Race, Riots and Roller Coasters: Battles Over Segregated Recreation Shaped Civil Rights Movement

Historian explores meaning and practice of pervasive segregation of recreation sites

Release Date: August 23, 2012


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A new book by Victoria Wolcott explores how the American civil rights movement was sparked partly by young African Americans who challenged segregation at public recreational sites, such as parks and swimming pools.

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 North.

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 sites."

"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 accidental.

"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 says.

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 space."

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 says.

"Those who dared transgress these norms to get into more upscale (which is to say, whites-only) venues often came to violence," says Wolcott.

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 expression.

"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 rights movement."

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 cultures.

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