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Romanticizing Racist Landscapes: Segregation and White Memory in Riverside Amusement Park

The Indianapolis Recorder advertised 3-Cent Milk Day picnic at Riverside Amusement Park in August 1939 (click for larger image).

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.” Read the rest of this entry

Vacationing and the African-American Dream

Recorder June 19 1926 Fox Lake ad

Fox Lake's "Big Opening" was heralded in the Indianapolis Recorder on June 19th, 1926.

Fox Lake’s “Big Opening” was heralded in the Indianapolis Recorder on June 19th, 1926 (click for larger image).

In June, 1926 the Indianapolis Recorder heralded the opening of Fox Lake, “the long looked for Indiana lake resort for colored people.”  Two weeks later the paper ran a spectacular advertisement for a Fourth of July event at Idlewild of Indiana, a segregated vacation getaway south of Indianapolis “promoted by the `race’ for the `race.’”  In many ways nothing especially dramatic distinguishes such African-American vacation spots from the legion of forest cabins, beaches, and leisure destinations that dotted America.  The 20th-century rural Midwest was carpeted by African-American vacation spots that mirrored segregated leisure spaces that began to emerge throughout the country around the turn of the century.  Yet in the midst of segregation places like Fox Lake incubated an African American Dream that was perhaps distinguished by a simultaneous embrace of “middle class” values and a rejection of their presumed White exclusivity.  Places like Fox Lake certainly provided refuge from racism, but they also incubated class respectability, fed economic and social ambitions, and fanned genuine politicization.

A text-heavy pitch for Idlewild of Michigan that appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder March 18, 1916.

A text-heavy pitch for Idlewild of Michigan that appeared in the Indianapolis Recorder March 18, 1916.

Widespread middle-class ambitions did not grant mass access to inter-war African-American resorts.  Idlewild of Michigan (which had no relationship to the Idlewild of Indiana resort) was the most prominent African-American resort in the Midwest, and when the Indianapolis Recorder first referred to it in March, 1916 the African-American newspaper celebrated that “beautiful Idlewild is to be an exclusive, high-class colored summer resort.”  Idlewild ads emphasized that the resort “has been thoroughly investigated by a number of prominent business people and professional people of the race.”  A 1919 promotional pamphlet for Idlewild expressly targeted “the thinking, progressive, active class of people, who are leading spirits of their communities.”

The Black elite enlisted to boost their cause included Madam C.J. Walker, who owned property at Idlewild.  Once control of Idlewild was turned over to African Americans in 1921, W.E.B. Du Bois waxed poetic about the retreat in The Crisis: “For sheer physical beauty … it is the beautifulest stretch I have seen for twenty years; and to that add fellowship—sweet, strong women and keen-witted men from Canada and Texas, California and New York, Ohio, Missouri, and Illinois—all sons and great-grandchildren of Ethiopia, all with the wide leisure of rest and play—can you imagine a more marvelous thing than Idlewild?” Read the rest of this entry