Apartheid at Coney Island, Cincinnati: A kid who hadn’t been “saved” in a falling boat in a segregated park. Sure, it was fun, but…


I began school in Cincinnati, where I was born, but during first grade received an offer from a grade school in California and moved my family there.

For a triumphant return to Cincinnati on vacation in 1957 I loaded my family into our 1955 Buick, at the wheel my father, in the front middle my mother with a scarf over her head to keep her hair from blowing in the wind from the open windows, and completing the front seat my older brother in a cowboy hat. I and my older sister and our toddler sister had the backseat. Cars didn’t have seat belts then and few had air-conditioning.


To get through the desert heat at night, we left Fullerton after dinner. Around midnight, with all the windows down, our Buick rolled through Las Vegas, then a town of fifty thousand, not the two million of today.


If you were between third and fourth grade and hadn’t been “saved”–hadn’t gone forward and made an emotional fool of yourself during the invitational hymn at the church that your unreligious parents sent you to, because it was the only church you could walk to, and they thought kids should be exposed to Sunday school–if you weren’t “saved,” your father’s overtaking cars on two-lane highways kept you in fear of head-on collisions and eternity in hell, a fear made the more vivid by the occasional cigarette ash that blew into your face when your father flicked his cigarette out his window. You had heard sermons about boys who put off being saved, including one on a picnic who dove into a pond, hit his head on a stone, and died without knowing Jesus as his personal savoir.

The drop of the Lost River, at Cincinnati’s Coney Island, had been lengthened and steepened during my absence from Cincinnati. The postcard below is of the former, milder drop. Compare the Lost River in the upper left corner of the top photo; notice how the apex of the higher, steeper flume towers over the waterfall.


My sister and I studied the drop of the new Lost River all day before our wood boat flopped over the apex and we flew off our beltless bench seat. Oh my, how long it takes to get the bottom when your little legs and arms are flailing in desperate effort to stay in the goddamned boat.

This memory seems so innocent to me, and yet the innocent Coney Island of my youth was “whites only.” Apartheid in the U.S.

“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…”

“The late Theodore M. Berry, a pioneer in forging civil-rights inroads [in Cincinnati], called Coney Island the ‘last major citadel of discrimination in the city’….”

“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…” 

In 1955 “a group of 14 blacks entered the park for the first time… but the pool [and Moonlite Gardens dance pavilion] were off limits.”

Quotes above from an article by Lew Moores, The Cincinnati Enquirer, May 27, 2001. Not until May 29, 1961 was the pool integrated.

Buick ad above reproduced from http://dangeruss.deviantart.com/art/1955-Buick-Vexel-28979020. Coney Island postcards published by Fas-Foto Inc., Cincinnati.

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