CLEAR THE FLOOR Black Skating Goes Deep

0
751

The HistoryMakers

Pulsating beats… rhythmic moves… clasped hands… bent knees… artistic expression… recreation… round and round the rink we go… It was known as “black night” and it was the time to shine and show your moves alone or in groups to the greatest of music… ooh la la…

Branch Brook Roller Skating Center, New Jersey, 2018

While the earliest known incidences of roller skating trace back to 1743 in London, England, its popularity in the U.S. dates back to the latter part of the 19th century with the mass production of roller skates: “A 1904 Decatur [Illinois] newspaper reads, ‘Old Craze Comes Back,’ adding, ‘Roller skating promises to be as popular as it was twenty years ago’… In 1906, with the opening of another Chicago rink, the Inter Ocean newspaper complained that ‘after twenty years of exemption from the affliction the desire to roll is again taking possession of American adults…the mania has struck Chicago!’”[1]

Young skater, Harlem, New York, c.1930s

Rinks, though, like all public places, were segregated, so skating took place on sidewalks and roads. Sister Constance Murphy (1904 – 2013) reported common childhood activities while growing up in Maryland in the 1910s and 1920s: “My sister and I skated, and the boys had bicycles… We skipped rope. We skated, we played jacks.”[2] Similarly, elementary school teacher Ethel Darden (1900 – 2011) remembered how, in Dallas, Texas, she and her twin sister “always wanted skates, but we couldn’t get skates… we were twins… You couldn’t buy two (laughter). So we had an old broken skate and we went on this one skate, skating.”[3] Labor activist Charles Stewart, III (1910 – 2006) recalled receiving his first pair, “and when we got ’em it was raining so we skated my father’s [Cleveland Stewart] porch to learn how to skate. So by the time we learned how, the porch was already gone… tore the porch up.”[4] For the first director of the theatrical play A Raisin in the Sun, Lloyd Richards (1919 – 2006), says that while growing up in Detroit “you ended up doing things in the evening to get out of the house where you didn’t go in ’til it had cooled off, … so you’d ride the bikes, rollerskating or that sort of thing…I remember flocks of young people rollerskating in certain areas at night. And so you’d put on your skates and you’d skate over to there, and you’d see all your friends… who were coming out to exercise on rollerskates.”[5]

Roller skaters, Chicago, Illinois, 1941

Chicago newspaper the Herald-American reported in 1941 that “this current roller skating ‘craze’ is nothing new.”[6] It was also where you could meet your boyfriend or girlfriend. Former employee of the Frank Novelty Company Mary Cherry (1924 – ), fondly recalled meeting her husband of fifty-nine years at a skating rink in Tarrytown, New York: “The most touching was when I was fifteen, and I was allowed to go roller skating… but my brother Shorty… he was younger, he had to go with me, and that’s when I met the love of my life at the roller skating rink… my brother called me over and he said, ‘Hey sis come over here.’ I skated over there, and there was this good looking guy standing there and he said, ‘I want you to meet someone,’ and he introduced me to Lamon [Lamon Cherry, Sr.]. Lamon said, ‘You called her sis?’ And he said, ‘Yes,’ and he said, ‘You didn’t tell me that she was your sister,’ because Lamon had already given him twenty-five cents to meet me.”[7]

Lamon & Mary Cherry as newlyweds 1946
Lamon & Mary Cherry on their 25th wedding anniversary, 1971

Martin Nesbitt (1962 – ), founder and CEO of The Parking Spot, told of how his parents also met at the skating rink: “My mother, of course, couldn’t skate (laughter) so she was only watching on the side and my father was like the best skater in the whole place, right? And she tells the story that he was just showing out and, and you know trying to do every slick move he had and ran smack dab into the wall, but apparently had told, his friends he was going to marry her.”[8] A similar story applied to former president of Ion Media Networks, Inc., Douglas Holloway’s (1954 – ) parents: “They met skating. My father was a roller skater. He was very athletic, and he was a big roller skater and a big swimmer. And my mother was a skater too… they could dance, and my father could spin, he could really skate… And so, they used to go skating… and he was the love of her life.”[9]

Roller skaters, The Savoy Ballroom, New York City, c.1940s

The rink served as a favorite spot for young African Americans on the nights they were allowed to go. Former president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, Shirley Ann Jackson (1946 – ), and the first woman to receive her Ph.D. in physics from MIT, remembered in D.C. in the 1950s “there was this rink called the Kalorama Rink. And it was a fairly long way from our house… but we would walk. And we would go skating… if we’d done all our homework and all of that, on a Sunday evening, and then we would walk home… carrying our skates slung over our shoulder because we had our own roller skates. And those were the days with the four wheels as opposed to the in-line wheels.”[10] For actress Jasmine Guy (1964 -), who starred in the lead role of Whitley Gilbert in the popular 1990s series A Different World, her Saturday night were skate nights: “I liked going to the skating rink. Saturday nights was my night. Friday night we stayed home and cleaned the house, me and my sister [Monica Guy]. And, that was my parents [Jeannette Resendes Guy and William Guy] date night. Saturday was my party night. As long as I got up at eight o’clock and went to church. As long as I made good grades…”[11]

