Jump to ContentJump to Main Navigation
The Retreats of ReconstructionRace, Leisure, and the Politics of Segregation at the New Jersey Shore, 1865-1920$

David E. Goldberg

Print publication date: 2016

Print ISBN-13: 9780823272716

Published to Fordham Scholarship Online: May 2017

DOI: 10.5422/fordham/9780823272716.001.0001

Show Summary Details
Page of

PRINTED FROM FORDHAM SCHOLARSHIP ONLINE (www.fordham.universitypressscholarship.com). (c) Copyright Fordham University Press, 2019. All Rights Reserved. Under the terms of the licence agreement, an individual user may print out a PDF of a single chapter of a monograph in FSO for personal use (for details see www.fordham.universitypressscholarship.com/page/privacy-policy). Subscriber: null; date: 18 April 2019

Occupying Jim Crow

Occupying Jim Crow

(p.38) 2 Occupying Jim Crow
The Retreats of Reconstruction

David E. Goldberg

Fordham University Press

Abstract and Keywords

Chapter 2 details how black workers responded to the resistance of white tourists and the ambiguous state of segregation in the late 1880s and early 1890s. In their campaigns to desegregate public and commercial leisure space, black activists used violent and non-violent resistance to manipulate class divisions among whites and fight against discrimination by claiming full rights as citizens and free choice as consumers. By claiming that the right to consume was equal to the right to work, black workers helped refute free labor ideology as the basis of economic freedom.

Keywords:   civil disobedience, common law, free consumer, free labor ideology, integrated leisure, Jersey Shore, segregation

On the night of June 28, 1889, William Nelson, a black employee of an ice cream parlor, stood watching a carousel ride inside the Palace, an indoor amusement arcade located on the boardwalk of Asbury Park. When a white security guard attempted to remove him from the facility, Nelson resisted the imposition, prompting a fistfight with the officer, John A. Krause, outside the Palace premises. After both men were arrested and fined for the incident, the Palace owner Ernie Schnitzler responded by restricting entrance into the pavilion to season ticket holders, which, according to an account published in the town’s Shore Press, were sold and distributed only to the Palace’s white patrons. In the days that followed, local black workers protested the denial of their consumer rights in a series of public acts that eventually forced Schnitzler to reverse his decision and readmit black customers. Concluding its coverage of the altercation a few days later, the Shore Press predicted, “It is probable that no future trouble will result.”1

The preference of local whites to disregard black protests did little to halt additional claims to integrated leisure and free consumption. After four black waiters completed their shift at the Plaza Hotel in Asbury Park on the night of August 4, 1893, they attempted to access the hotel bar. Barred from entering the establishment by the hotel’s manager, John H. Quinn, the men pushed their way through the door. In response to the brazen political move, Quinn struck one of the waiters, initiating a full-scale brawl on the barroom floor. The next day, the hotel proprietors ejected all black members of the waitstaff and replaced them with white men and women. When the white replacements arrived, the black workers refused to leave their posts; area police were finally dispatched and arrested the ousted employees. In the days that followed, black workers picketed on the boardwalk outside the hotel, demanding both their jobs back and access to the hotel bar during their free time. In response to the disruption of business that the protests incited, the Plaza Hotel owner, James Bly—like Ernie Schnitzler before him—readmitted the black workers to their posts the following week.2 (p.39)

Occupying Jim Crow

“Black Women Bathers in Asbury Park,” 1908.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress.

The successful integration of the Palace arcade and the Plaza Hotel demonstrated the potential of black consumer activism as a successful weapon in the fight against segregation. To achieve these victories, black activists used violent and nonviolent resistance to manipulate class divisions among whites and fight against discrimination by claiming full rights as citizens and free choice as consumers. With money to spend and expanded leisure hours, they took seats on boardwalk benches, spent their free time riding cheap amusements, changed alongside whites in bathhouses, sunbathed on area beaches in the afternoon, and defiantly sought entry to the array of restaurants, saloons, dancing halls, and other assorted amusement venues that lined local boardwalks. Despite public notices asking them to “please refrain” from such activities, many openly defied these requests by evoking the common law tradition and their rights as consumers, confronting white northerners in public and in print in an attempt to dispute and disrupt the cultural hierarchies of race that placed disproportionate marketplace regulations on black consumers.

