreation Before World War II
Chapter 2. The Fifth Freedom: Racial Liberalism, Nonviolence, and Recreation Riots in the 1940s
Chapter 3. "A Northern City with a Southern Exposure": Challenging Recreational Segregation in the 1950s
Chapter 4. Violence in the City of Good Neighbors: Delinquency and Consumer Rights in the Postwar City
Chapter 5. Building a National Movement: Students Confront Recreational Segregation
Chapter 6. "Riotland": Race and the Decline of Urban Amusements


Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]


When you suddenly find your tongue twisted and your speech stammering as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can't go to the public amusement park that has just been advertised on television, and see tears welling up in her eyes when she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children . . . then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait.
—Martin Luther King, Jr., "Letter from Birmingham Jail" (1963)

I do not know many Negroes who are eager to be "accepted" by white people, still less to be loved by them; they, the blacks, simply don't wish to be beaten over the head by the whites every instant of our brief passage on this planet.
—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time

When Martin Luther King, Jr.'s daughter Yolanda Denise asked her father why she could not go to Funtown, she touched on a painful reality that has been largely forgotten. Across the country, North and South, young African Americans discovered that time-honored discriminatory practices limited their access to amusement parks and other recreational facilities. And when they did approach these spaces they often confronted the white violence invoked by James Baldwin. Blacks wanted freedom and mobility without being "beaten over the head." They sought to live their lives fully as citizens and consumers without the constraints of segregation. Like King, they wished to protect their children from the reality of racism. Blacks desired not to be "loved" by whites but to coexist with them—and to use the swimming pools, roller-skating rinks, and Funtowns that made urban life in mid-twentieth-century America pleasurable.

The segregated recreation that the King family encountered in Atlanta was present throughout the country. The problem of segregated amusements was national in scope and the solution required a broad-based movement. African Americans in the twentieth century engaged in just such a movement, not simply for integration but for the occupation of public space in American cities. Among the most coveted urban spaces were those that encouraged young men and women to put aside their daily cares, flirt, and play. This potential for romance, and the association of African Americans with dirt and disorder, led to whites' insistence that recreational spaces be racially homogenous. Owners and managers of amusements constantly reassured their white customers that their facilities were clean and safe places to let loose and mix with the opposite sex. The result was an elaborate system of racial segregation in urban recreation. How African Americans challenged this segregation is the subject of this book.

Historians have developed a deep understanding of racial discrimination in housing and labor in mid-twentieth-century cities, yet their understanding of recreation remains shallow. Recreational facilities are public accommodations and can appear marginal compared to economic and political structures. Historians who have challenged the "master narrative" of civil rights by expanding their analyses both chronologically and geographically have promoted the primacy of economic and housing issues in the past decade and moved away from the examination of public accommodations. The long civil rights movement now incorporates the class struggles of the Great Depression and the welfare rights and black power movements of the 1970s. Rather than focusing on the conflict between the southern civil rights movement and whites' massive resistance to integration, historians have reached north and west to examine myriad local struggles for racial equality and freedom. Central to these examinations are economic policies, particularly in works that incorporate labor struggles during the Great Depression and World War II. And the civil rights movement's expansion north and west has shifted our attention to discriminatory housing patterns that segregated American cities.

For historians who focus on political economy, the struggle to open public accommodations is sometimes viewed as legalistic. Some see efforts to desegregate public accommodations as part of an "integrationist framework" that ignores black nationalism and views the 1964 Civil Rights Act as the culmination of the movement. Integration, it has been argued, also undermined black economic power and self-determination. Focusing on public accommodations can also reify the dichotomy of the "innocent" North, where Jim Crow supposedly did not exist, versus the "evil" South, with its system of legal apartheid. Historians of the long civil rights movement reject this dichotomy and demonstrate the culpability of the state in creating and reinforcing patterns of segregation throughout the country. These historians also reject the notion that black power activists' commitment to self-defense undermined nonviolence and interracialism, thus leading to the movement's decline. Instead, they take seriously the broader goals of black nationalism and refuse to elevate nonviolent activists to near saintly positions in the American imagination.

With these important correctives in mind, is it possible to revisit the struggle to open public accommodations while escaping the "integrationist framework"? I believe it is, but historians must recognize that our view of what constituted civil rights activism cannot be a zero-sum game. Desegregating public accommodations was a goal powerfully desired by African Americans throughout the country. Just because white liberals, who saw integration as the primary goal of racial equality, also embraced this objective does not diminish its centrality in the black freedom movement. Liberal interracialism coexisted with radical interracialism promoted by nonviolent pacifists and ordinary black citizens who demanded immediate change, not the gradual process of moral persuasion promoted by racial liberals. These movements are related but should not be conflated. Therefore, writing public accommodations out of the civil rights narrative, or downplaying it, is a mistake. Rather, we need to rethink the struggle for public accommodations with the insights of the long civil rights movement historiography in mind.

