Leisure and recreation emerged as a widespread phenomenon for all Americans during the early twentieth century. The expansion of the U.S. railroad, mass production of automobiles, and the development of a national highway system all contributed to the growth of the tourism industry. The emergence of a white-collar workforce with weekends off, paid vacations, and disposable income, along with more accessible transportation, enabled families to take road trips, visit relatives, explore amusement parks, and participate in various activities. 

American print and visual culture have not portrayed Black leisure time in the same fashion. Around the turn of the twentieth century, Black people were depicted as lazy, carefree, and hazardous to industrial labor. Minstrel acts and print and visual culture ridiculed Black leisure pursuits as imitating white culture and disparaged them as meaningless and potentially dangerous. Historian Andrew Kahrl noted these various presentations suggested that if left unchecked, leisure would undermine Black people’s ability to serve whites. 


Coney Island

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

However, Black people’s perspectives differed significantly. Leisure time represented a chance for rest and freedom from white racism. Arising from the era of Jim Crow laws and discrimination, Black-owned recreational spaces provided havens where Black people felt welcomed and secure, free from the threat of humiliation or violence.  

Many of these establishments attracted affluent Black clientele, often practicing exclusionary policies based on classist beliefs. They believed some Black gatherings attracted economically disadvantaged groups that confirmed white stereotypes and undermined class differences. When alternatives were scarce, Black Americans sought access to traditionally white-only beaches and amusement parks. Though many of these leisure venues have vanished, they have left behind a wealth of historical insights into how Black communities engaged in leisure pursuits and achieved a sense of dignity and peace. 

Highland Beach 
Anne Arundel County, Maryland

Located on Maryland's Chesapeake Bay, Highland Beach was established in 1893, offering elite Black families a sanctuary for relaxation and leisure. During an era marked by racial segregation in private summer resorts and seaside retreats, which replaced previous class distinctions, affluent Blacks in the mid-Atlantic sought refuge from prejudice. They sought their own vacation destinations as race relations soured in the aftermath of Reconstruction. Increasingly, waterside landings refused to accommodate their parties and excursion streamers denied them first-class accommodations. White businessmen oversold tickets and created overcrowded conditions on steamboats. 

Outside of the Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center, housed in “Twin Oaks,” the summer cottage built in 1895 for him by his son

Outside of the Frederick Douglass Museum and Cultural Center, housed in “Twin Oaks,” the summer cottage built in 1895 for him by his son, Charles Douglas 

Cheriss May for The Washington Post/Getty Images

In 1893, Charles Remond Douglass, the son of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, acquired approximately 40 acres of beachfront property from a Black family for $5,000. Subdividing it into 104 lots, he sold parcels to friends, families, and other members of the Black professional class, thereby laying the foundation for what would later become Highland Beach.

Notable members of the Black elite frequented the beach, such as Paul Laurence Dunbar, W.E.B. Du Bois, Booker T. Washington, and actor and activist Paul Robeson. Other beaches catering to the upper class opened nearby, notably Venice, Carr, and Sparrow.  

Two women hug each other at Highland Beach. One woman has not the beach since the 1940's and had a home built there

Two women hug each other at Highland Beach. One woman has not been to the beach since the 1940's and had a home built there in 2001 

Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Image

Despite the establishment of Black-owned shorelines, the region’s urban poor had limited recreational options. Highland Beach sat over thirty miles away from Washington D.C. Few pools opened to Black residents in the city and others had Black-only sections. Some elite Black Washingtonians provided less privileged girls trips to Highland Beach for several weeks in the summer.  

Like many Black-owned beaches, Highland eventually declined in visitation as previously white-only establishments integrated and white developers began to purchase land on the shoreline.

Highland Beach: A Douglass Legacy. Courtesy of Maryland Public Television records, Special Collections and University Archives, University of Maryland, College Park

Chicago, Illinois

Located in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood on the south side, Joyland Park debuted in 1923 as the largest amusement park in the country owned and operated by Black Americans. Despite its two-year existence, Joyland catered to the growing Black population of Chicago, albeit on a smaller scale compared to the city’s more renowned amusement parks such as Riverview and White City. Spanning just two acres and boasting only four major rides, the park’s owners and the Black press actively encouraged patrons to visit and avoid spending money at establishments where they were unwelcome. Its motto was, “A clear, heartful amusement for all people who are desirous of visiting a place where they can have pleasure without molestation.” 

