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

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

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

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


Throughout the twentieth century, African Americans challenged segregation at amusement parks, swimming pools, and skating rinks not only in pursuit of pleasure but as part of a wider struggle for racial equality. Well before the Montgomery bus boycott, mothers led their children into segregated amusement parks, teenagers congregated at forbidden swimming pools, and church groups picnicked at white-only parks. But too often white mobs attacked those who dared to transgress racial norms. In Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters, Victoria W. Wolcott tells the story of this battle for access to leisure space in cities all over the United States.

Contradicting the nostalgic image of urban leisure venues as democratic spaces, Wolcott reveals that racial segregation was crucial to their appeal. Parks, pools, and playgrounds offered city dwellers room to exercise, relax, and escape urban cares. These gathering spots also gave young people the opportunity to mingle, flirt, and dance. As cities grew more diverse, these social forms of fun prompted white insistence on racially exclusive recreation. Wolcott shows how black activists and ordinary people fought such infringements on their right to access public leisure. In the face of violence and intimidation, they swam at white-only beaches, boycotted discriminatory roller rinks, and picketed Jim Crow amusement parks. 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.

Filled with detailed accounts and powerful insights, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters brings to light overlooked aspects of conflicts over public accommodations. This eloquent history demonstrates the significance of leisure in American race relations.


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 (1963)

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 . . .

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