One way to broaden our understanding of desegregation is by conceiving of it as part of a broader struggle for control of and access to urban space. The segregation of public accommodations denied African Americans their right to occupy the same spaces as whites. They could not act as consumers on an equal basis, and they could not fully inhabit the cities and towns in which they lived. African Americans' demand for the right to use recreation was not simply about integration and interracial friendship but about power and possession. For this reason the struggle for recreational space was not only the purview of southern nonviolent activists but a national movement that included teenagers, mothers, and ordinary consumers who demanded equal access without having to face racial epithets and daily violence. African Americans wanted to participate in all the recreation cities had to offer, and they wished to protect their children from white violence. Violence perpetrated by whites, however, has not been widely recognized as a major factor in maintaining segregation. Popular memories of mid-twentieth-century urban amusements are replete with nostalgia and rarely contain references to segregation. This erasure of white violence has led many to blame the decline of urban recreation on "deviant" behavior by African Americans in newly desegregated amusements.

The struggle to desegregate public accommodations in the face of white terror did not begin with Rosa Parks's defiant stance in 1954. Even when identifying only activists who employed nonviolent passive resistance to challenge Jim Crow, one has to look at least a decade before the Montgomery bus boycott. The pioneering members of the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) carried out a major campaign against Chicago's segregated White City Roller Rink in 1942 and fine-tuned organizing strategies that would prove enormously effective a decade later. And prior to the war years many ordinary African American citizens challenged segregated recreation nationwide, swimming at whites only beaches, boycotting segregated roller rinks, and picketing Jim Crow amusement parks. For most the goal was desegregation, obtaining the right to occupy recreational space, rather than integration, fully sharing facilities with white neighbors. But motivations for engaging in the struggle over recreation varied. Liberal and radical white supporters of desegregation campaigns—for example, the white members of CORE who put their bodies on the line to fight for racial equality—were more likely to view full integration and interracialism as the goal. Middle-class African Americans often sought the respectability that came with full participation in consumerism. Working-class African Americans frequently conceived of the occupation of public space as a form of community control and a means to protect family members. Together these actors challenged the racial logic that associated white spaces with safety and security.

Moreover, the struggle for desegregated public accommodations was never fully distinct from the struggle for equal access to housing and employment. A local swimming pool or playground was an extension of a neighborhood, and as the racial composition of neighborhoods changed, urban dwellers contested these spaces. Whites who defended their "rights" to all-white workplaces and communities perhaps best understood this connection. Indeed, there is a relationship between what I term "recreation riots," racial conflicts in spaces of leisure, with housing riots in mid-twentieth-century American cities. Historians have documented hundreds of small-scale and large-scale housing riots in the 1940s and 1950s. In most cases, these were precipitated by an African American family's attempt to move into a white neighborhood, only to be met with angry residents who burned crosses, damaged property, and generally terrorized the newcomers. In the summer of 1951 one such riot in Cicero, an all-white suburb of Chicago, gained national attention as thousands of whites firebombed and gutted an apartment building after a middle-class black family moved in. Many miles away that same summer a white guard at Palisades Park, a New Jersey amusement park across the Hudson River from Manhattan, invoked this housing riot to justify his own threat of racial violence. When a black activist, Ulysses Smith, attempted to enter the Palisades Park pool the guard stopped him and asked whether "he wanted to create an incident such as had occurred in Cicero." In this case the Palisades guard used Cicero as a weapon to intimidate black activists and consumers. Violent attempts to forestall housing integration legitimated violent attempts to forestall recreational integration.

Two years before Smith approached the Palisades pool, New Jersey passed the Freeman Civil Rights Act in response to pressure from activists. The act specifically named swimming pools as a public accommodation where discrimination was prohibited. But the legal niceties of civil rights legislation had minimal meaning in such confrontations. Instead, it was Smith's willingness to brave the guards and white crowds at the pool that defined the limits and possibilities of desegregation. The law was a major player in the struggle over recreational segregation, but it did not have the power to enforce equal access to public accommodations. Most northern and border states had both civil rights laws and segregated recreational facilities. Some southern communities had no segregation laws mandating separate facilities, and yet blacks had little access to recreation. This complex story undercuts the simplistic binary of southern de jure segregation versus northern de facto segregation. Despite this, many scholars and observers would agree with Randall Kennedy that "Racial discrimination in places of public accommodation was, for the most part, a peculiar feature of southern folkways." This "southern exceptionalism" pervades discussions of public accommodations and reinforces the myth of an innocent North and guilt-ridden South. But even a cursory review of the evidence demonstrates that recreational segregation and the struggle to dismantle it were both national in scope.

