The Making, Unmaking, and Memory of White and Black Beaches in New Orleans
The long, winding history of racial segregation and inequality of access to Lake Pontchartrain's beaches.
Twentieth-century innovations in the science of flood protection and land management also served to racialize space in New Orleans. The histories of the places along the lakefront where white and black New Orleanians played and the shifting geography of leisure in the city over the course of the 20th century informed changes in the meaning of race, the practice of racism, and the struggle for civil rights.
At the turn of the 20th century, the southern shore of Lake Pontchartrain remained mostly uninhabited and uninhabitable. Development was limited to the termini of three city-to-lake corridors, which housed the resorts of Milneburg, Spanish Fort, and West End. It was here where New Orleanians boarded steamers for their summer cottages on the Mississippi Gulf Coast or across the lake in St. Tammany Parish. For those who could not afford such escapes, the southern lakeshore became a popular destination offering cool breezes and refuge from the specter of yellow fever. The lake’s remoteness from the urban core along the Mississippi River helped foster the formation of working-class, bohemian subcultures, and as music historians note, dancehalls at the lakefront resorts played a critical role in the early evolution of jazz. The marshlands that separated the city from the lake also afforded persons of color some of the few opportunities for land ownership and a measure of economic independence.
In what was a familiar pattern repeated elsewhere, commercial amusement development preceded and subsequently reinforced Jim Crow segregation. Thanks to its proximity to the city and its streetcar service, West End attracted a variety of vaudeville theaters, restaurants, and modern amusements, and became, by the turn of the century, the city’s veritable Coney Island for working-class white and immigrant families. As it did, the city doubled down on efforts to exclude persons of color from this increasingly profitable section of the shore, in return promising the black churches and social organizations that hosted picnics and annual events on the lake unfettered access to the neighboring Spanish Fort, a declining amusement area from the late 19th-century. A publication from 1900 described Spanish Fort as “very little used, partly on account of the defective train service and partly on account of the growing supremacy of West End,” and having been “given over to the negroes …” This bargain proved to be the first in a series of unequal negotiations between representatives of New Orleans black community and public officials and private interests over the spatiality of race along the lakefront, a pattern of development and racial succession that accompanied the push to tame both the lake’s naturally destructive and socially subversive potential, and put it to profit.
Reclaiming the Wetlands
In 1873, New Orleans city surveyor W.H. Bell first proposed the idea of fortifying the lakeshore and making the back swamps suitable for residential and recreational development. Bell proposed an artificial levee and the pumping of sediment behind the wall, resulting in physically elevated and scenic real estate in the ever-expanding city. The proposal languished for the next two decades. In 1893, the city council passed an ordinance that called for a comprehensive drainage system from the city to the lake, which resulted in the New Orleans Drainage Plan of 1895. This plan led to the construction of a system of canals that diverted water and sewage from Lake Pontchartrain into Lake Borgne. Construction began in 1896. Reclamation of the lakeshore received a significant boost in 1897, when A. Baldwin Wood, an engineer with the New Orleans Sewerage and Water Board, invented a more efficient screw pump, a major breakthrough in the city’s efforts to drain the swamps. In the coming decades, innovations in the design and function of the screw pump allowed the city to significantly improve its capacity to drain surface and underground water, while a seemingly bottomless supply of free labor in the form of chain gangs supplied by the city’s jails pushed the lakefront reclamation project forward.
As the federal government helped facilitate the growth of home ownership and physical expansion of cities and suburbs, the physical location of African Americans emerged as a central concern of lenders and buyers, and a key battleground in post-World War II struggles for civil rights.
By design, the city’s lakefront became a whites-only space on the city’s otherwise messy racial map. With apparently sturdy levees at their backs, white New Orleanians leapfrogged mixed-race and mixed-income neighborhoods in the older urban core and settled in new neighborhoods expanding toward the lake. Restrictive deed covenants, among the first in the city’s history, ensured that their former black neighbors would not follow. The sparsely settled lakefront became the laboratory through which public officials and the city’s real estate industry tested and implemented modern forms of profit-driven land management and utilized a familiar means of wealth accumulation—real estate—as a means of facilitating the growth of the city’s white middle class. By extension, the new housing and commercial developments furthered the physical separation and economic marginalization of the city’s African-American population. As urban planning scholar Daphne Spain wrote, the screw pump served as “an unwitting agent of residential segregation in New Orleans.”