Protesting segregation at White City Roller Rink, Chicago, Illinois, 1949

But African Americans showed that they did not want to be relegated to skating at rinks one night a week or even one night a month. Community activist Vera Thelma Shorter (1922 – ), explained: “We would picket the places, the Breevoort Savings Bank [Brooklyn, New York] which would not hire any blacks, the Empire Skating Rink [Empire Rollerdome; Empire Roller Skating Center, Brooklyn, New York] which would not, and in fact we were arrested there.”[12]

Demonstration, Atlanta, Georgia, 1963

Former State Farm Insurance executive Gregory Jones (1948 – ): “We all loved to skate and probably the biggest social activity for blacks in Newark [Ohio]… so every Thursday night was our night to go roller skating and that was the only night that blacks were allowed to skate in the rink. It came to be known by white kids in town as nigger night… I remember one time my brother [Brent Jones]… he was always willing to push things, and my brother actually took me and two other friends to the skating rink one Saturday, said, ‘We’re gonna go skating at the skating rink.’ Well we got to the skating rink and they said, ‘No, you’re not allowed to skate’… but they denied us. But as it turns out, my… Uncle Bob [Robert Weaver] was an attorney in town, a very prominent attorney… And so, Uncle Bob went to the skating rink, threatened to sue them and ultimately they allowed us to come in and skate.”[13]  Ron Kirk (1954 – ), the first African American mayor of Dallas, Texas, also shared memories: “I remember when Austin [Texas] finally got a skating rink; I know it sounds crazy, but I guess a skating rink coming to the South in the ’60s was a big deal, but we couldn’t skate… one of my earliest memories of participating in the Civil Rights Movement was– me and my best friend Stuart King at that time, and our mothers, Marcette King [ph.] and my mother, got our picture in the front page of the paper, ’cause we were holding our mothers’ hand and walking along the picketed lines… and it never opened.”[14]

Empire Roller Skating Center, Brooklyn, New York

But, true to form, good moves had to be accompanied by good music. Stephanie Hughley (1948 – ) co-founder of the National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta, Georgia, explained: “Roller skating was dancing on wheels… They played all the good music from the days, you know, all the Motown songs and the Philly sounds and the Memphis sounds. And you know we loved it… not only did we dance on the skates, but then we’d take the skates off and dance… And my dad always wanted me to be home before the dance was over. I always stayed for the dance and I’d be running homeSkates on my shoulder.”[15] Artist and film producer Camille Billops (1933 – 2019) had a personal favorite: “Black people were skating like they were dancing… And we’d sing, ‘Earth angel, earth angel’… and I’d skate my butt off...”[16]

Roller skaters, Detroit, Michigan

Former Columbus TV news anchor Jerry Revish (1949 – ), described seeing popular artists perform live at “Reeds Arena, which was a roller skating rink in Youngstown. Everybody you can imagine played Reeds Arena, Aretha Franklin, the Temptations, the Four Tops, the Supremes, James Brown, Ray Charles. I mean Martha and Vandellas. Back in those days they used to put the posters on the, on the telephone poles a week or two ahead of time and you would see all these different acts that would come to town.”[17]

Roller skating group, c.1970s

With the disco era of the 1970s and early 1980s, roller skating remained popular. Electrical engineer Andrew Williams (1964 – ) remembered “I did a lot of roller skating, you know early ’80s with a lot of groups like Chic… disco roller skating.”[18] In subsequent years,  roller skating and rinks held their own, but in recent years, the rinks have started disappearing: “They are big footprint properties in urban areas, and developers (always good friends to city council members) see big box stores and high-rise condo and rental complexes on those tracts. They get the land rezoned to enhance its economic value, and that’s the kiss of death. As one rink owner says, ‘It’s all about the money now.’”[19]

Skaters in a train at Branch Brook Roller Skating Center, Newark, New Jersey, 2018

However, the love for roller skating remains strong. For many, it brings back memories of childhood, love, dancing, music, and having the time of your life. As one roller skater put it in United Skates, a 2018 documentary showcasing African American roller skating culture, “They can take the… damn building but they can’t take the spirit.”[20] Skate on!

[1] “Roller skating,” Wikipedia, last edited June 25, 2020, accessed July 15, 2020.

[2] Sister Constance Murphy (The HistoryMakers A2003.116), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 3, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 7, Sister Constance Murphy describes her childhood activities.

[3]Ethel Darden (The HistoryMakers A2004.059), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 1, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 7, Ethel Darden describes her earliest childhood memory.

