Sunday, May 27, 2001

Coney Island segregation ended 40 years ago

By Lew Moores
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        They heard the radio ads, the incessant beckoning.

        “Coney Island had a catchy little tune, something like, "Dine and dance at Coney,'” remembered Hal Goldberg, who during the 1950s was a young man fresh out of college.

        “It talked about the delightful swimming pool. It seemed like it was on every 15 minutes, during baseball games, which everybody listened to.”

        Marian Spencer heard the same ads and watched a children's program on TV from Coney Island and its spectacular Sunlite Pool, near the Ohio River.

        “Some children saw that and wanted to know, could they go?” said Mrs. Spencer, who in 1983 would become the first African-American woman elected to Cincinnati City Council.

        She knew the answer, but called the amusement park anyway, out of earshot of her children.

        “I called and said, "Well, we'd like to come, but I want you to know we are Negroes.' The woman said, "Well, I'm sorry, but I don't make the rules.' That was a standard response.”

        It was a struggle that lasted the better part of a decade, coming as college students protested segregation nationwide, Congress passed laws to protect African-American voters and blacks helped push back segregation in the South.

        From the 1950s until 1961, the road that ran past Coney Island — Kellogg Avenue — became a battleground over the amusement park's policy of exclusion.

        It was a struggle that took place in the street and at the gates to the park, in acts of civil disobedience, in the courts, in the chambers of City Hall.

        And its lessons are worth remembering — especially today, a time of racial unrest since the shooting death of Timothy Thomas, 19, an unarmed black man, at the hands of a white police officer — say some who vividly recall those painful days.

Riverside playground

        For more than 65 years, Coney Island and its Sunlite Pool had been a riverside playground for most of the people of Cincinnati; it boasted cleanliness, thrilling rides, a place to swim and dance, a whisper of bygone days.

        But it was closed to blacks. The pool, even longer.

        That a place of public accommodation would remain a pocket of segregation as long as it did — especially in a Northern, industrial city — surprises many, astounds others.

        After all, the Supreme Court had ordered schools desegregated in 1954.

        The park finally opened its gates to blacks in 1955, and by the time the pool was integrated — May 29, 1961 — the civil-rights struggle was well under way, punctuated by sit-ins and demonstrations around the country.

        The late Theodore M. Berry, a pioneer in forging civil-rights inroads here, called Coney Island the “last major citadel of discrimination in the city.”

        Many of the principals in the fight to integrate Coney Island — its war horses — have since died Mr. Berry; William Bowen, NAACP president at the time Sunlite Pool was integrated and later a state senator; Webster Posey, NAACP president in the 1950s; the Rev. Maurice McCrackin, a giant in the social-justice movement here; and Ernest and Marion Bromley, committed activists.

        What happened at Coney Island is part of the tapestry of race relations that began fraying just six years later with the riots in Avondale — first in 1967, again in 1968 — and the riots of last month.

        It's a thread that began with segregation, continued with an anti-loitering ordinance that blacks thought was aimed at them, and continued into this decade with complaints of racial profiling.

A wholesome symbol

        Coney Island was a touchstone, a place that presented itself as a symbol for all that was wholesome and family-oriented about Cincinnati.

        In 1952, that symbol was challenged.

        Blacks and whites showed up at the gates together; the blacks were turned away.

        Again and again, blacks were told the park had been reserved for the day by a group. It was what the American Civil Liberties Union called the “exclusive sponsor dodge.” This wasn't some isolated event in Cincinnati; similar events were happening all over the country.

        Mr. Goldberg recalls showing up in a car with Marion Bromley, the Rev. McCrackin and a black couple. White toughs waited at the gate and threw rocks at the car, shattering the window and bloodying the Rev. McCrackin's face.

        “I remember hunching down on the floor and being very fearful,” Mr. Goldberg said.

        Those in the car were charged with disorderly conduct.

        Throughout the seasons of 1952 and 1953, blacks — and the whites who accompanied them — were turned away from Coney's gates. A court concluded in 1954 that those seeking admission caused “considerable disturbance.” A car was locked and abandoned by the entrance, blocking traffic. The pedestrian entrance was blocked. Yet, a common-pleas judge pointed out, “there was no physical violence.”

        One of those who came to the gate was Ethel Fletcher, who had moved here from Pennsylvania. She was startled to learn segregation existed in a Northern city when she was turned away from the gates July 2 and again on July 4, 1953. She filed suit.

        Mrs. Fletcher won, but hers was a narrow victory. A Hamilton County common-pleas judge ruled in July 1954 that Mrs. Fletcher must be allowed into Coney. But the ruling was not a class action; it applied only to her as a black person.

        With pressure from several groups, and applied from within by Mr. Berry, a city councilman, the issue came to a head in 1955, when Coney applied to renew its license from the city. The city solicitor said the license could be withheld if the park were violating the law in not permitting everyone access. Finally, Coney officials relented.

        On April 30, 1955, a group of 14 blacks entered the park for the first time. A story in one newspaper said Coney treated the “first Negro guests with every courtesy and attention.”

        The late Webster Posey told the media 20 years ago that Coney's decision was a compromise — blacks could get into the amusement park, but the pool was off-limits.

        With few exceptions, blacks did not try to get into the pool or Moonlite Gardens for the remainder of the decade.

        That changed in 1961, when the push came to integrate the pool.

        According to Urban League notes kept back then, Coney officials feared economic losses if blacks were allowed into the pool, worrying that white patrons would flee for other parks and pools.

A long time coming

        By May 1961 — Coney's 75th year — 27 people had been arrested for picketing and acts of civil disobedience at the pool, accused of 81 charges of trespassing and disorderly conduct as they kept trying to enter the pool.

        The late Mr. Bowen said 20 years ago that the arrests, and the threat of more picketing, convinced Coney officials to open the pool. On May 29, it opened to everyone.

        On June 3, the Urban League noted, six blacks were at the pool. On June 4, 10 blacks paid the 90-cent admission charge and used the pool.

        Coney Island was fully integrated.

        But beyond the success of the Coney integration effort, other walls loomed.

        “I look at Kings Island and I look at the entrance fees, and I know that in today's world, economically, the barriers are still there,” Mrs. Spencer says today.

        Coney Island closed in 1971, the year before Paramount's Kings Island opened in Warren County. It would not reopen until 1976.

        “Just as soon as we won it, they closed it down and moved it to Kings Island,” said Ernie Waits Sr., who participated in the struggle. “We said, "We're here,' but it's gone. And it's not only what it costs to get in. Look at how far away it is.”

        Mr. Waits started laughing.

        “It became a transportation challenge,” he said. “You can come — but it's a long walk.”

        It's a bitter legacy, one whose vestiges persist.

        “This is the year 2001 and there's still remnants of it,” Mr. Waits said. “They're just not as obvious as they were then.”

        Look at the recent analysis by academic researchers, Mr. Waits pointed out, which concludes Cincinnati is the eighth most segregated city for children in the country.

        “Look at our tendency to continue to exclude ourselves in terms of residency,” he said. “We are making some progress, but sometimes it looks as though we're taking one step forward and then one step backward.”

        The memories of those who went through it are vivid. Mr. Goldberg just celebrated his 50th wedding anniversary and will forever associate the Coney Island struggle with being a newlywed.

        “Those are sort of painful memories,” said Mr. Waits, who is 80 and lives in Hartwell.

        “Yes, my heart pounded as I approached that gate,” recalled Mrs. Spencer, who is also 80 and lives in Avondale. “It happened each day as I approached that place. Now I think we need to learn from our past.”


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