Upon completing work on the seawall at Spanish Fort (the section of the lakeshore “given over to the negroes” at the turn of the century), the levee board announced plans to convert the area into a modern beachfront amusement park for whites only. In return, blacks were promised a beach of their own at the old Milneburg site, further to the east. Two years later, though, public officials decided that the whites-only beach was better suited for the Milneburg site, and that blacks would need to go elsewhere to swim and picnic. Operated by businessman Harry Batt, the whites-only Pontchartrain Beach featured roller coasters, rides, concessions, and a one-mile long, nicely manicured, white sand beach (2,300 feet long and 400 feet wide) hauled in by barges from Horn Island in the Mississippi Sound.
Following each encounter with a “whites only” sign or a baton-wielding officer, blacks headed elsewhere, to another undeveloped and unsupervised portion of the lake. By the early 1920s, that place was Seabrook. As its informal use grew, black ministers and civic leaders pressed the city to designate the area as a “Negro beach.” Located on the eastern edge of the lakefront development, and far removed from existing and proposed subdivisions, the Seabrook area initially seemed, to public officials, a suitable location in which to divert African Americans and preserve the core economic benefits of a segregated residential and recreational landscape.
The city’s real estate interests thought otherwise. After rumor spread that the Orleans Levee Board planned to designate Seabrook as a Negro beach, officials from the city’s real estate board, chamber of commerce, and newly formed neighborhood improvement associations in five lakefront subdivisions attended a levee board meeting on February 19, 1929, to protest the decision. The opposing forces came equipped with a counterproposal to construct a Negro beach on Lake Borgne, more than four miles from the city’s downtown, that would require the levee board to expend $200,000 to construct a connecting road through the wilderness area of Bayou Sauvage. This one-time expense, they argued, would be more than offset by the uninterrupted rise in home values and property tax revenues that the total exclusion of blacks from the lakefront would ensure.
Rather than embark upon an expensive, controversial, and utterly impractical project, city and levee board officials opted instead to make the Seabrook site as undesirable — and as impermanent — as possible. The city failed to equip the site with lighting, lifeguards, or concessions, and even resisted attempts by enterprising blacks to provide those services for a fee at the site. In 1929, black businessman E. J. Lamothe applied for a permit to build a bar, restaurant, and bathhouse at Seabrook. The levee board begrudgingly approved a scaled-down version of the plan, minus the dance hall, and forced him to build it 2,500 feet downshore from the beach. In addition, they refused to enter into a lease and reserved the right to demolish the structures at their pleasure. At the start of each summer, levee board officials declared, for dubious reasons, the site closed to swimming, prompting members of the Louisiana League for the Protection of Constitutional Rights and the Urban League to threaten lawsuits. The board would invariably relent and blacks would be granted access to the shore. Black New Orleanian Peter “Chuck” Badie, who swam in Lake Pontchartrain as a child in the 1930s, summarized the levee board’s attitude toward the Seabrook site as compared to the properly maintained whites-only Pontchartrain Beach: “‘As long as you don’t go in the water down [at Pontchartrain Beach], here’s a little spot for y’all.’ Not a special thing out there. No refreshment stand. No nothing. Nothing but darkness [at night].”
The gross inferiority of Seabrook as compared to Pontchartrain Beach was not only obvious to all who ventured there, but was directly related to the privileges whites enjoyed. The seawall that made lakefront habitation possible also led to the rapid erosion of the lakebed and the formation of dangerous sinkholes offshore which threatened to suck bathers under water. The artificial sand beach that extended into the waters off Pontchartrain Beach ensured the safety of white bathers, but it also sped the process of erosion on both sides of the beach, thus making Seabrook (located only blocks east of Pontchartrain Beach) one of the more dangerous places to swim on the lake. Soon after opening, reports of children and adults drowning or nearly drowning at Seabrook circulated. Herman Melvin Cappie remembers Seabrook as the place “where we went swimming and got drowned … No lifeguards, no nothing.” His wife Ruth Irene Cappie added, “The worst, you know, the worst … It had holes and all that. It was terrible for the blacks.” William Garibaldi remembers, “Once you stepped off that seawall, you could get sucked under.” Chuck Badie remembers, “I almost lost my life out at Seabrook. You could drown in a drop of a hat. You see that seawall, and that slime there. You got no grip. Just suck you under.”
