BUFFALO, N.Y. -- Victoria W. Wolcott, PhD, associate professor
of history at the University at Buffalo, is the author of a new
book in which she exposes the legacy of segregated recreation in
American cities after World War II.
The book, "Race, Riots and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over
Segregated Recreation in America," out this month from the
University of Pennsylvania Press, continues Wolcott's research on
the African-American experience in the 20th-century urban
This study, she says demonstrates the importance of leisure
venues in the post-war battle for civil rights and "how the
movement was sparked not only by organized activists, but by young
African Americans who publicly challenged segregation at swimming
pools, movie theaters, city parks and other recreational
"These people stood up for inclusion in the face of a level of
violence and intimidation that most of us don't 'remember' or
recognize today," Wolcott says.
"The tools of segregation in post-war America varied from region
to region and from one recreational site to another," she says,
"but included barring African Americans entry to pools, beaches,
parks, skating rinks, etc.; permitting them to use such places only
on one or two 'special' days during the year; and allowing them to
enter sites but refusing them the actual use of some or all of the
facilities. Some places, of course, were completely segregated at
all times, a fact that sometimes was announced publicly."
Wolcott says the fact that popular recreational facilities
became ground zero in the civil rights fight was not
"Certain kinds of places, like public and private swimming pools
and centers, well-kept city parks, roller rinks and other popular
amusement sites, are associated in the public mind with
cleanliness, safety and fun," says Wolcott.
"When these places exclude people of color by law or practice,
the implications resonate culturally, politically and personally,
long after desegregation in the legal sense has taken place," she
Wolcott discusses how, as black migration and white flight
increased spatial segregation in American cities, teenagers
sometimes found themselves on the front lines of the
mid-20th-century racial conflict.
She discussed an example of this in a 2006 article in the
Journal of American History (Vol.93, No. 1), in which she
deconstructed a 1956 riot at Crystal Beach, a Lake Erie amusement
park and beach on the Ontario shore.
The park had been a unique and popular white enclave for more
than 60 years, and when young African Americans began to integrate
it their presence was deeply resented by white patrons.
In 1956, the simmering ill will precipitated a riot that began
with gangs of black and white teenagers, male and female, throwing
bottles, assaulting people and terrorizing one another in the
amusement park, along the adjacent beach and later aboard the
Canadiana, a boat that ferried up to 3,000 passengers at a time
from Buffalo to Crystal Beach.
Wolcott says, "A number of people were injured in the melee and
youths of both races were arrested. The event was followed by a
public debate over 'juvenile delinquency' that masked the fact that
the uprising exemplified a profound racial struggle over public
Such clashes were not a unique occurrence.
Wolcott says, "After World War II, in defiance of segregationist
strictures, African American activists as well as ordinary people,
many of them young, began to protest segregation by swimming at
white-only beaches across the country.
"They also boycotted roller rinks and movie houses that
discriminated against them, invaded public -- and private -- pools
and parks that refused them entry on the basis of race and
conducted similar acts of protest at other leisure sites," she
"Those who dared transgress these norms to get into more upscale
(which is to say, whites-only) venues often came to violence," says
The tools of segregationists were, on one end of the spectrum,
anger, resistance and refusal and on the other end, mobs, threats
of or actual physical violence, paddy wagons and violent police
action with and without dogs. In one case, a furious motel owner
poured acid into a "whites only" pool in which African Americans
and whites were swimming together.
After years of consistent civil disobedience, much violence and
many law suits, popular recreational spaces were integrated. At
this point, says Wolcott, racial rejection found a new mode of
"Once they were integrated," she says, "formerly segregated
parks, theaters and other venues, however popular, were no longer
considered premium recreation sites by whites.
"Rather than share places with black patrons, they abandoned the
space entirely," she says, "and, because of lost patronage, many
private venues closed, often within a matter of a few years."
This practice by white patrons was copied in many cases by civil
authorities. They allowed integrated but now abandoned public
recreational sites to go to seed. Lack of public maintenance
eventually meant broken equipment or no equipment, ruined
plantings, playgrounds and pools strewn with broken glass and badly
damaged playing fields and shelters.
Ultimately these ruined facilities were abandoned as well,
leaving many urban black young people and children with no decent
public recreation sites at all.
And so it continues today in many cities.
Wolcott says her findings contradict the nostalgic image of
urban leisure venues as democratic spaces to which everyone had
access. It also demonstrates the significance of leisure in
American race relations.
"The decline of the urban amusement park and other
once-segregated public facilities," she says, "is tied to the
simultaneous increase in white flight and rise of suburban theme
parks. This fact broadens the study's significance beyond the civil
Wolcott is the author of "Remaking Respectability: African
American Women in Interwar Detroit" (University of North Carolina
Press, 2001), which offers a gender perspective on community
formation and racial politics in Detroit, and many articles
addressing the history of gendered political and racial