Over time these protests became part of a broader strategy by black workers to promote a free consumer society, one where the right to consume was equal to the right to work and the right to property. To black workers, the goal of free consumption was necessary not simply to spare African Americans from the indignities of social exclusion, or to force unwanted social alliances with whites, but to sanction a market order free from the visible hand of race. The absence of such freedoms, they maintained, threatened not only the economic rights of black consumers, but called into question the legitimacy of the entire capitalist system. (p.40) The successful implementation of this message and vision ultimately helped African Americans refute free labor ideology as the basis of economic freedom and, in the process, enabled scores of black workers to defeat segregation throughout the 1880s and early 1890s.3

Throughout much of the nineteenth century, northern black activists, litigators, and political leaders routinely contested the legality of segregation by drawing on the common law. Although white segregationists attempted to absolve their obligations and duties under the common law by evoking the emerging discourse of individual rights and social propriety, by the end of the 1860s African Americans used common law legal precedent to access a host of public conveyances and facilities that attempted to refuse them admission. Having successfully integrated public transportation systems in New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. during the Civil War era, leading black figures attempted to apply the common law defense to popular amusements as well. In a speech delivered at Oberlin College in 1874, John Mercer Langston explained that the fate of the common law lay in its ability to protect the rights of northern blacks to access popular amusements and other public accommodations. Explaining that common law rules are “explicit and rigid,” Langston went on to argue that such complaints by northern blacks for integrated leisure were “indispensable to rational and useful enjoyment of life that without them citizenship itself loses much of its value and liberty seems little more than a crime.” After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of segregationists in 1883, John P. Green, the first black state senator in Ohio, defended the rights of African Americans to regain access to popular amusements. In a speech delivered in May 1884, Senator Green explained that blacks would continue to fight for integrated access under the common law as the “means necessary to the enjoyment of our civil rights.”4

Along the New Jersey shore, local black workers employed the common law defense espoused by Langston and Mercer in their push to contest local segregation ordinances and promote free consumption. Guided in their efforts by the political and religious leadership of the African Methodist Episcopal Church, civil rights demonstrators and organizers in Asbury Park and Atlantic City reminded northern proprietors and tourists about the common law’s long-standing oath to allow unregulated access. At a large meeting held at the African Methodist Episcopal Church of West Asbury Park in the summer of 1887, the Reverend J. Francis Robinson called on his congregation to attack “all class legislation and race distinction where the statutes of citizenship and of good behavior introduce (p.41) the common right.” Robinson declared that the “man who advocates the separation of whites and blacks from the equal enjoyment of civil prerogatives solely on the grounds of color places himself in a position to be questioned as to his patriotic proclivities and the genuineness of a Republic form of government.” Explaining the need to maintain the common law tradition, the Reverend J. H. Morgan asked whether the moral and civic lapses by a few people of a given class could be held against an entire race:

It does seem strange that so many of our friends on the other side do not seem able to distinguish any difference between colored people as regards to moral, religion or the right of manhood; and those of them who admit it seem to view it in the same light as the boy who visited the country fair and saw a cow that looked for all the world like his father’s cow. You could not tell them apart, only one was white and [the] other black. “All colored people are alike” seems to be the maxim (especially if there is finance to be considered) either by action against us or indifference for us.5