Black New Orleanians nevertheless persisted in their efforts to turn Seabrook into a viable and permanent community space. Lamothe, owner of what became the Sea Side Inn, hired a team of lifeguards to perform duties the city neglected. Churches held picnics on weekend afternoons, and groups of students from area schools went on field trips to Seabrook. An organization dedicated to offering swimming lessons and water safety instructions to black children hosted a summer Life Savers and Swimming Club. Young black males capitalized on the lack of public transportation to the site by shuttling groups from the city’s black neighborhoods to and from the beach. Wallace Comber, a black resident of Uptown, earned extra income loading as many people as could fit onto the back of his truck. “For two quarters, he’d put about fifty of us on that raggedy old thing,” Badie remembers. “We’d go out there and stay a couple of hours and he’d bring you on back.”
As usage of Seabrook grew, African Americans pressed the city to implement protective measures for beachgoers. Following a meeting between levee board president A.L. Shushan and a delegation of black ministers in July 1932, the levee board agreed to provide lifeguards and police protection at Seabrook the following season. This seemingly non-controversial appeasement generated swift, and heated, opposition from lakefront residents. Following the announcement, a group of 75 whites marched on the levee board’s headquarters, carrying a huge banner that read: “We Do Not Want the Negroes on Our Lake Front.” A spokesman for the Edgewood Improvement Association announced that his group sought no less than the complete expulsion of non-white persons from the all sections of the lakefront as well as all surrounding neighborhoods, since, as he put it, their mere presence gave visitors and tourists a “bad impression” and “depressed … realty values.” In response, the city backed out of its promise to provide safety measures at the site.
Mayor DeLesseps “Chep” Morrison and the Levee Board announced in April 1951 a $500,000 plan to refurbish Lincoln Beach and make it, in Morrison’s words, the “equal of Pontchartrain Beach.”
White homeowners’ vehement opposition to any efforts to ensure the protection of visitors to Seabrook were motivated less by a malicious desire to place blacks in harm’s way and more by a desire to fortify their own financial security. Stimulating and stabilizing the housing market was a cornerstone of the New Deal’s blueprint for economic recovery. The National Housing Act of 1934 promised to provide a jolt to the homebuilding industry and provide stability to the mortgage market. As the federal government helped facilitate the growth of home ownership and physical expansion of cities and suburbs, the physical location of African Americans emerged as a central concern of lenders and buyers, and a key battleground in post-World War II struggles for civil rights.
The places where blacks played were of no less importance than the places where they lived. In New Orleans, the lakefront became the site where this federally backed process of recovery and growth came to fruition, and where, by decade’s end, the levee board began what the local chapter of the NAACP called a “determined effort to force Negroes from the lakefront.” In the summer of 1940, reports emerged of police officers patrolling the Seabrook site, rounding up and running off black parties. Louise Marion Bouise recounted her family’s first confrontation with this new policy after years of swimming at the site:
“After we got there, the truck driver left us on the lakefront and said ‘I’ll be back you,’ and told them a time he’d be back … But we weren’t there very long when policemen came along and told us we couldn’t swim on the lakefront, that we’d have to go. We couldn’t even stay on the lakefront and wait for the truck driver to come back to pick us up. We walked from the lakefront home which was on St. Bernard and Broad. And in the party was one of our friends, a teenager or he was ten by that time. He had a deformed leg. But these policemen … said you’ll have to move. And this young man with his brace on his leg walked all that distance home…. They threatened to arrest all of us if we did not leave that lakefront.”
In the face of blacks’ persistent use of Seabrook, in July 1943 the city’s commission council passed Ordinance 16542, which explicitly banned swimming at the Seabrook site and threatened violators with a $25 fine or 50 days in jail or both. Proponents of the bill claimed it was a matter of national security, given the nearby location of an Army training base. Later that summer, Robert E. Fullilove, a black doctor, and his wife drove to the area to sit on the seawall. A group of white civilians were there catching crabs. Shortly after arriving, Fullilove reported, he was “summarily ordered from the area” by a military policeman, “and, over my mild protest that I was not swimming and that numerous white persons were nearby engaged in catching crabs, I was told that the rule did not apply to white persons, and, quite bluntly, that no colored people were to be allowed on the lakefront.”
