Blatant Discrimination Uncovered in Playland's Early Days

Phil Reisman dives deep into an unwritten policy the amusement park held back in the day.



Photo courtesy of Westchester County Archives

You can find it on YouTube — a ghostly artifact from 1929. It is a short film shot from the rear of Playland’s fabled Dragon Coaster. Faint screams and shouts of delight echo through the decades.

It may have been by chance that no person of color was captured on celluloid at that particular moment and on that particular day. After all, this was not the deep South, where segregation was codified and violently enforced.

How could there be racial discrimination in the enlightened confines of suburban Westchester County?

Built at a cost of $9.5 million and only in its second year of existence, Playland was hailed as a proud civic achievement created for the purpose of providing “clean and wholesome recreation for millions of visitors,” as one county park official put it. The amusement park was for the people — all the people — regardless of skin color.

Or was it?

Typed transcripts from a nearly forgotten 1933 inquiry suggest otherwise. They reveal a shameful secret behind Playland’s early years, an unwritten policy: Blacks were not welcome.

It was an uncomfortable fact, something that to our modern sensibilities seems jarring and foreign.

This was the time of the historic Great Migration, when hundreds of thousands of African Americans went north to escape the oppression of the Jim Crow South. But here in the shadow of New York City, racism was comparatively subtle; it came in the form of de facto segregation, or what the historian Joseph Ellis referred to as “Jim Crow with a northern accent.”

Playland was tinged with that peculiar accent. And it was expressed by Frank Darling (pictured above in 1929), Playland’s original director, who favored cigars, wore a white-linen suit, and lorded over the amusement park like a czar. Accordingly, he was paid a base salary of $15,000, plus incentives that earned him a total of $32,867 in 1929, or $485,847 in today’s money.

Witnesses at the inquiry stepped forward to describe a pattern of blatant discrimination — and Darling’s name frequently came up in the telling. Their testimony was recorded at a county hearing convened at the request of Benjamin Levister, a fearless investigator from the Mount Vernon branch of the NAACP.

 

 

Darling presented himself as the indispensible man. He was also a master of double-talk. If a complaint reached him — usually it never got that far — Darling would invariably agree that a park employee was wrong to behave the way they did. But then he would admit that his policy was to discourage black people because their presence would jeopardize the huge investment in Playland. In other words, he was looking out for the taxpayers — and so were his underlings.

A black married couple from New Rochelle claimed they were overcharged for soft drinks and were cursed at when they complained. A white manager said, “If they didn’t like the prices charged, why come to Playland?” In another case, a man and woman were under suspicion simply because they were black. They were closely followed around the park by police, a tactic that made them feel like criminals. Later, a cop told them they were being followed in order to prevent a race riot.

Levister himself, along with three others, was arrested and briefly detained when they refused to walk away after being denied access to the Playland bathhouse and beach. They were advised to go to the “colored beach” (Oakland Beach) next door to Playland. As with the New Rochelle couple, they were told that sharing the bathing facilities with whites could incite a riot.

Discrimination was also practiced in the off-season. In 1931, Pearl Lowery, a white gym teacher from Mount Vernon, was barred from bringing two black boys to a skating exhibition at the Ice Casino.

Even getting to Playland was made difficult. A black cab driver was denied a license to operate in the park on the grounds that the policy was “not to encourage colored person to come to Playlands [sic].” An excursion boat that took day-trippers from Echo Bay in New Rochelle to Playland had a sign that read: “Colored patronage not desired.”

And so it went.

Frank Darling quietly resigned after the 1933 season, saying with a touch of pride that while Playland was struggling financially, it had “weathered the Depression far better than amusement parks generally.”

He always looked out for the taxpayers. Well, the white ones anyway.


The opinions and beliefs expressed by Phil Reisman are his alone and do not necessarily reflect those of Westchester Magazine’s editors and publishers. Tell us what you think at edit@westchestermagazine.com

 

 

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