Arguing for a national civil rights narrative and the end to southern exceptionalism does not erase the specific legal and social histories of different localities. White resistance to recreational integration in Birmingham, Alabama, was more profound and violent than white resistance to recreational integration in Buffalo, New York. And specific forms of recreation were more popular in some regions than others. Traditional urban amusement parks, for example, were largely phenomena of the Northeast and Midwest where entrepreneurs built them at the end of trolley lines. Throughout this book I have emphasized the lesser-known stories of northern segregation that have been widely neglected by scholars. To borrow from Jeanne Theoharis, in these cities recreational segregation was "hidden in plain sight." The presence of northern segregation challenges notions of northern innocence and helps us understand the civil rights movement as circulatory, rather than traveling from south to north. Individual activists who led campaigns to open amusement parks in Cleveland and New Jersey during the 1940s and 1950s trained nonviolent activists who challenged segregated accommodations in the South in the early 1960s. In addition, throughout the country ordinary African Americans insisted on their right to access amusements during the postwar period. Some became part of a political movement by filing lawsuits with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) or joining CORE, but many others engaged in daily forms of civil disobedience that were disconnected from civil rights leadership. When teenagers carried out this disobedience most commentators viewed their occupation of public space as juvenile delinquency or crime rather than a demand for racial equality. Throughout this book my focus will be on uncovering these stories on the local level rather than making broad regional generalities. Together these local stories document a national narrative of a mass movement to open recreational facilities to all Americans.

Although the struggle against segregation was national in scope, African Americans who sought to highlight the pervasiveness of Jim Crow and shame whites who supported it often used the language of regionalism as a tool. For example, in 1921 the African American newspaper Chicago Defender editorialized against beach segregation with the statement "This is not the South, and we refuse to be 'jim-crowed.'" In claiming that Chicago was "not the South" Chicago blacks were demanding that white northerners live up to their reputation as moderate on racial issues. Thus the myth of southern exceptionalism was not an invention of white supremacists alone but mobilized and perpetuated by African Americans to gain racial equality in the North and West. Some whites also used this rhetoric of regionalism to justify segregation. The owners of Coney Island Amusement Park in Cincinnati, for example, argued that their park had to be segregated because whites from nearby Kentucky frequented it. Southern exceptionalism may have been a myth, but in the realm of discourse it was a myth that was often deployed as a weapon both for and against segregation. In this way regionalism continued to wield real power throughout the twentieth century.

We cannot accurately map segregation using the southern de jure and northern de facto binary. How, then, was a national system of recreational segregation organized? To a startling extent it was violence—or the fear of violence—that dictated where and to what extent racial mixing could take place. This violence was not regional, located only in the South, but local. When whites beat African Americans seeking leisure at amusement parks or swimming pools, white officials and the mainstream media often viewed them as "hoodlums" causing trouble. But politicians and the courts also routinely used the threat of such incidents as a reason to slow the pace of integration, and owners of recreational facilities invoked the potential for racial conflict as a primary motivation for keeping blacks out. White violence was both physical and performative; white defenders of leisure spaces sought to intimidate African Americans and demonstrate the negative outcome of desegregation. White defenders ensured that recreation riots often followed formal attempts at desegregation. The state used this threat of violence to justify segregation. In the logic of judges and politicians, public space had to be orderly and safe in order to function. Violence resulting from desegregation efforts disrupted this order, and, in a circular argument, segregation needed to be maintained to prevent violence.

Much of that violence took place at amusement parks, swimming pools, and skating rinks—the main foci of this book. By examining these sites, in addition to activists and political organizations, it is possible to uncover broader patterns of struggle. Racial conflict between ordinary black consumers seeking leisure and white defenders of recreational space often lies outside the purview of social movements. African Americans challenged essential racial hierarchies when they occupied the most coveted forms of public space. When blacks destabilized these hierarchies, recreation riots, white resistance, and the denigration of such spaces often ensued. The centrality of controlled, orderly white recreation in urban life is most clearly evidenced by the aftermath of desegregation orders. When the courts declared particular recreational facilities "open," the result was rarely peaceful integration. This fact contradicts the popular understanding of the 1964 Civil Rights Act as solving the problem of public accommodations "virtually overnight." Instead, owners of pools and parks used a variety of subterfuges, particularly privatization, to subvert the law. And many municipalities closed down public facilities rather than comply with the courts. Owners of urban amusement parks that finally admitted black customers allowed their facilities to deteriorate and eventually sold the valuable land to developers. The denigration of urban amusements by the late 1960s created, in Heather Ann Thompson's words, the "criminalization of urban space." For many whites urban pools and parks were no longer sought-after respites but spaces of danger and potential conflict.