[4] Charles Stewart, III (The HistoryMakers A2004.256), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 13, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, Charles Stewart, III recalls an early childhood memory.

[5] Lloyd Richards (The HistoryMakers A2001.064), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, September 11, 2001, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Lloyd Richards recalls his childhood activities.

[6] “Roller skating,” Wikipedia, last edited June 25, 2020, accessed July 15, 2020.

[7]Mary Cherry (The HistoryMakers A2006.113), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 11, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 6, Mary Cherry remembers meeting her husband, Lamon Cherry, Sr., pt. 1.

[8] Martin Nesbitt (The HistoryMakers A2010.101), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, August 26, 2010, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 9, Martin Nesbitt talks about how his parents met.

[9]Douglas Holloway (The HistoryMakers A2013.322), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, December 13, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 5, Douglas Holloway describes his parents’ unusual relationship and how they met.

[10]Shirley Ann Jackson (The HistoryMakers A2006.102), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, September 22, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 7, Shirley Ann Jackson talks about the groups she was involved with as a teen.

[11]Jasmine Guy (The HistoryMakers A2012.244), interviewed by Larry Crowe, December 10, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 5, Jasmine Guy talks about her social life during high school.

[12] Vera Thelma Shorter (The HistoryMakers A2005.151), interviewed by Robert Hayden, June 24, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 3, Vera Thelma Shorter recalls forming a citywide youth committee in Brooklyn, New York.

[13]Gregory Wayne Jones (The HistoryMakers A2005.227), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 3, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 2, Gregory Wayne Jones recounts childhood incidents of racial discrimination.

[14]The Honorable Ron Kirk (The HistoryMakers A2004.214), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 25, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 1, The Honorable Ron Kirk recalls civil rights struggles in Austin, Texas in the 1950s and 1960s.

[15]Stephanie Hughley (The HistoryMakers A2006.014), interviewed by Evelyn Pounds, February 13, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 9, Stephanie Hughley recalls her love of dancing.

[16]Camille Billops (The HistoryMakers A2006.171), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, December 14, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 6, Camille Billops remembers skating to her favorite music as a teenager.

[17]Jerry Revish (The HistoryMakers A2012.089), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 3, 2012, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 10, Jerry Revish describes the sights, sounds and smells of growing up in Youngstown, Ohio.

[18]Andrew Williams (The HistoryMakers A2013.107), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 6, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 4, Andrew Williams talks about his extracurricular activities in high school.

[19]Eric A. Gordon. “‘United Skates,’ an eye-opening documentary on African-American roller rinks,” People’s World, October 3, 2018, accessed July 15, 2020.

[20] Ibid.

Farewell, Revered Dr. C.T. Vivian

(July 30, 1924 – July 17, 2020)

Earlier this week, nearing his 96th birthday, we lost Civil Rights leader and minister Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian, who was a close friend and lieutenant of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was an active member of both SNCC and the SCLC, participated in the Freedom Rides, and founded the Black Action Strategies and Information Center, a workplace consultancy on race relations and multicultural training.

Vivian confronts police officers during the march from Selma to Montgomery, March 1, 1965

Vivian, born on July 30, 1924 in Howard County, Missouri, was a dedicated proponent of equality and nonviolence, and these principals were central to him since elementary school in Macomb, Illinois: “Nobody was gonna pick on anybody. Alright. And that if they did they had to face us. Well we weren’t gonna take on any sixth graders… But we’d take on anybody else… And could and did right (laughs). The important thing is (laughs) nobody was gonna pick on anybody. And if we or anybody smaller than me, right–A fifth grader was not gonna pick on a fourth grader. A fourth grader is not gonna pick on a third grader. And wasn’t gonna pick on anybody in his class that was smaller or weaker. Just wasn’t gonna happen. And if it did they had to face us. Alright. That was the beginning of my nonviolence really… it was against anything that I felt as well as thought… So we had to prove it a couple of times. And after that, hey! There weren’t any problems on our school ground.”[1] He carried these morals throughout his career fighting for justice and equality, taking on longstanding ills of society, not just the school yard. When asked about his legacy in his second HistoryMakers interview in 2016, Vivian humbly replied: “Oh, another good project and finish it (laughter). That would, that would really be it…”[2] Of course, his impactful legacy will live on as we can learn much from his righteous life and career.

Thank you, Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian!

[1] Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian (The HistoryMakers A2004.020), interviewed by Larry Crowe, March 7, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 4, C. T. Vivian describes the beginnings of his commitment to nonviolence.

[2] Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian (The HistoryMakers A2004.020), interviewed by Larry Crowe, October 5, 2016, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 11, story 9, Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian reflects upon his legacy.

Favorite Quote

“Service is the Price You Pay for Occupying Your Space on Earth.

The Honorable Carrie Meek

Former Florida State Senator

Former U.S. Congresswoman, Florida

Looking to Advertise? Contact the Crusader for more information.

LEAVE A REPLY

Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here