Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America by Victoria A. Wolcott
Victoria Wolcott sets her examination of twentieth-century race relations and civil rights activism in commercial spaces devoted to amusement and fun. The story she tells, however, is both sober and distressing. It is also remarkably fresh. Indeed, Wolcott successfully reasserts the historical importance of public accommodations at a time when the dominant strain in historiography emphasizes discrimination in the areas of housing and jobs. She accomplishes this task by reinterpreting direct-action campaigns to integrate dance halls, beaches, and roller rinks as part of the "broader struggle for control of and access to urban space" (p. 13). In Wolcott's view, the drive to desegregate leisure venues was not motivated by the goal of interracial harmony but rather by the desire among African Americans to occupy spaces where they could dance, swim, and frolic without fear of violent reprisals.
Wolcott's emphasis on spatial freedom requires her to nail the politics of racial advancement to specific terrain. Hence, the larger argument is built from numerous and widely scattered acts of defiance that were essentially local in their orientation. Notably, most of the events described in the book take place outside the Jim Crow South. In another departure from the traditional narrative of racial advancement, Wolcott adheres to the chronology of the "long civil rights movement." Following an introduction that cogently summarizes trends in recent scholarship, Wolcott recounts conflicts over public accommodations that occurred decades before the Montgomery bus boycott. Likewise, the study extends well beyond the passage of landmark civil rights legislation. Across the twentieth century, Wolcott details the persistent assertion of territorial rights among African Americans and equally determined reactions among resistant whites that alternated between fight and flight.
Wolcott's analysis is notable for highlighting the critical role of [End Page 475] violence in establishing the parameters of social interaction between the races. She argues convincingly that brute force, rather than law, organized the national system of segregation. In her focus on leisure venues, Wolcott introduces readers to "recreation riots," violent outbursts in which whites employed fists, bats, and clubs to intimidate blacks from intruding onto what they considered to be their territory. Through the 1960s, these assaults, which were especially vicious in dance halls, swimming pools, and other places where young persons of the opposite sex mingled, convinced governing authorities and property owners to maintain racial apartheid for fear of endangering public safety.
In the wake of civil rights laws, municipalities north and south of the Mason-Dixon Line often privatized public facilities rather than invite confrontation. When this tactic failed, the proprietors of commercial leisure venues simply channeled investment to locations beyond the reach of racial minorities. Indeed, Wolcott explains the rise of remote, suburban theme parks in the late twentieth century as a response to the recreation riots, which by this time were commonly attributed to unruly African American youth who had grown more assertive in claiming their rights.
The strongest sections of the book are those that succeed in connecting recreation riots to other contests over metropolitan turf. In a riveting chapter dissecting the daylong eruption of fights among black and white youths at Crystal Beach Amusement Park outside Buffalo, New York, in 1956, Wolcott presents the fracas as an extension of the racial tensions that gripped inner-city high schools in the midst of demographic transitions. By exposing this link, she demonstrates that the melee represented something more than an isolated case of juvenile delinquency, as civic elites insisted at the time.
Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters is a product of meticulous original research and deep engagement with the relevant secondary literature. Thoughtful analysis and expansive coverage make this an important book in the field of twentieth-century race relations in the United States. [End Page 476]
Andrew Hurley is professor of history at the University of Missouri-St. Louis.