To black activists pushing for free consumption, a marketplace that failed to reward good behavior violated critical principles that had sustained the common law for generations and called into question the legitimacy of the capitalist system. As G. W. Johnson, a waiter in Asbury Park’s Sheldon House, instructed, “If a white man acts boisterous, rude, or ungentlemanly, he is arrested and/or fined.” Yet, Johnson attested, “the white people as a class are not blamed for the actions of one man.” A black protestor who penned an editorial in The Sun echoed Johnson’s sentiments in his defense of integration. “It seems that the white visitors are not averse to employing them as servants,” but “are outraged when they find the privileges of the beach largely enjoyed by the colored visitors.” To promote a marketplace regulated by conduct instead of race, local black workers and leaders took to the press to catalogue and report instances of orderly black behavior. A frequent visitor to Asbury Park recalled that the majority of black tourists and workers are “very fine-looking men and women, and generally they are remarkable for the dignity of their behavior.” Indeed, most blacks displayed, he noted, “more taste than the run of white people of same circumstances.” A. J. Chambers similarly instructed the New York Times that he had “never seen anything in the conduct of the colored people here that would cause me to feel ashamed,” noting that three thousand black tourists visited the Jersey shore annually during the summer months. After each visit, Chambers pointed out that Dr. Stokes, (p.42) president of the region’s Jubilee association, invited the excursion party to return the following summer. In the event that black excursions did become unruly, Reverend Chambers made it clear that local black leaders would not hesitate to discipline such persons. “Once this year, when some colored people were a little noisy in seeing some friends off at a station,” Chambers recounted, “I spoke from the pulpit about the propriety of good behavior in the street.” After the public denunciation, Chambers noted that he had visited the beach every day and “never saw the colored people misbehave themselves there.”6

To discredit the cultural stigma of black criminality, local black residents contrasted Chambers’s defense of black morality with incidents of white unruliness. While white tourists and business leaders complained about late-night black entertainments, a “white haired negro” recounted to the New York Times an incident involving the boisterous public performances of the Salvation Army Band. Observing the “noisy dwarf and some young women with tambourines,” he noted that “one of the women said that she ‘couldn’t sing, but she could holler,’ and holler she did, like a drunken woman.” Standing up, other interested observers recalled that the man “raised his cane and said very impressively, “Now will anybody in this crowd tell me whether Asbury Park’s colored would disgrace God or man in such a manner as this?”7

When Asbury Park mayor James Bradley moved to officially enforce segregation in the summer of 1893, northern black lawyers drew on the common law defense to urge local blacks to verbally and physically contest the measure. Speaking to an Asbury Park audience on July 20, 1893, Alfred C. Cowan, a black New York lawyer, explained that James Bradley’s ordinances violated Reconstruction-era federal statutes along with the laws of New Jersey. Noting that both white or black citizens would have a “good case of action against Mr. Bradley,” he called on area blacks to justify integrated leisure by claiming their rights under the “Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution and the civil rights law of New Jersey.” Speaking after Cowan, T. McCants Stewart, a black member of the Brooklyn Board of Education and a frequent visitor to Asbury Park, defended Cowan’s legal judgment. “He has drawn a distinct color line that the law will not support,” Stewart explained, instructing his “good friends, professional and business men in all walks of life,” to call the mayor’s bluff. If he insisted on following through on his threat to impose segregation in leisure venues, Steward instructed all area blacks to “call on every provision of the law to ensure that ‘justice’ is restored.” Such demonstrations, he insisted, would prove the seriousness with which African Americans approached their consumer rights and “would make a large hole in his finances” if Bradley continued to refuse service.8

(p.43) Even after the Supreme Court ruled the 1875 Civil Rights Act unconstitutional in 1883, northern blacks found refuge in local civil rights laws. In Asbury Park, one African American patron was able to successfully contest segregation by evoking New Jersey’s own civil rights law. Passed in 1884, the law was one of the few throughout the nation to prohibit hotels, theaters, restaurants, and graveyards from discriminating against any person based on race. In 1895, Robert Holland brought restaurant owner James F. Angel to court after Angel refused to serve him a meal. Ruling in favor of Holland, the court ordered Angel to pay Holland $1,000 in damages. Elsewhere, African Americans found that local civil rights laws could protect them against hotelkeepers that denied them accommodations. On December 23, 1893, the Worcester Central District Court in Boston ordered Mrs. Mary Place, the owner of the Colenade Hotel, to pay a $100 fine for refusing to accommodate the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Although such decisions were rare, they confirmed the legal legitimacy of the common law in matters pertaining to the question of integrated leisure and helped push others to protest for consumer rights through acts of civil disobedience.9