Even donning a swimsuit and boarding the wrong bus put blacks at risk of arrest and/or assault. In the summer of 1943, 17-year-old Bernice De Latte, her sister, and a friend boarded a city bus headed toward the lake dressed in their swim clothes. Noticing the “colored” section full, the girls moved the screen up one row, as per custom. In the front, a plainclothes police officer used the action as an excuse to violently eject the passengers. As De Latte testified, the officer struck her in the back, stated that he would “knock out her brains with the screen,” and hauled her off to the fifth precinct jail. Similar reports of abusive treatment of black passengers on the Seabrook-bound buses circulated through the city’s black neighborhoods in subsequent summers. The destination of the bus, and the girl’s attire, was not lost on black observers and commentators. One reporter called the incident part of a “crusade of brutality” against young blacks’ pursuit of “wholesome recreation.”
Along with this determined effort to force blacks from the lakefront came efforts to push them to a more remote location. In 1938, the Levee Board acquired 2.3 acres of lakefront property in a section east of the Industrial Canal known as Little Woods for the purposes of constructing a permanent “Negro beach” on the lake. Like many other public facilities designated for blacks during this time, it was named after the Great Emancipator, Abraham Lincoln.
Lincoln Beach, though, was far from ideal. Unlike Pontchartrain Beach, sited at the end of a streetcar line, Lincoln Beach was located 14 miles from the center of the city, far removed from the majority of the city’s black neighborhoods, and virtually inaccessible by public transportation. Railroad tracks separated the beach from Hayne Boulevard, requiring visitors to dodge oncoming trains to make it safely to an area that Clarence Laws, an official in the New Orleans Urban League, described as a “reptile-infested portion of the lake.” Rocky jetties extended into the water on both ends of the small stretch of shore. Though ostensibly aimed at preventing erosion of the beach, for many blacks, the jetties typified the Levee Board’s concerted effort to isolate and contain African Americans. As Badie put it, “they made sure to put us out there so far nobody would see us but us.”
In conjunction with the decision to close Seabrook and develop Lincoln Beach, the levee board also cancelled the leases on all fishing camps located near the central lakefront of New Orleans near new housing developments and offered new leases for the stretch of shore further to the east adjacent to the proposed Lincoln Beach site. The impetus to remove and relocate the fishing camps stemmed not only from their unsightliness, but also from the large amounts of raw sewage campers dumped into the lake’s waters. As a result, by 1941, more than 175 fishing camps emptied raw sewage into the lake within a three-mile radius of the Lincoln Beach site. The vast majority of these camps were relocated to the stretch of shore west of the Lincoln Beach between Little Woods and the Lakefront Airport, which, given the counter-clockwise circulation of the lake’s waters, exacerbated the levels of pollution that washed onto Lincoln Beach’s shores. A 1941 study found the waters off Lincoln Beach “grossly contaminated.” Dr. J. M. Musser, an official in the state department of health, recommended an injunction be filed to force the closing of the beach. The high concentration of fishing camps, combined with pollution flowing from the nearby Citrus Canal into the lake, thus rendered the waters off Little Woods a virtual cesspool wholly unfit for water recreation. But not, as levee board officials concluded, unfit for the city’s black population.
After years of neglecting the safety of bathers at Seabrook, the levee board built a bathhouse with lockers, hired lifeguards, and placed police on guard at Lincoln Beach. They secured a corporate partnership with a local brewery, which placed a large beer sign at the park’s entrance on Hayne Boulevard. And, over the applications of black businessmen, they hired William Sehrt, a notorious white racketeer who reputedly operated “the biggest Negro gambling joint in town,” to operate the concession stands.