Photograph of a female performer, Ginger, in costume. Patrons of Joyland enjoyed music

Photograph of a female performer, Ginger, in costume. Patrons of Joyland enjoyed music and other forms of entertainment

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

For ten cents admission fee, visitors could enjoy the Venetian swing, sway to jazz tunes in the dance halls, skate on the rink, and experience thrills on attractions like the Ferris wheel, merry-go-round, and whip, in addition to enjoying various concessions. Furthermore, the park hosted a beauty contest, offering the winner an opportunity to compete nationally among Black girls.

Joyland followed in the footsteps of Chicago's Chateau De la Plaisance Amusement Park, which operated from 1907 to 1910 and proudly billed itself as “the only amusement park and pavilion in the world owned and controlled by Negroes.” Employing approximately 75 men and women and boasting a weekly payroll exceeding $2,000, Joyland left a legacy in Chicago’s entertainment scene. 

American Beach 
Jacksonville, Florida

In 1935, the Afro-American Life Insurance Company, based in Jacksonville, Florida acquired 33 acres of shoreline property on Amelia Island. Led by company president Abraham Lincoln Lewis, the company encouraged employees to utilize the beach for outings and gatherings. Over time, the property expanded to encompass 2,106 acres and made available unsold building lots to the broader Black community.

This expansion spurred the growth of commercial establishments, including motels, guest homes, restaurants, nightclubs, and summer residences, dotting the landscape. Homeowners rented out their properties to visitors arriving from various parts of the country. The summer crowds swelled from hundreds to thousands of people, with excursion buses transporting patrons between minority communities and the beach. Activities such as surf fishing, shell gathering, beauty contests, and automobile races became popular pastimes. 

Fan advertising the American Beach Negro Ocean

Fan advertising the American Beach Negro Ocean Playground

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Eleanor Adams Harris

American Beach, akin to other Black-owned beaches, gained prominence through features in Black newspapers and publications like Color, Ebony, and Jet magazines, as well as inclusion in the Negro Motorist Green Book travel guide. Its reputation spread through radio broadcasts, billboards, and word of mouth. Notably, presidents and professors from Historically Black Colleges and Universities frequented the beach for vacations.

However, in September 1964, Hurricane Dora struck American Beach, causing considerable damage to homes and businesses. Coinciding with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, this event marked a shift in vacation patterns. Former visitors and day-trippers began exploring beaches previously inaccessible or marked by white hostility, such as Miami Beach, Daytona, Savannah, and St. Simons Island. The decrease in long stays by visitors led to the closure of many restaurants and resorts on American Beach. 

Paradise Park 
Silver Spring, Florida

Another park alongside a Florida beach was Paradise Park in Silver Springs, Florida, where Black Floridians were first prohibited from accessing the main springs.

In 1949, Carl Ray and W.M. “Short” Davidson established the park. Employing former boat captain Eddie Vereen to construct and oversee operations, Vereen promoted the park on his vehicle and featured his wife and family in promotional materials. Together, they planted palm trees, azaleas, and other flora to enhance the park’s beauty. 

Finalists on stage in the 9th Annual Miss Paradise Park pageant

Finalists on stage in the 9th Annual Miss Paradise Park pageant sponsored by the American Legion

Bruce Mozert, Florida Memory/public domain

Paradise Park encompassed a medium-sized green space bordering the Silver Spring River. Vereen expanded its offerings to include a soda fountain, café, jukebox pavilion, picnic areas, and a gift shop. Patrons could partake in swim lessons, watch rattlesnake milking demonstrations, and enjoy glass-bottom boat rides. Furthermore, the park hosted events such as spelling bees, campaign trips, baptisms, beauty contests, holiday activities, festivals, and other special occasions.

By 1953, Paradise Park attracted around 150,000 visitors annually and earned recognition as a leading destination for Black tourism and recreational options, alongside American Beach and Virginia Key in Miami. 

A basketball team from Illinois takes a ride on the glass bottom boat

A basketball team from Illinois takes a ride on the glass bottom boat while visiting Paradise Park

Bruce Mozert, Florida Memory/Public Domain

However, visitation declined in the late 1960s as parks and beaches began to integrate. The emergence of new interstate highways turned drivers away from older attractions towards novel destinations. In 1969, ABC-Paramount purchased the park and permanently closed it without prior notice to employees or guests. Shortly afterward, the park was demolished. A historical marker was erected in 2014 to acknowledge its history. 

