Romanticizing Racist Landscapes: Segregation and White Memory in Riverside Amusement Park
In July 1971 Indianapolis News columnist Mayer Maloney mourned the closing of Riverside Amusement Park. Opened in 1903, the park had been the summer leisure venue for generations of Indianapolis residents, and proms, wedding receptions, and workplace picnics had met at the urban amusement park for nearly 70 years. Maloney lamented that the “excited screams of the kids, the calliope music of the merry-go-round and the china-faced kewpie dolls are gone. Indianapolis has said farewell to an old friend. Riverside Amusement Park is closed and all that remains are memories.” Maloney toured the empty park with John Lewis Coleman, whose family had managed the park for a half-century, and Maloney wrote that the “area that once had laughter echoing from all corners, where many kisses were stolen in the tunnel of love and cotton candy clung to the cheeks of little kids, now stands as the skeleton of a once proud amusement park. As he walked around the 20 acres covered with high grass and weeds Coleman looked up and said, `You know, this reminds me of going to see my best friend at the funeral home.’”
Indianapolis Recorder columnist Andrew Ramsey was more than willing to read the last rites to the amusement park. Ramsey dismissed Maloney’s “very touching human interest story on the closing of Riverside Amusement Park. As is so usual among white observers, he failed to mention the role which black Indianapolians played or were denied playing in the almost seventy year history of the famed institution.” Ramsey recounted his own childhood experience in the segregated park in the 1920s, when the Coleman family managed the park and “signs everywhere about the park read `White patronage only solicited.’” While Maloney was mourning, Ramsey celebrated that “the closing of Riverside Amusement Park will bring no tears from local Negroes who grew up in the Hoosier Capitol during the four decades when it was one of the bastions of white supremacy. The passing of such racist landmarks and the holding of many important funerals are necessary landmarks on the road to interracial democracy in Indianapolis and else where in this state and nation.”
Ramsey had first complained about Riverside’s segregation in the pages of the Recorder in August 1947, when he argued that “It has been the custom of this park to admit Negroes only on one or two days at the close of the season each year.” In 1971 Ramsey was still indignant “that for many years the Polk Milk Company had a day set aside for white children and another for black children at the end of the amusement park’s season.” Few if any experiences of segregated life in 20th-century Indianapolis elicits more bitterness than the segregated Milk Day picnics held in Riverside Amusement Park. The park admitted only White guests throughout the year, but in the 1938 the first Milk Day picnic was held at Riverside Amusement Park, allowing Black guests admission for a single day. Guests could bring a milk cap and three cents to board one of the park’s rides or receive food or ice cream offerings, leading to the event often being referred to as “milk cap day.”
In 1936 a circle of central Indiana dairies originally known as the Milk Council (later the Milk Foundation) sponsored their first Milk Day picnic at Broad Ripple Amusement Park. A park had first opened along the White River in Broad Ripple in June 1884, and in May 1906 the White City Amusement Park opened, but a June 1908 fire destroyed all its rides and facilities. New rides and a pool were built within a few years, and in May 1922 the Broad Ripple Amusement Park Association purchased the park. Like Riverside, the Broad Ripple Amusement Park was segregated. The Park Association’s first Board of Directors was headed by James H. Makin, who later served as the first President of the segregated Riviera Club. The unabashedly White Protestant swimming club opened in 1933 and solicited White gentile members with the advertisement that “the right to refuse applicants is reserved.”
On August 11 1936 the first milk day picnic was held at the Broad Ripple Amusement Park for White guests, and on August 14 the Milk Council held the same promotion for “colored people.” The Indianapolis Recorder reported that 18,000 African Americans attended the “colored Milk Day” picnic. The Milk Council repeated the promotion a year later once again at Broad Ripple Amusement Park.
In March 1938 the Broad Ripple Amusement Park was purchased, and the new owners declined to host the 1938 Milk Day picnic (eventually the park was offered for sale in 1945 and purchased by the Indianapolis Parks Board, opening as Broad Ripple Park in 1946). With Broad Ripple Amusement Park unavailable for the 1938 picnic, the dairies initially planned to hold a picnic for African Americans in an empty space at 21st and Northwestern Streets (where the Marion County Workhouse was once located). However, African-American community groups threatened to picket the segregated picnic, and the Recorder complained that “due to the absolute refusal of the operators of amusements parks to admit them, Negro children were about to be forced to entertain themselves on a vacant lot void of any kind of mechanical amusements whatsoever.” The Recorder celebrated the protest against the segregated picnic, indicating “We sanction the protest, because it seems to be a new awakening of the group, to contest every encroachment upon our civil, social, and economic life.” Indianapolis Recorder columnist St. Clair Gibson approved of the protest but aspired to see it take aim on more ambitious goals when he indicated that “Several days ago, members of the group were up in arms because a milk picnic had been advertised for Negroes. They resented this, and rightfully so. They forced a change in the program. Why not raise as much FUSS for more JOBS for Negroes as we did about a segregated picnic. After all a Milk Day picnic was held last year for Negroes only in an ofay [White] park that catered to us just for one day.”
