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This week in history: White City Roller Rink desegregated

On Feb. 1, 1960, the first lunch counter protests of the civil rights movement took place in Greensboro, N.C. Years earlier, activists in Chicago used similar tactics to desegregate a South Side roller skating rink.

Ad in the Chicago Daily News for the White City Roller Rink
A Nov. 25, 1919 ad in the Chicago Daily News for the White City Roller Rink, announcing its grand opening.
Chicago Daily News

As published in the Chicago Daily News, sister publication of the Chicago Sun-Times:

On Feb. 1, 1960, Black activists staged one of the first sit-ins at a lunch counter to protest racial segregation in Greensboro, North Carolina. These kinds of protests would become staples of civil disobedience used throughout the civil rights movement.

While discrimination at Chicago lunch counters hadn’t been legal since 1885, not every business followed Illinois’ civil rights law. In 1946, a group of Black and white activists, many of them members of the Chicago Committee of Racial Equality or CORE, targeted a South Side roller rink that refused to admit Black skaters.

Named for the 1893 World’s Fair, White City Roller Rink, part of the White City amusement park complex, opened in 1919, according to an ad placed in the Chicago Daily News. It sat at the corner of 63rd Street and South Parkway. Articles published between 1919 and 1946 show that the rink hosted races, themed parties and even a wedding.

On Jan. 17, the activists began picketing at the rink. Neither the Chicago Daily News nor the Chicago Defender, the city’s prominent Black publication, covered the initial protest, but a Daily News article from May 23 says 12 men and women were given disorderly conduct charges that day.

The protests at the rink continued through February and into March when Judge Donald S. McKinlay refused to grant owner Howard M. Fox an injunction against the picketers, the Defender reported on March 9. Rink manager Robert Michel claimed attendance had dropped by 50% due to the ongoing action.

A lawyer for Fox argued that the business operated as a “private club,” thereby explaining its refusal to allow Black non-members in, but several white activists testified that they were allowed in even though they were not members, the Defender wrote. Michel even admitted that Fox was the sole owner of the rink and that no “dues, constitution or by-laws” had ever been set.

After hearing testimony, the judge concluded that “there was no question about discrimination. We wouldn’t have this case if [Black people] were admitted,” the Defender reported.

More than two months later, the Daily News published its first story on the protest. The May 23 article ran on the front page, but it was just two paragraphs long.

“Upon reassurance that the White City roller rink would be operated in the future without any racial discrimination,” the paper read, “Judge Jay Schiller in Jury Court today quashed three charges of violating the city’s fair practice ordinance against Robert Michel, 28, of 6125 Kenwood av., the manager.

“At the same time, Judge Schiller non-suited disorderly conduct charges against 12 men and women, five of them [Black], growing out of a disturbance at the rink last Jan. 17, when they were refused admittance.”

The following week, the rink officially dropped its ban against Black skaters, the Chicago Defender proclaimed, and the disorderly conduct charges were dismissed.