Lake County, Michigan

Known affectionately as “Black Eden,” Idlewild is located within the woodlands of the Huron-Manistee National Forests in Michigan, located thirty miles from the nearest lakeshore community. Recognizing the presence of a thriving Black economy, white businessmen from Chicago and Michigan identified a demand within the professional Black class for a sanctuary of leisure and rest. Before the establishment of the national forest, these businessmen acquired thousands of acres of land and marketed it specifically to Black Americans, with the park opening its doors in 1912. 

The Idlewild Club House

The Idlewild Club House, September 1938

Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

Strategically situated, Idlewild boasted an advantageous location within reasonable driving distance from major Midwestern cities. Most patrons came from Chicago, Detroit, and St. Louis. Moreover, it was discreet enough to shield Black people from the discrimination and racism. 

The town gained popularity, attracting approximately 25,000 visitors. Among its patrons were notable figures such as B.B. King, W.E.B. Du Bois, Della Reese, Louis Armstrong, and Aretha Franklin. The resort area boasted a vibrant array of attractions including nightclubs, after-hour joints, hotels, motels, beauty shops, barber shops, and restaurants, catering to the diverse needs and preferences of its visitors. 

This is where Black people could come and not have to worry about not being served or not being allowed to use the hotel or the motel or the facilities. Maxine Martin longtime Idlewild resident

By the 1950s, Idlewild had transitioned its focus from exclusively catering to middle-class professionals to also welcoming working-class Blacks. During this time, it earned the reputation as “Summer Apollo of Michigan.” It drew entertainers, producers, and visitors alike to experience the diverse array of artists displayed in the resort. 

Portrait of an unidentified couple in a rowboat near the shore of Idlewild Lake

Portrait of an unidentified couple in a rowboat near the shore of Idlewild Lake

The Abbott Sengstacke Family Papers/Robert Abbott Sengstacke/Getty Images

The passage of civil rights legislation, which mandated the integration of public accommodations, led to the decline of Idlewild. Located in a rural setting, the resort could no longer provide employment opportunities for the working-class Black community. Consequently, by the 1970s and 1980s, both the town and its surrounding areas had become one of the poorest regions in Michigan.

What sets Idlewild apart from other Black resort areas is its unique appeal to multiple social classes, rather than exclusively targeting the Black elite. 

When you suddenly find your tongue twisted...as you seek to explain to your six-year-old daughter why she can’t go to the public amusement park…then you will understand why we find it difficult to wait. Martin Luther King, Jr. “Letter from Birmingham Jail” (1963)

Decline of Black Beaches and Amusement Parks

While Black-owned beaches were once deemed insignificant, the landscape shifted as coastal real estate developments capitalized on privatizing formerly public land. Motivated by the desire for quick riches with minimal effort, developers engaged in reckless projects. They transformed once-undesirable land into private enclaves or spaces for commercial activities. 

A crowd of young people at Coney Island

A crowd of young people at Coney Island

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

Integration efforts often led to an end for urban amusement parks and beaches. Consequently, historical amnesia and nostalgia have obscured the fact that urban parks were once bastions of Black exclusion and white violence. More important, urban recreation sites had long been arenas for protests. Teenagers, mothers, and ordinary citizens staged picket lines and demonstrations outside beaches, roller rinks, and amusement parks. Law enforcement often perceived the mere presence of Black teenagers in public spaces as criminal rather than legitimate protest.  

As urban amusement parks began integrating, neglect from white owners caused facilities to deteriorate, leading to their eventual sale to developers. Former white patrons, perceiving these parks as dangerous, abandoned them in favor of newer venues in suburban and rural areas. These establishments implemented steep admission fees, lacked accessible public transportation options, and employed well-trained staff to mitigate conflicts. Instead of positioning themselves as “white spaces,” these parks labeled themselves as meritocratic, asserting that only those who could afford entry deserved to partake in the activities offered. 

Black people have long made their own leisure spaces and fought for equal access to previously exclusive ones. Although social, political, and economic changes dramatically altered Black-owned beaches and amusement parks, they represent a longer history of Black joy and self determination. 

Share this page