To ensure that the common law retained public support, African Americans often stopped short of promoting social equality in their claim for free consumption. While white segregationists at the Jersey shore and elsewhere used the threat of social equality to limit civil rights initiatives, black activists appealed to the rights of all citizens to gain access to consumer spaces. Yet, in making those claims, they were careful to reiterate that such rights did not intimate a preference for social intimacy. A citizen identified as the “Negro Menard” by the Minnesotan-Herald, summarized the position of many black protesters when he claimed, “A black man can ride squeezed up by the side of a finely dressed white lady in the street car, and nobody can think anything of it. Is that social equality? Of course not. Street cars are public, not private conveyances. Are theatres public places? Yes.” Menard, went on, however, to distinguish between public amusements and private social clubs, noting that “we do not demand admission into the private social circles of whites, but we do demand and intend to gain admission to any seat in the theatre, steamboat, steamcar, hotel, saloon, omnibus, or any other place designed for public amusement, provided that we pay the common fare.”10

African Americans at the Jersey shore evoked the sentiments of Menard by drawing a distinction between public rights and social privacy. In an interview with the New York Times, Alfred Cowan explained that despite white claims to the contrary, the boardwalks, beaches, and bathing facilities were not protected by private property claims. “By opening up the beach and the board walk to the (p.44) public,” Cowan pointed out that Bradley “gave an easement to the lessees and owners of cottages and hotels which they had the right to enjoy and which their guests and servants had the same right to enjoy.” Yet, in pointing out the public functions of such establishments, Cowan stopped short of calling for social equality. As the sentiments of Menard and Cowen demonstrate, the use of the common law defense provided African Americans political leverage against individual hotel proprietors. In Asbury Park and other northern resort communities, African Americans were granted favorable settlements or allowed integrated access under the common law defense that theaters, hotels, and restaurants served public functions. Yet, the area’s leading black legal scholars and civic leaders were hesitant to push for broader social rights. Since the 1830s, African Americans who lobbied for social equality were routinely denied access to public amusements by public officials and private businesses, while courtrooms rolled back civil rights laws that sought to endorse the controversial idea. Ohio state senator John P. Green acknowledged this political reality in May 1884, when he explained that African Americans did not look to the government to regulate “matters of a strictly social nature.” Every citizen, Senator Green explained, “has a right to select his own company, no gentlemen or lady of color demands or expects any legislation on this behalf, for to do so would be superlative nonsense.”11

Lawyers for the Hyer sisters traveling singing troupe established precedence for this strategy in 1877 when they declared that the right of the group to gain admittance to northern hotels was not a call for social equality, but a claim made in defense of consumer rights. On September 1, 1877, the Hyer sisters were in Indianapolis to perform at the Grand Opera House when they attempted to secure lodging at the accompanying Grand Hotel. When the front desk clerk refused to tender them accommodations, the members of the singing company attempted to enter the hotel’s dining room facilities but were turned away by a police officer. Charging the hotel with violating section 5.510 of the Civil Rights Act, police arrested members of the hotel’s management staff, with bail set at $400 each.12

In taking the Grand Hotel to court, the Hyer sisters and their legal team declared that their protests reflected the “right to occupy the same places as other freemen in hotels, traveling conveyances and places of amusement.” Yet, in bringing their suit, the group’s manager declared that the Hyer sisters were only “insisting upon its constitutional right. Being placed upon an equality with white men in his privileges at public houses does not place the negro upon social equality with anyone.” Differentiating between the dignified behavior and appearance of the Hyer sisters and the area’s working-class blacks, the group’s manager noted (p.45) that whites had nothing to fear from the entrance of respectable black entertainers. The “depraved and ignorant,” he instructed, would “never be acknowledged the social equals of the virtuous and the intelligent.” On September 3, 1877, the judge ruled in favor of the traveling musical troupe. By noon the next day, the sisters “marched into the dining room and were served a square meal.”13