Recreation was a central racial battleground during the postwar period in part because leisure and consumerism had become key motifs in American life. The relative prosperity of American families meant they had both more time and more money to travel to an amusement park or frequent a roller-skating rink. The baby boom brought increasing demands for kiddie parks and playgrounds and, by the 1950s, growing ranks of teenagers looking for leisure and escape. Within the African American community, reformers had been leading campaigns for access to recreational facilities at least since the first Great Migration following World War I. By World War II, with a second Great Migration under way, these demands became more pressing. Ordinary African American citizens crowded into parks and beaches to occupy public space while demanding equality and supporting reformers' efforts. Within this wider context, civil rights leaders in the 1950s and 1960s were following the lead of previous generations of activists and black citizens. As Lizabeth Cohen asserts, "Mass consumption begot a mass civil rights movement." Access to equal recreation, then, was a principal demand of both the organized movement and ordinary people. It was also a demand that sympathetic white liberals found relatively unthreatening.

Given liberal support for integration by the 1940s, the duration and strength of white opposition to desegregation are notable. Among public accommodations this opposition was most pronounced in amusement parks, swimming pools, and skating rinks. All of these spaces invited young men and women to mix, raising the specter of interracial romance. They were also sites where hardworking Americans could be free from inhibition and forget the mundane trials of daily life. Recreation had transgressive potential as "liminal" spaces that represented "a liberation from the regimes of normative practices and performance codes of mundane life." This escapism into "imaginary landscapes" could lead to misbehavior, a fact owners and managers of amusement parks have long understood and sought to harness. While marketing thrill rides, illicit pleasures, and physical exertion to a white mass public, they also gated and policed their amusements, banning alcohol and "undesirables." Above all, the sense of safety amid chaos promoted by amusement parks and other recreational facilities was premised on segregation. Because safety and control were racialized categories, desegregation led to fears of violence. And when that violence broke out in the form of recreation riots, the relationship between race and disorder was reinforced.

Of course other forms of public accommodations experienced racial violence during the civil rights era. Lunch counters, department stores, movie theaters, and restaurants all saw white resistance and violence to varying degrees. But the pervasiveness of conflicts in recreational facilities undergoing integration was distinctive. In the case of amusement parks this was, in part, due to their size: they were usually the largest public accommodation in a city. Activists often targeted them for this reason. In Cincinnati, for example, activists chose to desegregate their local amusement park, Coney Island, because, as one protester noted, "as Coney Island went so went the restaurants, bars, and bowling alleys that catered to the general public."

Despite the optimism of Cincinnati's civil rights workers, amusement parks proved difficult to fully integrate. Some owners leased their swimming pools, dance halls, and skating rinks to private entities to subvert civil rights laws. Therefore, many parks had segregated spaces within formally desegregated landscapes. Even with these steps, meant to reassure white customers, the majority of traditional urban amusement parks closed by the late 1960s and early 1970s, as whites increasingly perceived them as locations of danger rather than pleasure. Many urban swimming pools also closed down or privatized after desegregation. For amusement parks there was also a spatial solution that impacted American culture in profound ways. Starting in 1955 when Disneyland opened in Anaheim, California, theme parks built on earlier amusement park owners' insistence on cleanliness and order. But by locating their parks outside cities, inaccessible by public transportation, theme parks successfully avoided racial conflict. By the late 1970s these parks no longer needed to define themselves explicitly as white spaces; therefore, there was little noticeable conflict at the new theme parks. With high gate fees teenagers could not easily roam the grounds of such parks, and the parks' well-trained staff helped defuse conflicts. This was a public accommodations' version of the "color-blind meritocracy" historians have found in public discourses around housing and education. Those who could afford to go to the theme park in their private cars belonged there. Those who could not were relegated to the city with few recreational options.


