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Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters

The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America

By Victoria W. Wolcott

Publication Year: 2012

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.

Published by: University of Pennsylvania Press

Series: Politics and Culture in Modern America


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pp. 1-12

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...

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1 A Tarnished Golden Age: Race and Recreation Before World War II

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pp. 13-46

IN 1924, when the educator and social activist Dorothy Height was twelve years old, she decided to learn how to swim. Height and a few friends traveled to Pittsburgh’s downtown YWCA and approached the front desk. The receptionist told them simply, “Negro girls [cannot] swim in the YWCA...

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2 The Fifth Freedom: Racial Liberalism, Nonviolence, and Recreation Riots in the 1940s

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pp. 47-87

THE noted black sociologists St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton predicted in 1945 that “racial radicalism” of “gigantic proportions” would follow World War II unless the United States made significant racial progress. African Americans “were aware . . . that they were participating in a titanic struggle...

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3 "A Northern City with a Southern Exposure": Challenging Recreational Segregation in the 1950s

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pp. 88-124

ON a warm summer day in 1952, Marian Spencer, an African American woman living in Cincinnati, heard one of the ubiquitous radio ads for the city’s Coney Island Amusement Park. During the spring and summer “Uncle Al” would lure children to Coney with these words: “Come on, kiddies...

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4 Violence in the City of Good Neighbors: Delinquency and Consumer Rights in the Postwar City

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pp. 125-157

AFTER Brown the amount of formal political activity in northern states to open public accommodations declined. Racial liberals’ efforts to educate the public made blatant support for the segregation of public accommodations less acceptable, and NAACP lawsuits pressured civil rights states...

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5 Building a National Movement: Students Confront Recreational Segregation

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pp. 158-193

SOON after Disneyland opened, a real estate developer from Texas, Angus G. Wynne, Jr., visited the park. Impressed by its popularity, Wynne decided to create his own theme park between Dallas and Fort Worth. Wynne’s theme centered on the history of Texas. He flew six flags over his park representing...

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6 "Riotland": Race and the Decline of Urban Amusements

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pp. 194-225

IN the wake of a recreation riot at Glen Echo Park, Dick West, a columnist for the Chicago Defender, suggested a “new type of amusement park, a place called ‘Riotland,’” be built to accommodate rebellious teenagers. “It would feature such attractions as a ‘Tunnel of Hate’ where the young patrons...

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pp. 226-234

WHEN Walt Disney opened his new theme park in 1955, Anaheim was at the outskirts of suburban Los Angeles. By the 1980s, however, Disneyland was accessible by public transportation and frequented by local teenagers with discounted annual passes in hand. Customers began to complain that...


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pp. 235-296


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pp. 297-306


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pp. 307-310

E-ISBN-13: 9780812207590
E-ISBN-10: 0812207599
Print-ISBN-13: 9780812244342
Print-ISBN-10: 0812244346

Page Count: 328
Publication Year: 2012

Series Title: Politics and Culture in Modern America
Series Editor Byline: Series Editors: Margot Canaday, Glenda Gilmore, Michael Kazin, Thomas J. Sugrue See more Books in this Series

OCLC Number: 821735807
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • African Americans -- Recreation -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Segregation -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Recreation -- Social aspects -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • African Americans -- Civil rights -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • United States -- Race relations -- History -- 20th century
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