Andrew W. Kahrl is Assistant Professor of History at Marquette University and author of The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South. By exploring how beaches and waterfronts became sites of racial contest, The Land Was Ours gives us a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of racism and resistance. In the piece below, Kahrl looks to the history of segregated leisure in an effort to contextualize the nationwide discussion of race occasioned by the killing of African American teenager Trayvon Martin.
Earlier this month, in the face of outrage over the killing of Trayvon Martin, the conservative columnist John Derbyshire penned a wide-ranging racist screed offered in the guise of “a talk that nonblack Americans have with their kids.” In the piece, which eventually led to his dismissal from the National Review, Derbyshire posited that nonblacks planning a trip to a beach or amusement park know to “find out whether it is likely to be swamped with blacks.” Those objecting to the implication of widely-held and casually blatant racism in Derbyshire’s remarks should look to the history of the urban island park Belle Isle, where we find evidence of white America’s strategic retreat from integrated public leisure spaces. Look also to Twin Lakes, the gated community where Martin was gunned down by a neighborhood watchman, and where we see the kind of space to which many whites retreated. Indeed, the historical forces that led to the tragic death of Martin and those that have steadily re-segregated and privatized America’s leisure spaces are deeply entwined.
It was perhaps fitting that, on the day after Derbyshire’s piece was published, the state of Michigan announced plans to charge entry fees to Belle Isle in order to fund improvements and eventually make the park an attractive place for “corporate outings” and other private events. Once considered one of the nation's finest urban parks, Belle Isle suffered serious budget cuts and deterioration after being mostly abandoned by whites. For, in the summer of 1943, Belle Isle provided the spark that lit one of the nation’s worst race riots. On a hot summer afternoon, an estimated crowd of one-hundred thousand whites and blacks jostled for space to picnic and swim on the island. Fights erupted and soon spilled over onto the mainland. When the dust settled two days later, twenty-five African American and nine white Detroiters were dead. It was neither the first nor the last time that an attempt to draw (or erase) a color line in the sand would descend into deadly violence.
While we tend to think of segregated beaches and public parks as among the most irrational excesses of the Jim Crow era (how absurd, after all, is the notion that one can demarcate a color line across a body of water), racialized leisure space served an important function in the maintenance of white supremacy. In Jim Crow America, working- and middle-class whites came to see public beaches and parks as their own private domain—a publicly funded “country club” for the common (white) folk—and understood desegregation as the theft of “their” beaches and parks at the hands of privileged white public officials. That these public officials were themselves often members of private swim clubs and owners of summer vacation homes, thus experiencing fewer direct effects of desegregation, served only to fuel white backlash against civil rights, and cynicism toward government in general.
But while some whites defended what they saw as their “rights” to segregated leisure by greeting African Americans at the park and on the shore with chains and baseball bats, those who could afford it instead retreated to new, commercial theme parks, safely located in remote outposts of suburbia, accessible only by automobile. Or, they implemented a host of racially laden but ostensibly color-blind measures of exclusion designed to make public beaches “public” in name only. During the years when African Americans stepped up demands for the right to enjoy public beaches, many wealthy shoreline municipalities, especially along the northeastern seaboard, adopted entry fees (with different rates for residents and non-residents), removed public locker rooms, or—in some cases—placed outright bans on non-resident access.
Meanwhile, towns with comparatively large numbers of poor and minorities steadily abandoned public beaches altogether and sold portions of their beachfront holdings to private developers. Other towns targeted by civil rights protests proposed designating certain days on the summer calendar when poor blacks from the inner city, under the auspices of the Fresh Air fund and other charitable organizations, could visit the beach—and, presumably, allowing locals to do as Derbyshire would later advise: make other plans. We see this form of strategic avoidance on display at public beaches and parks across the country today, where on certain holidays and pre-scheduled annual events, large crowds of African Americans and other minorities gather to enjoy a moment in the sun while whites retreat to their backyards and private clubs. Indeed, the irony of the outrage among white liberals over Derbyshire’s “talk” is that so many of them already teach those same lessons simply by virtue of their choices of where (and when) to take their children for pleasure and amusement each summer.
The adage “fear proves itself” offers an apt description of the re-segregation via privatization of leisure space over the past several decades. In the years following desegregation, African Americans ventured to beaches and amusement parks expecting—and prepared for—a confrontation. Not surprisingly, they came in groups, or what white observers would label “gangs,” because of the sense of security it afforded. Expectations of discriminatory treatment by vendors and businesses, and harassment by police officers, were often confirmed upon arrival. Black beachgoers’ exuberance soon turned into anger, which found expression in loud demonstrations, property damage, or simply meeting whites’ hostile stares in kind. Media coverage of events such as the 1989 Labor Day weekend “riot” at Virginia Beach, where underlying tensions over police brutality and exploitative practices by local businesses were ignored in favor of sensationalistic depictions of black violence and “criminality,” only fueled white America’s retreat from places populated by large crowds of blacks at leisure.
The answer, for most white Americans, was to retreat even further behind the walls of an increasingly fortressed America. The rise of private beaches and decline of public ones paralleled (and often accompanied) the boom in gated residential communities in the 1970s and 1980s. Indeed, as with “Twin Lakes,” where Trayvon Martin was gunned down, exclusive access to recreational and environmental amenities such as man-make lakes and private beaches are prominently featured in advertisements for newly developed gated communities. Such features signal to prospective residents that, behind these walls, they can expect to enjoy freedom from any awkward or threatening encounters with the “race problem” during their moments of leisure. Just as the physical layout of gated communities (no thru-ways, a jigsaw pattern of cul-de-sacs) are meant to signal to residents that an unfamiliar person is, by definition, a suspicious person (since there’s no plausible reason they might be passing through on the way to somewhere else), the culture of leisure activities behind these gates reinforces the notion that an integrated leisure space is a dangerous one.
Not surprisingly, white America’s abandonment of public beaches and parks such as Belle Isle has only reinforced those prejudices, as the steady decline in public funding for maintenance and improvement of public beaches and parks has, indeed, made these places unappealing and often dangerous to visit, confirming in many observers’ minds the linkages between racial integration and deterioration. In this age when proposals to fund even the most basic of public services are contentious, it is no surprise that few even talk about revitalizing public space in America through public works projects, and instead conclude that the only way to arrest this vicious cycle is to hand these facilities over to private, for-profit entities dedicated to keeping undesirables out and dollars flowing in. Similar dynamics can be observed in Twin Lakes and other neighborhoods protected by private security guards and citizen watch groups, where the evisceration of funds for police departments to do neighborhood policing has contributed to a loss of faith in public institutions, fueling homeowners’ sense of insecurity and embrace of vigilantism.
That we don’t often hear about racial incidents at beaches and amusement parks today is less a sign of how far we have come and more an indication of how effectively we have limited even the chances of an encounter between large groups of whites and blacks in leisure settings. The sad fact is that most white Americans don’t consciously share Derbyshire’s racist views, not because they have confronted and worked to overcome their prejudices through deliberate actions, but rather because their daily lives are often absent of situations where those fears might become manifest. Rather than giving white children “the talk” about the need to avoid large concentrations of black people, they allow the built environment do the work for them.
Perhaps Derbyshire’s frank admission of racial prejudice, one which history shows many Americans share, will force us to recognize our nation’s historic ambivalence toward public space, and inspire a more important conversation about its role in the making of a democratic society. One hopes we will begin this talk before the last remaining public beaches and parks are permanently reserved for private parties and corporate functions.