The city’s duplicitous attempts to manufacture consent toward the Lincoln Beach site fueled citizen activism and helped coalesce citizens and organizations into a movement for environmental justice—in fact, if not in name. By the early 1940s, young blacks periodically staged wade-ins at Seabrook, leading to tense, at times violent, confrontations between police and bathers. From the press and the pulpit, blacks pressured each other to reject Lincoln Beach because “as long as Negroes accept and use Little Woods, no progress will be made in getting a better place nearer town,” stated an editorial in the Louisiana Weekly. “The passing years have seen Negro bathers pushed first from West End, then from Milneburg and now from Seabrook … A definite stand for bathing facilities should have been made when the West End ‘push off’ took place, and certainly this was the time for leaders to come forward.” The New Orleans Urban League marshaled scientific evidence to prove that the waters at Lincoln Beach were unfit for swimming, even going so far as to raise fears of an epidemic being spread by the black persons who labored in whites’ homes and cooked whites’ meals.
The “New” Lincoln Beach
In response, New Orleans’ reformist mayor DeLesseps “Chep” Morrison and the levee board announced in April 1951 a $500,000 plan to upgrade Lincoln Beach and make it, in Morrison’s words, the “equal of Pontchartrain Beach.” Barges dumped white sand along an expanded shoreline, and fill was used to expand the site from 2.3 to 17 acres. A 2,000-locker bathhouse, restaurant, and pavilion were added. To render complaints over the lake’s polluted waters moot, the levee board constructed two swimming pools, which were specifically designed to be equal in size to those at Pontchartrain Beach. Upon its completion, the levee board leased Lincoln Beach to Paul J. Lacassin, whose company equipped the grounds with a ferris wheel, roller coasters, an arcade, and numerous other rides. Initially, the beach’s management struggled to get African Americans through the turnstiles. Despite gate fees far lower than those at Pontchartrain Beach, few parents could afford to send their children to Lincoln Beach, much less supply them with a handful of pennies for the rides and games there. During the first half of the 1950s, attendance remained abysmally low. “Lincoln Beach was too far for many of our parents, most of whom did not own cars,” said Warren Brown, who grew up in the city’s Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood. “We did go out there for awhile after it was opened,” John Harold Boucree recalls, “but it was a distance that you had to travel to get out there, no public transportation at all through that area.” Brown and his childhood friends, instead, waited for summer rains to turn ditches and empty lots into “splashing pools and little rivers.” Further from the city’s poorest black neighborhoods, a child’s likelihood of reaching Lincoln Beach was slim.
To spur attendance and boost publicity, Lincoln Beach booked a cadre of popular white and black performing artists throughout the 1950s and early ‘60s. Promoters hosted a number of weekly attractions, including Thursday night dance parties hosted by WMRY’s Larry McKinley, and the Friday night “Dance under the Stars” on the restaurant’s outdoor roof terrace, as well as annual events, such as a Fourth of July celebration. Beginning in 1958, Lincoln Beach played host to the Negro State Fair. To close the 1956 summer season, the legendary gospel singer Brother Joe May, the “Thunderbolt of the Midwest,” gave a free show that drew 40,000 devoted followers. In between national tours, Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers, Irma Thomas, and other New Orleans R&B stars performed for their hometown fans at the beach. Major employers reserved the grounds for annual events for their black workers. As a reward for working in the most labor intensive, dangerous jobs in its plant, Kaiser Aluminum provided its black employees a day of free rides, food, and entertainment at Lincoln Beach. “All the black employees would have their family day for kids out there,” said Willie Williams, whose father dodged live electrical wires in temperatures that rose well above 100 degrees in the pot room at Kaiser. “[Kaiser] paid for all the refreshments and food. It was exciting, we had a place to go ride rides … We looked forward to it every year. The opportunity just to walk around the beach was beautiful.”
In between national tours, Fats Domino, the Neville Brothers, Irma Thomas, and other New Orleans R&B stars performed for their hometown fans at the beach.
For parents, the new Lincoln Beach offered a safer and more wholesome alternative to levees and canals, and neighborhood barrooms. Charity groups held summer day camps, and the American Red Cross offered free swimming and life-saving classes. The park’s operators partnered with candy companies to offer free admission with wrappers and placed coupons for free rides inside packages of Sunbeam Bread. “On a summer day when it was hot,” Roy L. Washington recalled, “you hustle your seven cents to get out there, you save your candy wrappers to get in the place. Five bottle caps or six candy wrappers would get you in. That’s it. Period. … It didn’t cost you much to get there and it didn’t cost you much to get in, and a lot of us would go down there and you may ride on one ride the whole day. You were choosy on what ride you picked to ride on, because the money just wasn’t there.”