As Gibson indicated, at the end of July the dairies reported that they could not hold the picnic at the Northwestern Street location, and they apparently approached the Coleman family to hold their third Milk Day picnic at Riverside Amusement Park. By 1938 Riverside Amusement Park had been open 35 years, and the Coleman family had been managing the park since 1920. The Riverside Amusement Company was incorporated in January 1903, and the Park opened in May and rapidly expanded through World War I. Lewis Austin Coleman served as Riverside’s attorney. Born in 1873, Coleman was admitted to the bar and began to practice law in Indianapolis in 1896. Coleman invested in an enormous range of business and real estate opportunities, and he served as an attorney for the park and took his salary in stock rather than cash. Coleman bought out his partners and created the Riverside Exhibition Company in 1920 and assumed management of the park. The park’s survival was not guaranteed in the early 1920s: the amusement park sat on leased property, and in July 1920 the city threatened to condemn the park and make the property part of the publicly held Riverside Park; in October 1920 the Riverside Civic Association lodged a complaint against the expansion of the park, referring to it as a “public nuisance”; and in April 1922 the Civic Association accused Riverside of promoting gambling in the park. Yet the park grew under the direction of Coleman, and his son John Lewis Coleman became the acting manager of the park in 1933, assuming the title of President in 1939. Lewis Coleman died in April 1940, and his son John Coleman would preside over the park until it closed.
John Coleman was managing Riverside Amusement Park in 1938 when it hosted its first Milk Day picnics. A Milk Day picnic for White guests was held in the park in August 1938, but the Recorder reported that Riverside was initially unwilling to open its gates to a similar event for African Americans. However, by August 20th the dairy foundation apparently convinced Riverside Amusement Park to admit African Americans to a picnic at the park, and the first “Colored Milk Day” picnic was organized at Riverside on September 14th, at the end of Riverside’s season. Milk Day picnics were again held at Riverside Amusement Park in 1939, 1940, and 1941.
The Milk Foundation abandoned the promotion in 1942, and the 1943 picnic was held over two evenings in September, raising $250 for the Senate Avenue YMCA’s United Service Organization (USO) serving African-American soldiers. Riverside began to refer to the promotion as “Negro Day,” and the Indianapolis Star referred to the 1943 event as the “sixth annual Negro Day at Riverside.” In September 1944 the Park re-named the African-American picnic, calling it the “Annual Colored Frolic.” Riverside abandoned the “Colored Frolic” label in 1945 and returned to calling the promotion “Negro Day.”
In June 1945 the NAACP was preparing to initiate legal action against Riverside for violating Indiana Civil Rights law, but as the yearly event approached the Recorder lamented that “too many thoughtless Negroes have trekked to this park to eat peanuts, enjoy the rides, and the amusements after white folks have held forth all summer.” In September the park was picketed on “Negro Day” by an NAACP delegation and the Federation of Associated Clubs, who had been protesting the segregated Riverside events since 1938. The Recorder believed the protest had been successful, reporting that “Riverside Park’s `jim crow season’ was dealt what may be a mortal blow by an aroused citizenry who stayed away from the amusement park in droves. … Observers reported that only about 50 persons patronized the concessions on Wednesday, all of them children with the exception of a handful of out-of-town soldiers who were unfamiliar with the situation.”
The segregated Black event was abandoned after the 1945 protests, but the park’s resistance to integration had secured it a place in African-American activist consciousness. In May 1948 the Recorder reported on continuing efforts to make the park comply with Indiana Civil Rights Law, and the newspaper was hopeful that “Mayor Al Feeney has made an admirable start in `cleaning up the city’ during the brief time he has been in office. The Negro-exclusion policy of Riverside Amusement Park constitutes a filthy blot that must be washed away from our civic life. If Mayor Feeney will take the lead on this issue, he will demonstrate that he is truly the `mayor of all the people.’” Yet there was no evidence the Park was reconsidering its exclusionary policy. In August 1948 the Recorder reported that a group of African Americans entered the Park and were told that “`You’re not welcome here, not wanted. We won’t keep you out, but your lives aren’t worth a dime here without police protection.’… Following the incident Robert D. Coleman, secretary-treasurer of the amusement firm, declared that `colored people are not wanted and not welcome at Riverside Park, and we are going to keep them out.’” Mayor Feeney concluded in July 1950 that the city had no power to prevent segregation in Riverside Park because it was a private property, and he was unwilling to form a civil rights committee to investigate public facilities’ segregation.