The attempts by northern blacks to move the conversation away from social equality was not just a clever political strategy. Unlike white northerners, who saw any admission of equality as an invitation for political corruption and miscegenation, many black activists failed to equate integration and consumer rights with social intimacy. Instead, they pressed to partake in these activities without the fear of social pressure or racial exclusion. To many black men and women who lobbied for consumer rights at the Jersey shore, the freedom of leisure was an economic right and not a intrusive claim to social privilege—rights they argued were sanctioned under the common law and promoted by the free market system.

By the late 1880s, black workers at the Jersey shore recognized that the barriers blocking their path to integration were not just legal, but cultural as well. The focus on free consumption in debates over segregation required that black workers and consumers remain vigilant against market forces and cultural ideas that worked to undercut and delegitimize their right to access leisure venues. Thus, while journalists, cartoonists, and tourists helped popularize white supremacist imagery in their efforts to solidify Jim Crow, black workers, reformers, and tourists regularly contested such cultural stigmas as barriers to free consumption. On August 24, 1888, black tourists ended a prolonged struggle to close down an “African dodger” booth in the beachfront community of Gloucester City in order to rid local amusements of degrading market stigmas. A standard carnival game at northern amusement parks, the African dodger challenged whites to test their accuracy by throwing a series of balls at the live head of a black attendant. For those who protested the use of the racist “bull’s-eye” contest, the African dodger was a familiar visible reminder of the many damaging popular culture images that whites created to degrade black leisure habits and manipulate market behavior after the Civil War. In their efforts to eliminate these racist public displays, activists argued that the presence of such games was not only a personal affront to the dignity and social status of respectable black consumers, but also a visible political reminder that the cultural authority of Jim Crow rested on its ability to use fraudulent market forces to restrict the entertainment and consumption habits of African Americans.14

(p.46) Since the antebellum period, northern black intellectuals and political leaders utilized the ideologies of the market revolution to protest economic inequality and racial prejudice. In a speech given in 1847, leading black abolitionists called on blacks to challenge the cultural power of Jim Crow and become a “ruler of opinions.” Noting that all African Americans “struggled against opinions,” the signers of the document exclaimed that “our warfare lies in thought.” As abolitionists and later black civil rights demonstrators knew all too well, an “invisible hand” did not dictate the ability of black northerners to access consumer districts. Instead, blacks routinely informed the public that it was the racially coded visible hand of the white business community that created and enforced the rules of the marketplace—regulations that rested on white supremacist images and rhetoric that restricted black recreation and free consumption. Yet, despite these challenges, antebellum black protestors retained faith in the market to self-correct if regulatory features like racial prejudice could be eradicated. In pamphlets and public speeches, leading black intellectuals routinely embraced the logic of market principles to contest the corrosive regulations that inhibited upward mobility and denied black wage earners from competing in a meritocratic economic order. As Charles Remond explained to the Massachusetts House of Representatives in 1842, segregation enabled the market economy to become corrupted under a system in which “the most vicious is treated as well as the most respectable.” In the emerging postwar civil rights debates at the Jersey shore, black tourists and seasonal workers called on white segregationists to confront a similar contradiction in the way the free market operated at local beach resorts. They asked whites to make a choice between the prejudicial market of Jim Crow and the free market of mass consumption. Were the rights of consumers only reserved for white tourists, and if so, how could black workers embrace a capitalist system that restricted their ability to enjoy the fruits of their labor?15

To combat an economic and social order that denied African Americans a place in a meritocratic system, local black activists used the popular press and public political stages to denounce and correct the regulatory prejudices of northern marketplaces. In particular, they refuted the promotional narratives of the Civil War and Reconstruction that white marketing agents and boosters drafted to appease white tourists, and called into question the sincerity of the Republican Party’s support of black civil rights. In recounting the unofficial means by which skating parlors were segregated in Asbury Park in 1885, W. H. Dickerson insisted that blacks should look cautiously toward their allegiance with northern Republican leaders. “When we are called on as ‘our colored friends,’ ” Dickerson explained, “there is always a purpose to serve as tools or instruments.” “We would (p.47) ask those who for many years have been using us to further their plans and fill their coffers,” he continued, “if they think we will always remain docile subjects to their dictation and the plain minions of their selfish interests.”16