For amateur performers, the nighttime events at Lincoln Beach held out hope of money and fame in the future. In addition to deejay dance parties and evening dances on the terrace, local radio stations hosted talent shows. It was here where working folks stepped outside the humble conditions of their daily work routines to showcase their talents and satisfy their aspirations. Singer Joyce Bailey worked as a housekeeper by day, then caught the bus out to Lincoln Beach to perform at night. The soul duo the Aubry Twins got their start at a Lincoln Beach talent show, as did the local R&B performer Ernie K-Doe, who, before recording his No. 1 hit, “Mother in Law,” won a 1951 Lincoln Beach talent show sponsored by the radio station WMRY. In 1954, the Levee Board hosted the first annual Miss Lincoln Beach contest. That year’s winner, high school senior June Foster, received a 50-inch gold-plated trophy cup, a dozen roses, a music scholarship, an assortment of gifts from local organizations, and perhaps most important, her picture in Jet magazine receiving a kiss from the master of ceremonies, Nat King Cole. Regal Beer, owned by the New Orleans-based American Brewing Company, annually hosted its Regal Hospitality Hostess Contest at Lincoln Beach, where young black women vied for the chance to become a spokesperson for the company in local bars, along with a $250 cash prize. Regal feted its loyal customers with the sight of “beautiful girls” and the sound of “good music,” while offering their children and future customers free rides and prizes.
But despite the summertime community black New Orleanians created there, for city and Levee Board officials, Lincoln Beach existed solely to uphold Jim Crow. And after the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964, Lincoln Beach became, for them, useless and expendable. Once desegregation went into full effect, the city yanked all funding for Lincoln Beach, and it closed soon afterward. The desegregated Pontchartrain Beach, meanwhile, adopted a business model aimed at maintaining as much of its white customer base as possible through racially laden measures designed to discourage black patronage. Prior to the park’s formal desegregation on July 1, 1964, Pontchartrain Beach owner Harry Batt constructed a fence around the grounds to ward off “troublemakers” and instituted a one-ticket-per-ride policy, in addition to a gate fee, to dissuade underprivileged black youth from hanging around all day.
They came anyway. Kenneth McGruder recalls his initial excitement at the prospect of visiting the once-forbidden amusement park. “It was a thrill … to go on the rides [whites] went on, the better rides, the better games, and the pretty beaches.” And they came in spite of the hostility they expected to receive. Throughout the latter half of the 1960s, violent assaults on black youth sporadically erupted on the park’s grounds and along contested sections of the lakeshore. “When you went [to Pontchartrain Beach],” Ethel Ellis recalls, “you had to be ready for a fight, you had to watch your back, because [whites] did not want us there. Integration said we had a right to go to your beach. That didn’t mean they welcomed us with open arms to come to our beach. So you had to go with a crowd and watch each others’ back.” What whites saw as dangerous, roving gangs invading their space, black youth saw as a necessary means of survival.
Rather than continued confrontation in public places of amusement, most middle-class whites instead opted for avoidance and relocation. As white New Orleanian Mary Lou Widmer says, “[W]e were integrated by law in 1964, but that doesn’t mean everybody accepted it. There was always a great deal of dissatisfaction about the [desegregation of Pontchartrain Beach] among whites, so whatever places you could stay away from, you did.” In 1966, Harry Batt reported staggering losses at Pontchartrain Beach that were, in his words, “a direct effect of the passage of federal civil rights legislation.”
By the 1970s, African Americans increasingly outnumbered whites at Pontchartrain Beach. What was once a forbidden playground became just another place to hang out, comb for dates, or land a summer job. “In high school, that’s where we gravitated to, because it was easy to get there,” said Kenneth McGruder. “It’s where all the high school kids, black and white, met … so you kinda put Lincoln Beach behind you, because it was closed, [and] you always needed a car to get out there … Pontchartrain Beach got to be the focal point for us.” While incidents of racial violence declined, more subtle forms of discrimination and resistance remained. A teenager in the 1970s, Mary Croom Fontenot secured a summer job at Pontchartrain Beach, among the first African Americans hired by Batt. The workforce at the time remained segregated in all but name, with black workers assigned to the lowest-paying, most menial jobs, all under white supervision. On the job, Fontenot and her fellow black co-workers watched as working-class black parents struggled to purchase tickets for rides at the aging park.