This book begins in Chapter 1 with a brief examination of how segregated recreation was both created and challenged at the turn of the twentieth century. Owners and operators marketed recreational facilities as safe spaces where white families would find cleanliness and order. By excluding African Americans they reinforced associations of disorder with blackness. But blacks continually confronted this segregation, even as it was being implemented. They occupied beaches, filed lawsuits, and boycotted amusement parks throughout the country. Given the weakness of state civil rights laws, those who policed segregation could rely on their institutional policies not to be successfully challenged in the courts. And white defenders of recreational space on Chicago's beaches and elsewhere used their fists to ensure coveted recreational facilities stayed white. By World War II civil rights organizations and liberal whites had begun to join forces with ordinary African Americans to challenge the color line in recreation. Chapter 2 examines this coalition in the 1940s, when racial liberalism dominated political life. For liberals, recreational segregation clearly contradicted the promises of American democracy, particularly during the war years. Radical nonviolent activists also targeted recreational segregation as new civil rights groups, most importantly CORE, developed innovative strategies to open parks and pools. But this idealism often clashed with the reality of white resistance, as attempts by black citizens and interracial activists to occupy recreational space sparked violent recriminations and the privatization of previously public recreation.

The role of radical nonviolence in opening recreation is further explored in Chapter 3 through an examination of the campaign to desegregate Cincinnati's Coney Island. In the early 1950s a group of pacifists led a remarkable series of protests at Coney Island that achieved partial desegregation and provided significant lessons for future campaigns. In 1954 the Brown v. Board of Education decision emboldened other activists, in the South as well as the North, to challenge the legal landscape of recreational segregation. Each lawsuit was preceded by an act of courage as African American mothers escorted their children to segregated parks, black teenagers swam at segregated beaches, and black businessmen took their golf clubs to municipal courses. Fear of racial conflict on the part of judges and local officials slowed the pace of desegregation during the Brown era, giving many communities time to subvert the law through privatization and closings. Chapter 4 examines how ordinary African Americans, disconnected from formal civil rights organizations, challenged white domination of a Buffalo amusement park, Crystal Beach. In Buffalo the fear of disorder stemmed not from civil rights protests but from the increased presence of black teenagers in the park. City officials and the local white media saw the violence as a problem of juvenile delinquency, unrelated to race. Proponents of Jim Crow in the South viewed the Buffalo riot as evidence of the racial violence that inevitably followed integration. Walt Disney offered a new solution to racial mixing at crowded amusement parks like Crystal Beach when he opened the first theme park in 1955.

Not all teenagers who challenged recreational segregation were dismissed as delinquents. Chapter 5 examines a more politicized group of young people who engaged in widespread protests. In 1960 the student movement focused on integration of public accommodations, including southern parks and pools. The response from southern white officials was swift as they closed public parks in Birmingham and drained pools throughout the region to forestall desegregation. In many northern cities African American activists and ordinary people also challenged recreational segregation. In cities such as Chicago, they faced large crowds of angry whites hurling rocks and racial epithets. Nonviolent activists, meanwhile, attacked racial segregation in a series of amusement parks. They finally opened the pool and dance hall in Cincinnati's Coney Island and made headlines with mass marches at Gwynn Oak in Baltimore.

Chapter 6 explores the impact of the 1964 Civil Rights Act on recreational segregation. Although many view Title II of the act, which called for desegregation of public accommodations, as an unmitigated success, the reality was that white resistance to its full implementation stymied the law's intent. Many African Americans were incensed by the slow pace of change and sought to make full use of amusement parks, beaches, and pools in their cities. But white consumers caught up in a public discourse of law and order increasingly associated urban recreational spaces with black criminality. Traditional amusement parks, in particular, closed in large numbers and were replaced by suburban theme parks that provided safety from black urban crowds.

The history of recreational segregation has been largely lost to the public imagination. There is an enormous amount of nostalgia associated with the urban trolley parks and lavish resort pools of a bygone era, a nostalgia that is explored in the conclusion. But the daily intimidation and violence experienced by African Americans seeking to enjoy urban leisure has not been given its due. Instead, commentators often blamed the racial rebellions and rising crime rate of the late 1960s for the decline of urban amusements. The popular myth of a golden age of urban recreation does not include the reality of white violence and black exclusion. Nostalgia for a lost past distorts this history and lays the blame for urban amusements' decline on African Americans' criminality in spaces of leisure after desegregation. However, childhood experiences of amusement parks and roller-skating rinks also point to a more complicated past and promising future. Combing the sources I have identified hundreds of racial incidents in recreational spaces to piece together the narrative presented here. But the facilities that saw little or no conflict, and welcomed black children to swim and play, are largely absent from the historical record. That history of interracial peace is also part of our past, present, and future. But in order to fully realize the promise of desegregation, we need to understand the struggle to achieve it.

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