Riverside management remained resolutely resistant to integration through the 1950s. In November 1953, for example, city officials met with Robert D. Coleman (John’s brother). In October the PTA at School 44 had held an event at the Riverside skating rink that included an African American in the group. The Park was accused of discriminating against African Americans in the PTA Council party, but the unrepentant Coleman informed the Mayor’s Commission on Civil Rights that “the big amusement center will no longer violate any laws but that Negroes will continue to be `not welcome.’” Coleman complained that an integrated group like the PTA Council “`is provocative of trouble. … Fortunately the PTA session closed before a fight developed.’” The President of the Human Rights Commission was reluctant to disrupt Riverside’s deeply established practice, though, concluding that “`We don’t want to be involved in a boycott. But we’re going to let the PTA know how we feel.’”
Much of the bitterness toward Riverside management revolved around its discriminatory signs reading “Patronage Whites Only Solicited.” In 1979 Robert Coleman remembered that the signs were first installed “back in 1920 [when] blacks had started coming out and were running the white people away. So we put up signs `Patronage of whites only solicited.’ These were meaningless and undramatical but they did the work.” In August 1960 a group of African Americans visited the Park to find the signs still posted despite a promise to the Mayor’s Human Rights Commission that they would be removed. Andrew Ramsey complained about the signs in August 1961 when he lamented “one would not dream that such a place of public accommodation as Riverside Amusement Park still draws the color line and even calls attention to it by having signs, erected in the early 1920’s, to the effect that `white patronage only is solicited.’” In 1962 the Indianapolis News broke its nearly complete silence on segregation, acknowledging that Riverside still had the signs posted. John Coleman argued to the News that he did not discriminate against guests and argued that “legal action against the signs would violate the rights of free speech.” In June 1962 protestors picketed at the gates of Riverside Park; in July the Indiana Civil Rights Commission agreed to try to convince the Park to remove the discriminatory signs; the Jewish Community Relations Council wrote John Coleman seeking removal of the signs; and about 125 people attended a protest meeting at the Riverside Park Methodist Church in August.
On August 18, 1962 the Recorder reported that John Coleman allowed Indiana Civil Rights Commission director Harold Hatcher to remove the signs. The atmosphere in the Park afterward perhaps changed, since African-American groups were holding events at Riverside by the mid-1960s. But as its Memorial Day opening approached in 1971 John Coleman announced the Park would not open for the season. His brother Robert pointed to integration as a central factor in the park’s demise, recalling in 1979 that “from 1920 until sometime in the 1960’s we had solely white patronage, excepting that once or twice a season we would have a day for the blacks, and we prepared for them and they came out in large numbers and had a wonderful time, but that didn’t satisfy the integrationists and they picketed us, and finally our signs `whites only’ had to come down and we were integrated.” Yet Coleman indicated that “it was impossible to work on an integrated basis. … Our cleanup force could not keep up with the trash that the blacks would strew around. Whites would put their trash in the containers provided for that purpose but the blacks would never.”
Subsequent development of the property dragged on into the late 1970s, punctuated in 1979 by a plan to re-open Riverside Amusement Park that was undone in part by charges that histoplasmosis spread through the neighborhood during demolition of the Park’s aging structures (compare this 1978 video tour of the park’s ruins). A series of proposals was made to re-develop the property: in 1986 a developer proposed building a 912-unit high-rise apartment complex on the tract, and in the 1990s developers and city planners aspired to build apartments, condominiums, and in 1995 71 private homes; eventually an 82-home development was built in 2001.
It is of course true that segregation was long an unquestioned reality of American life, and perhaps many Whites visiting Riverside Park did not realize the park was segregated. It is not unreasonable that many of the people who enjoyed their visits to Riverside were oblivious to its racist segregation and now seek some genuine measure of reconciliation that this heritage might provide. The heritage of Riverside is about neither blaming a host of ideologues who engineered structural inequality nor absolving the passengers of blame. Instead, it is about acknowledging that Riverside’s banal milk caps and prosaic signs dehumanized generations of African Americans by embedding White privilege in the most commonplace everyday practices and materiality. Riverside’s segregation still stirs the resentment of subsequent generations because ignoring it makes racist privilege invisible in White memory.
Paul R. Mullins
2006 Racializing the Commonplace Landscape: An Archaeology of Urban Renewal along the Color Line (World Archaeology 38: 60-71).
Double 8 Toboggan Railway Riverside Amusement Park September 20, 1903 image from Walter N. Carpenter Family Photographs Collection Indiana Historical Society
“Flash” Roller Coaster at Riverside Amusement Park June 15, 1941 image from Larry Foster Collection Indiana Historical Society
Picketing Riverside Amusement Park 1962 image from Indianapolis Recorder Collection Indiana Historical Society
Riverside Amusement Park Aerial View 1938 image from W.H. Bass Photo Company Collection–Pamela Tranfield Memorial Collection Indiana Historical Society
Riverside Amusement Park Protest 1962 with Jack Marsh, Jim Bingham, Bob Stewart, and Stella Dumas image from Indianapolis Recorder Collection Indiana Historical Society
Riverside Amusement Park Rides May 1906 image from World War I Era Photographs Collection 1906-1923 Collection Indiana Historical Society