“It happened in such a subtle way,” black New Orleanian William Garibaldi remembers. “We were integrated, then all of a sudden we were re-segregated. When the smoke cleared, we looked up and said, ‘wait a minute, we’re here by ourselves.”
Historians have called integration a “brief moment between segregation and retreat.” For New Orleanians, September 24, 1983, signaled the completion of that transition. That evening, visitors passed through Pontchartrain Beach’s turnstiles for what the park promoted as “The Last Ride” before going out of business. The event was dripping with irony. White suburban families trickled back into the city to relive childhood memories. What they found, though, was a place that had been claimed by others in the wake of their absence. Headlining that night were legendary R&B artists Irma Thomas, the Drifters, and Fats Domino, performing before a mostly black audience. Years later, black New Orleanian John Howard Boucree still recalled the television commercials leading up to that final night. “We’d sit and laugh at that commercial … I say now you going to tell me to celebrate, to go back to Pontchartrain Beach! … And who do they get to sing those commercials? Irma Thomas and a whole lot of black persons … That means nothing to me. You know, [when I was young] you couldn’t even look at Pontchartrain Beach.”
Meanwhile, the abandoned, derelict grounds of Lincoln Beach bore, for many, testament to the unfulfilled promise of civil rights. By the early 1980s, broken bottles and crushed cans littered the grounds and polluted the lake water. Trash mingled with rainwater at the bottom of the emptied swimming pools, graffiti covered every wall still standing, and weeds sprouted through the pavement. Only a rusting, Art Deco-style sign, a broken carousel, and the shuttered restaurant and bathhouse testified to the area’s former life. One visitor described it as “a perfect set for a war movie.” For many of the poor residents who lived in the area, it remained, by necessity, their summer playground. On weekends the abandoned beach came alive with the smell of barbecue and the frolic of children at play. Trespassers trampled paths through the underbrush, across the railroad tracks, and down to the shore. There, children swam in the lake as parents took turns as lifeguard.
By the early 1990s, residents and community groups, led by a chapter of All Congregations Together (ACT) at New Orleans East’s St. Simon Peter Catholic Church, launched a campaign for “equity in the development of the lakefront” that centered on the unfulfilled promise of Lincoln Beach. As ACT director Mary Croom Fontenot describes, efforts initially focused on forcing the city “to secure this place, clean it up, [and] remove it as a possible threat to the community. When we started learning about [the site and its history] we realized this place is a jewel, it’s just been neglected. We decided, we not only want to clean it up and remove the threat of crime, we want to redevelop it. We want to restore it to its heyday.” Despite numerous setbacks, those efforts continue to this day.
During an era when Americans increasingly came to express their aspirations and aversions through leisure, beaches became contested spaces in broader struggles to overcome and reinforce patterns of power and privilege. Indeed, the shifting geography of leisure-based development along Lake Pontchartrain over the course of the twentieth century points to broader trends in the nation as a whole. As middle-class Americans fled to the suburbs, they left behind a hobbled urban landscape, bereft of tax bases adequate to maintain, much less expand, public recreational spaces and programs. In urban centers, public beaches and parks steadily fell into disrepair, while beaches in wealthier, predominantly white towns, were protected against “undesirables” by strict requirements limiting bathing privileges to residents only. Industries, with government backing, continued to target the shores of poor and minority communities to dump their pollutants. Since the 1960s, access to clean water for swimming and recreation has become more, not less, linked to economic status. As the making, unmaking, and memory of New Orleans’s white and “colored” beaches attest, our collective Jim Crow past is very much present, inscribed on the physical and cultural landscapes of our cities and reflected in the bodies of water we flock to for pleasure and relief.
Andrew W. Kahrl, Ph.D., is an assistant professor of history at Marquette University in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, and author of The Land Was Ours: African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South (Harvard University Press, 2012), a book which received a Louisiana Publishing Initiative grant from the Louisiana Endowment for the Humanities.