Like many white residents had done, African Americans used these incidents and others to give the Civil War and Reconstruction alternative meanings. While white citizens increasingly viewed wartime emancipation as the benevolent gift of white Union soldiers and moderate Republican leaders, black activists at the Jersey shore articulated a more radical history of those years. Mirroring the complaints expressed by black civil rights protesters throughout the nation after emancipation, Reverend Robinson reminded Asbury Park’s white audience of the achievements and struggles of black men who fought to preserve the Union. “We are here,” he exclaimed, “to defend our citizenship and our manhood.” He reiterated to the white members of the audience that “we colored people fought for our liberty some years ago, and we do not propose to be denied it at this late date. We will not be dictated to in this manner by Mr. Bradley or any other man. The colored man contributes largely to the wealth of this country, including the town of Asbury Park, and we are here to stay. We fought to save the Union as the white man did. This country is for the whites and blacks alike, including even the beach of Asbury Park.”17

After James Bradley ordered local police to remove black tourists and workers from Asbury Park’s public and commercial spaces in 1893, Joseph Francis Smith, a wholesale druggist, protested that the move violated the “spirit” of emancipation and the Reconstruction period. “It is pretty late in the day,” Smith complained, “for a white man in this part of the country, where the color question has been so freely discussed and so literally agreed upon, to attempt to draw the color line so sharply as Founder Bradley has drawn it.” A spokesman for the Fisk Jubilee Singers offered a similar complaint against white hotel owners who refused admittance to the popular traveling black singing troupe in 1877. “It is not only in violation of the law,” the spokesman announced, “but of the spirit of the age, which recognizes no distinction among men based on color or nationality.” Appealing to the better elements of the northern white public to vote down the sentiments, he chastised those who persisted in popularizing “a relic of the race prejudice engendered by slavery,” which “all right-minded people should assist in frowning down.”18

When the Fisk Jubilee Singers were refused admission to the Troy Hotel in Chautauqua, New York, in December 1885, their manager, Henry Cushing, reiterated that the move was “an old story” that did not belong in a post–Civil War world. Charting the troupe’s northern touring stops throughout the year, (p.48) Cushing outlined the racial discrimination they encountered in their travels. In Springfield, Illinois, “the home of Abraham Lincoln,” Cushing recounted that the troupe was “refused accommodations in two hotels,” and “obtained shelter in the third only on condition that we should hide ourselves from the other guests.” While performing at resorts in New Jersey, he acknowledged, “we have been treated more shamefully than we ever were in a southern state.” In contrast, he reminisced fondly over touring stops in Great Britain and “on the continent,” where the “slave songs have been sung before nearly every throne” and the troupe were treated as proper guests “at the tables of the noblest houses in England, Ireland, Scotland, France, Germany, and Austria.” Demanding that northern establishments acknowledge integrated access to public amusements overseas, Cushing justified the complaints for integrated leisure. “With such remembrances to look back upon,” he declared, “we can well afford to treat with contempt, the petty indignities by northern hotel proprietors.”19

By evoking the claim of consumer rights, African Americans were often able to attain significant concessions from white businesses and politicians. The Reverend J. Francis Robinson informed a congregation of black protesters in 1887 that, despite the presence of signs prohibiting their access, they should continue to resist their exclusion by visiting the beaches after hours. In the days and nights that followed, Robinson led a group of black workers in a series of “wade-ins,” a new form of civil disobedience in which black demonstrators would stage marches on the beaches in order to bring public attention to the emerging segregation notices that denied them the ability to purchase the passes required to access Bradley’s beaches. In a meeting held the night before the first wade-in, Reverend Robinson called out to the participants that “they may put up signs telling us to keep off … they may put up notices to keep us off the beach,” but, he warned, “we will go there just the same. If there were notices tacked up to the doors of hell, telling them not to go there, some of them would because they have a right to go there.” In the days and weeks that followed, black workers staged a series of late-night wade-ins in open defiance of local notices that required them to purchase passes before using the beaches.20

