Desegregating the Jim Crow North: Racial Discrimination in the Postwar Bronx and the Fight to Integrate the Castle Hill Beach Club (1953-1973)

Article excerpt

On a brisk, bright afternoon in late March 1953, Anita Brown, a thirty-one year old housewife, left her apartment in the Bronx River Houses, boarded a city bus and traveled three miles southeast to the Castle Hill Beach Club (CHBC). She went to apply for a seasonal membership pass, which would have given her access to the club's pools, locker areas, picnic spaces, eateries and athletic fields. If the CHBC approved Mrs. Brown's application, she would have been the first black person admitted since the club opened its doors to the public in 1928. (2)

Anita Brown had acted boldly that morning. An African American attempting to integrate a predominantly white social club in the New York City in 1953 was not commonplace. Twentieth century New York is not often thought of as a city defined by its racial tensions or patterns of racial segregation. (3) Still, New York's social development throughout the first half of the twentieth century is emblematic of the forms of racial animosities in America's northern cities that created segregated housing patterns, influenced discriminatory hiring practices and blanketed many everyday interracial interactions with discomfort and sometimes downright hostility, as occurred during Harlem's riots in 1935 and 1943. (4)

Those moments of violence, combined with the democratic spirit of the nation's wartime ethos, inspired the passage of the country's first permanent anti-discrimination legislation and the creation of the first state-level anti-discrimination oversight and investigative commission, the State Commission Against Discrimination (SCAD). Not since Reconstruction had a state acted so boldly to address racial discrimination. (5) Still, racial bigots thrived in many postwar New York City neighborhoods and large sections of its labor market. Anita Brown's story reflects these trends. "I was given an application to fill out," Brown later testified in a SCAD hearing, "and was informed that they had no vacancies at the moment." The membership staff told her that if an opening in the club became available at a later date, they would notify her and process her application. (6) Anita Brown's neighbor, Ethel Lubarsky, who was white, arrived at the CHBC membership office the same time as Brown. Lubarsky submitted her application and paid the required $5 deposit. The staff immediately assigned her a locker number and issued a key and a temporary admissions pass. After the women chatted about what had transpired at the CHBC, Anita Brown suspected that she had been the victim of racial discrimination. On April 6, with still no word from the CHBC regarding her admission application, Anita Brown filed a complaint with SCAD against the CHBC, which set in motion a ten-year process to desegregate the club's facilities. (7)

The history of the Castle Hill Beach Club's discrimination against blacks provides a small, but significant window through which to view the history of Jim Crow racism in the postwar North. For far too long, Americans have ignored the ways twentieth-century racism was a national, not merely a regional, phenomenon. Part of the problem has been the de jure/de facto dichotomy, which understood the South's legally enforced (de jure) racial segregation as evidence of that region's peculiar character. When viewed through the de jure paradigm, Jim Crow racism was merely another example of how the South's society was out of step with the rest of the country. On the other hand, the de facto paradigm presents discernable signs of racial segregation in public schools and residential communities in the North as a result of individuals' natural choices, not codified law. When viewed through this lens, the North's racial segregation seems benign and unfortunate, but nonetheless unavoidable in a free society where people chose their neighbors and where public school students attended neighborhood schools. According to this dichotomy, racism in the North was considered to be more subtle and insidious than racism in the South, and therefore impossible to identify and eradicate. …