History March 04, 2020 at 01:00 pm

How black roller skaters went through humiliation at roller skating rinks

Michael Eli Dokosi | Staff Writer

Michael Eli Dokosi March 04, 2020 at 01:00 pm

March 04, 2020 at 01:00 pm | History

Rollerskating on Saturday night in April 1941, Chicago Illinois via Melvin Douglas/Facebook

When Black got Soul is uttered, often the focus falls on blacks in music, sports and politics or leadership.

But the experience of roller skating – as exercise, as family tradition, as social event, as competitive sport – is also part of the Black community in America.

For those ignorant about roller skating in the 1930s, 40s through the 60s, the 2018 documentary United Skates is a must-watch.

For a time, there were leading roller skating rinks in the United States where people in various cities – Chicago, Charlotte, L.A. and elsewhere devoted themselves in keeping the venues going.

The skates have evolved from the four-wheel kind, which allowed for the potential for inventive choreography, tricks and bustin’ some bad moves. In-line skates which are now in use are good for a workout, distance and are considered more stable yet the old timers had a swell time with their unique skates.

With homegrown music always in the mix, each city had its own style of skating. The early history of hip-hop and rap is intimately related to the rinks, as they were the only venues performers were offered a stage and an audience. Roller skaters were the first people to appreciate Queen Latifah. At Compton’s Skate Land, the first DJ they hired was Dr. Dre.

Skaters delighted in adapting their outfits and especially the skates themselves into eye-catching fashion statements that reflect personality, culture and esthetics.

Even with skating rinks, racism reared its ugly head limiting African-American rink attendance to only one night a week. Black customers made do with the “Adult Night” code. Even then, posted signs warned against saggy pants, or the smaller circumference wheels that some skaters preferred.

Rollerskating on Saturday night in April 1941, Chicago Illinois via Melvin Douglas/Facebook

Black skaters were physically searched before they could enter, while white skaters were not. In the civil rights era, the Klan openly threatened integrated rinks.

Decade after decade, the rinks started shutting down when developers started making a move for the lots the rinks stood on backed by corrupt city council members. Being big footprint properties in urban areas, the developers only saw big box stores, high-rise condo and rental complexes on those tracts in their periphery.

With the shut downs and loss of business, families and kids lost a place to express themselves, to revel in their wholesome collective community culture. “There’s something about hitting that floor—there I can breathe,” one mother of a skating family stated.

Many hold that with the absence of the rinks, kids no longer have a safe place to relax and work out their frustrations.

The anxious skaters have meanwhile moved to New York’s Central Park while a national skate party is held at Richmond, Virginia.

There’s talk also about the discrimination roller skating has suffered compared to ice skating and curling which are Olympic sports.


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