After many black residents heeded his calls, Robinson found that African Americans mingled freely with one another and other white working-class residents on Asbury Park’s beaches. As Robinson informed the Daily Journal, “The fact is that neither the paper nor Mr. Bradley can keep us off the beach. I went down there last night and saw some elegant colored ladies. There were Chinamen there too, and Italians.” Two weeks later, black tourists again mobilized to fight Bradley’s ordinances. On July 20, 1887, three large excursions of black protestors (p.49) arrived from Newark, Jersey City, and Orange, New Jersey, as well as from New York City and Philadelphia to partake in in an annual “Jubilee day.” Ignoring the signs restricting them from the beaches and bathing houses, the black patrons visited the beaches at Ocean Grove and Asbury Park in “droves and sat for several hours on the sand.” In addition, “a dozen or so” applied for bathing suits at the bathhouses but were refused. Covering the demonstrations, the New York Times reported that in each instance the patrons took the refusal of service in “good spirits,” though they remained nonetheless.21

A few miles inland at the popular town of Red Bank, black protestors organized to fight the implementation of segregation ordinances drafted to reassign seating arrangements in local theaters. Noting the influence of Jim Crow laws instituted at Asbury Park, local race leaders organized an indignation meeting to instruct local blacks how to refuse instructions to sit in the balconies and upper corners of the area’s assorted entertainment venues. Led by Lewis Sommerset, editor of Monmouth County’s leading black newspaper, The Mail and Express, members of the meeting expressed outrage that they could no longer “sit where we could pay to sit.” Pointing out that the new proprietor of the venue, H. J. Garrity, hailed from Asbury Park, “where race prejudice in amusement places is almost as thick to cut with a knife,” Sommerset declared that local blacks would not allow similar Jim Crow policies to restrict their consumer rights. Before Garrity’s appointment, the Mail and Express declared, “There were not many white people who were afraid to sit alongside a decent, self-respecting colored in the opera house or any other place.” For those reasons, Lewis Sommerset noted that he would mobilize a series of mass meetings and sit-ins to challenge any policy that refused to acknowledge past interracial precedent. “Colored people have always sat where they wanted to in the opera,” Sommerset explained, and “Mr. Garrity’s color line will not prevent them for fighting for those rights in the future.”22

The successful application of both violent resistance and peaceful protest allowed African Americans to confidently challenge many of the Jersey shore’s Jim Crow boundaries. In the summer of 1891, the New York Times remarked that “the colored waiters are in hot water” after they refused to put an end to all-night dance parties held in the Convention Hall pavilion. According to local ordinances, individuals or groups had to obtain a pass to host a party or small gathering in the pavilion. Black patrons, however, found that their requests to reserve the space were increasingly rejected as Mayor James Bradley attempted to rein in the consumer demands of black individuals. Yet, despite these restrictions, African Americans ignored repeated threats by Mayor Bradley to raid the pavilion if the dancing continued. Indeed, the Times admitted that the “colored (p.50) people will resist any interference from the authorities,” and “there is likely to be a lively time” if African Americans wanted one.23

White citizens also quickly discovered their limitations in enforcing segregation ordinances in Atlantic City. During the summer of 1890, the Washington Post complained that “local blacks by the hundreds were invading the bathing districts heretofore patronized by the best visitors.” Off the beach, the article noted, the situation was “similarly lax.” “After the colored waiter serves his master’s supper,” the columnist explained, “he can go out and elbow him on the boardwalk, crowd him in cars, or drink at the very next table in almost any café.” Responding to the Philadelphia Inquirer’s plea to “keep blacks in their place,” the Atlantic City Daily Union admitted that only the “collaboration of all the beach-front proprietors could keep the blacks in their place, a collaboration which (one suspects) was unlikely.”24

