In the first half of the twentieth century, parks, pools, and playgrounds offered city dwellers room to exercise, relax, and escape urban cares, and young people the opportunity to mingle, flirt, and dance.
Contradicting the nostalgic image of urban leisure venues as democratic spaces, in Race, Riots, and Rollercoasters, author Victoria Wolcott reveals that racial segregation played a crucial part in their appeal. Wolcott shows how black activists and ordinary people fought such infringements on their right to access public leisure. When African Americans demanded inclusive public recreational facilities, white consumers abandoned those places. Many parks closed or privatized within a decade of desegregation. Wolcott’s book tracks the decline of the urban amusement park and the simultaneous rise of the suburban theme park, reframing these shifts within the civil rights context.
As part of a planned series on academic works of interest to roadside enthusiasts, the SCA has invited Victoria W. Wolcott, Professor of History at the University at Buffalo, SUNY, to answer a few questions about her book.
What inspired you to write this book?
When I was writing my first book, Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit, I was startled to realize how many public accommodations and spaces in Detroit were segregated in the mid-twentieth century. So I knew that was an aspect of urban life I wanted to explore. I then wrote an article on the 1956 Crystal Beach riot (an amusement park near Buffalo) for the Journal of American History. Researching that article I realized that there was a larger story to be told about segregated amusements. I spent much of my time reading industry sources (particularlyBillboard magazine’s “outside amusements” issues) to get a sense of how amusement parks, swimming pools and other forms of commercial recreation thought about race when marketing and maintaining their facilities. That combined with civil rights sources (NAACP papers, black newspapers etc.) helped me piece together the larger story of segregated amusements.
What was the biggest surprise you uncovered during your research?
Sadly it was the role that daily incidents of violence played in maintaining segregation. Few of these incidents received much public attention, but black families who ventured into segregated spaces were often confronted with violence from white customers and sometimes police. In highly segregated cities like Chicago this kind of violence in parks and beaches was commonplace. Racial violence was also used by city officials as a reason to maintain segregation—their logic was that keeping the races separate would prevent violence. Civil rights activists, particularly the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), helped illuminate this pattern by engaging in nonviolent direct action campaigns starting as early as the 1940s. They would be routinely beaten by onlookers and police, but could use these incidents to challenge segregation in the courts and in the media.
For my readers I think the biggest surprise was the fact that segregated public accommodations were not limited to the South. Segregation took different forms in different regions of the country, but blacks were routinely excluded from amusement parks and pools in the North and West. In some ways the South has done more to confront this legacy than other regions of the country.
How does your story relate to the BLM movement of today?
Incidents where African Americans are attacked or even just challenged for being in “white spaces” (think Trayvon Martin in a gated community or Ahmaud Arbery jogging in a white neighborhood) reflect the long legacy of segregation. Recreational spaces were marketed as “clean” and “safe” based on racial exclusion. That led many whites to associate African Americans with “uncleanliness” or “disorder,” justifying segregation and exclusion. Long after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act these associations often remain. Hopefully unraveling this history will help to break these stereotypes and create a more inclusive and egalitarian society.
In addition to RR&R, what three books or articles related to this topic would you recommend?
On swimming segregation I’d recommend Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. A great book on a relatively recent story of beach segregation in Connecticut is Andrew Kahrl, Free the Beaches: The Story of Ned Coll and the Battle for America’s Most Exclusive Shoreline. For a history of how American downtowns were marked by race and gender read Alison Isenberg, Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People who Made It.
About the Author: Victoria W. Wolcott is a professor of history at the University at Buffalo, State University of New York, where she teaches urban, African American, and women’s history. She is the author of Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit (2001) and Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (2012). Her current book project, Living in the Future: The Utopian Strain in the Long Civil Rights Movement, focuses on the emergence of experimental interracial communities in mid-twentieth-century America and their influence on the long civil rights movement. She is also researching the life of African American pacifist and civil rights activist Eroseanna Robinson.
The SCA would like to thank Professor Wolcott for taking the time to talk with us about her book, Race, Riots, and Rollercoasters. If you’d like to hear more, you can download the podcast interview with Victoria produced by the University of Pennsylvania Press.
Race, Riots, and Rollercoasters is available from the University of Pennsylvania Press for $26.50.
Per Victoria’s suggestion, we have lined up as our next guest Alison Isenberg, author of Downtown America: A History of the Place and the People who Made It. Look for her Q&A in a couple of weeks.