- “We Do Not Care Particularly about the Skating Rinks”African American Challenges to Racial Discrimination in Places of Public Amusement in Nineteenth-Century Boston, Massachusetts
On a Saturday in January 1885, Richard Brown, a night inspector of customs and prominent member of Boston’s black community, and two of his grandchildren, Louisa and Richard Lewis, approached the ticket booth at the Boston Roller Skating Rink, owned by Frank Winslow. George Hawes, the rink’s ticket agent, immediately informed Brown that the establishment was private and that African Americans were not welcome. Brown objected, arguing that the rink publicly advertised, called for the patronage of the public, and was not, therefore, a private facility. Hawes was moved by neither Brown’s appeal nor his crying grandchildren, and upon his orders, two or three men grabbed Brown by the collar as the three were “violently thrust out of the building.” Brown was angered not only by the general insult but because the incident took place in front of his grandchildren. They, Brown explained in a petition to Boston’s city council for the revocation of the rink’s license, had been born after the Civil War, and “since the abolition of slavery had never till then known the extent of the prejudice which once existed against their race and color and which lingers among ill informed persons.” Several days later, in a separate incident, employees excluded attorney Edward Everett Brown and furniture salesroom manager George Freeman from the Highland Skating Rink in Roxbury. When questioned about his motives, the rink manager David McKay responded, “You are colored, and your friend is colored; I allow no colored persons to skate on my floor.” They could, McKay explained, “buy tickets admitting them simply as spectators . . . but they cannot skate here. . . . I would not break the rule even for Fred Douglass.”1
Edward Brown and Freeman responded with outrage and explained that McKay’s actions were in violation of an 1865 state law prohibiting racial discrimination in places of public accommodation. Brown, in particular, asserted his authority as a lawyer. Brown was an active member of Boston’s black political community and was committed to standing up for African Americans’ civil rights. “I shall take legal action against you, and [End Page 254] fight you to the bitter end” he told McKay. “As a member of the bar I shall push this matter through, and we will see if you will be allowed to run your rink in direct violation of the law.”2 Exclusion from skating rinks was tragic evidence that one’s race continued to be a marker of inequality. As patrons in both cases brought suits in local courts, black Bostonians mobilized to change the law and prevent future humiliations.
As an outgrowth of community protest, Julius C. Chappelle, the sole African American member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives, proposed the new legislation. During the deliberations over the law, a white member of the House Committee on the Judiciary asked Chappelle why black patrons were so interested in entering a seemingly inconsequential place. Chappelle explained the position of the protesters and summarized the spirit behind the continued opposition to discrimination in places of public amusement. “We do not care particularly about the skating rinks,” Chappelle clarified, “but it is the principle that underlies the whole thing that we argue for. I tell you, if a notice should be put up over the gates of hell that colored men would not be admitted, we would try to enter, because we have a right to. It is on principles of rights that belong to us that we want this bill passed and public places thrown open.”3 For Chappelle and others, entry to places of public amusement, like roller-skating rinks, was about not just confronting the stigma of racial exclusion through participation in a new urban leisure culture but also expanding the state’s capacity to guarantee equality. As proprietors, supported by the Massachusetts Supreme Court, asserted a right to exclude or segregate black patrons, African Americans pushed for state regulation to police and penalize business owners for racial discrimination. Their activism succeeded when the legislature passed...