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The Crystal Beach Boat Riot
White fear ends an era
My family has a long history with Crystal Beach, which is located on the Canadian shore just across Lake Erie from Buffalo. In the 1950s, both my parents rented cottages at Crystal Beach with their friends, although they didn’t know one another then. And, every summer, they took me and my sister and an assortment of cousins to the amusement park, where we rode apathetic ponies, ate soft pretzels and cinnamon suckers, and screamed on the Comet roller coaster (full disclosure: I was too chicken ever to get on it).
I heard stories about my maternal grandparents taking the Canadiana, a ferry between Buffalo and Crystal Beach that began operations in 1910, to go dancing. The Crystal Ballroom opened in 1925 and at the time was the largest dance hall in North America, with room for 3,000 dancers, and famous big bands played to sold-out crowds. To me, it sounded old-fashioned and incredibly romantic. But the ferry had ceased operations even when my parents were young, and I remember hearing that it had somehow become “dangerous.” I never questioned what exactly that meant.
On Memorial Day in 1956, a “riot” on the Canadiana made national news. On the opening day of the summer season, Buffalo teens swarmed to the park, wearing club jackets that marked their neighborhood, ethnicity, and race. There were rumors of gang fights. Shortly after the ferry docked, some white servicemen taunted a group of Black teenagers with racial slurs. A young Black man pushed a white soldier into the lake. Hostilities between Blacks and whites increased throughout the day as news of the incidents spread, along with a rumor that a Black girl had been harassed by white men. Eventually, fights broke out, leading to some injuries that brought in the Canadian police. They arrested five young Black men and four Italian-American white men—all with switchblades and knives. When the news spread, Black visitors began to protest the arrests and some white men attacked a Black family. The police blamed whites for the racially motivated violence.
Ferry managers heard about the fighting, and in the evening, as people boarded the Canadiana to return to Buffalo, young men were searched for weapons. On the boat, the teens segregated themselves by race and age. Rival Black gangs began fighting, and others ran around the upper deck setting off firecrackers. Then a group of Black girls began to taunt some white girls and pull their hair. Rain made everyone crowd below the decks and passengers of both races felt trapped and frightened.
Buffalo police met the boat at the dock and arrested three young Black men who had been detained by crewmen. They escorted thirty terrified white girls to the precinct house, where their parents picked them up. Five people were treated for minor injuries. It could hardly be called a riot—there were no deaths, little property damage, and few injuries. But to white people in search of relaxation and recreation, the presence of Black people swimming, dancing, and enjoying their historically mostly-all-white park had triggered fears of interracial mixing.
In the aftermath, two local journalists wrote about the white passengers’ overwhelming fear and hysteria, and newspapers all over the country picked up the story, despite many more moderate voices who blamed the incidents on “juvenile delinquents” of both races. Only two years after Brown vs. Board of Education, Southern newspapers used the incident to argue that integration could not succeed.
The ”riot” reflected the turmoil of a city undergoing rapid integration as Black migrants moved North after World War II and attempted to enjoy the benefits of life outside the segregated South. Before then, there were so few Blacks there was no need to segregate recreational places like Crystal Beach—local Blacks understood that it was reserved for whites by custom, if not law. The riot drastically reduced ridership on the Canadiana, and integration of the park eventually led to its long, slow decline, a process mirrored in other cities and parks.
The Crystal Beach amusement park closed for good in 1989. Just a year before my college graduation, I barely noticed. Now the site that served as a beloved place of recreation for countless families for 101 years is a gated community called the Crystal Beach Tennis and Yacht Club. They’ve succeeded in re-segregating it—this time by class.
Note: The ferry to Crystal Beach must have been revived for a brief time in the early ‘80s, when I took it with a friend, but I haven’t been able to find any reference to that period.
Banning books these days is just another way that white people’s fear of others is a force of destruction. Watch the video of playright Jeremy O. Harris explain what’s happening—and what is lost when people on both sides of the political aisle act on their fears.
What I’m Reading
I’m only about 80 pages into Great Circle (2021), a Booker Prize Finalist historical fiction novel by Maggie Shipstead, and it’s hard to put down. It starts out with the 1914 sinking of a Lusitania-like ocean liner. The captain chooses to rescue his infant twins rather than go down with the ship as was customary. He ends up in prison, and the girl twin becomes the heroine of the book—a woman obsessed with flying. She’s fictional, but the author heavily researched women fliers like Amelia Earhart, and the book feels compellingly authentic.
My latest marketing focus is a long-shot attempt to get a movie producer (or actress) interested in turning my book into a film. I attended a recent webinar that noted how, with the abundance of streaming services, “content” is in short supply. Supposedly, my novel has a slightly more than infinitesimal chance of succeeding if I were to send it to the “right” independent producer or a supporting actress looking to star in a new project. In any case, it has been fun researching the possibilities and imagining how it could all come true.
Florence Hereth Hackford (July 9, 1927). This photo of my paternal grandmother was taken at Crystal Beach when she was nineteen years old. My father remembers going to the next beach over from Crystal Beach—Sherkston Beach—nearly every weekend in the summer when he was a child. We went there a handful of times when I was a kid, and my sister and I enjoyed exploring the sand dunes, just as he had. Like Crystal Beach, Sherkston has also been developed and is now called Sherkston Shores Beach Resort.
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