As these incidents make clear, the refusal by black northerners to abide by the segregation statutes not only spoke to their desire to maintain their moral dignity and assert their rights as citizens and workers for leisure time, but also reflected their claims to consumer rights. For black and white citizens in the post–Civil War North, the right to consume became a new proving ground for citizenship and social affirmation of individual rights. While white citizens sought to group all African Americans within a subaltern racial class, black workers and tourists insisted that they were autonomous individuals capable of competing in a free labor system and enjoying their rights as consumers in a responsible manner. By staging public protests against white business owners, black workers at the New Jersey shore transformed the segregation debate by destabilizing the cultural symbols and texts that shaped the region’s legal and social rules. Whereas whites sought to legitimate segregation as a system that the invisible hand of the market—and not the personal prejudice of northern citizens—sanctioned, African Americans argued that the postwar northern marketplace carried specific racial values that often trumped its supposedly neutral ones. They reiterated to those who sought to deny them their right to leisure space that race had an economic value in the postwar North that prevented citizens—even those with the financial means—from taking part in a rapidly expanding mass consumer society.

In a short speech protesting the emerging segregation laws in Asbury Park, Robinson spoke of the discriminatory language of Asbury Park’s Daily Journal, whose resentment and prejudice encouraged “one to think it was edited in Georgia.” Robinson explained that “at a place set apart for temperance and religion we witness a spectacle that should shame the boasted civilization of the North. Let us devote ourselves to stripping off false religious sentiment and hypocritical (p.51) philanthropy, that we may expose before the people just how far race hatred can go in New Jersey.” Fellow Methodist minister Rev. H. H. Monroe of St. Mark’s Church similarly remarked that talk of exclusion and separation “would be bulldozing if it was reported from Texas,” and pointed out that in many northern public spaces devoted to leisure and consumption the same “ante-war spirit of race distinction still prevailed.”25

By nationalizing the problem of segregated leisure, black northerners contributed to the postwar tradition that white industrial workers in the 1860s and 1870s initiated in arguing for “eight hours for what we will.” Yet, while many white industrial laborers rejected the consumption habits and amusement venues of New England’s leisure class, black workers and tourists who traveled to the New Jersey shore claimed those consumer spaces as their own. “Let the necessity of labor,” W. M Dickerson instructed, “never take away a person’s claim to respectability. One’s ability to board at a hotel and dress well is no criterion of one’s moral worth.” Reverend Robinson of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Asbury Park instructed the town’s white boosters that the “poor colored people did as much for the prosperity of the park as the poor whites, and yet the poor whites wanted protection from them.” Andrew Chambers, writing in the Christian Recorder, mirrored Reverend Robinson’s complaints. Chambers challenged Bradley and others to answer, “To whom are we a source of annoyance? To whom are we an offense and an eyesore?” Noting the interracial contact between black domestic workers and white tourists throughout the town’s business establishments, Chambers answered that “it surely cannot be those whom we pass the butter dish in hotels and boarding houses,” since, he pointed out, “if it were, then they would seek other resorts, if it be possible for them to find anywhere they will not find some of us.”26

The debate between segregationists and northern blacks reflected broader nineteenth-century struggles over the category of the “social” in deciding the rights of consumers and shaping the political vocabulary of segregation. Throughout the nineteenth century, legal rulings evoked the defense of the social to justify the exclusion of blacks and other outsiders—especially those who lobbied for rights that the marketplace had supposedly denied. According to James Bradley and other local Jersey shore business owners, such measures were legitimate regulations not because they were motivated by racial prejudice, but because they were sanctioned by the economic realities of leisure enterprises—a special circumstance that allowed all public and commercial space to fall under the realm of the social, thereby officially eliminating the “public” sphere until it was permanently privatized.27

(p.52) Black workers and tourists, on the other hand, argued for a limited definition of the “social,” one that reflected the public and democratic nature of the common law tradition, while also allowing them freedom of movement and the right of “choice” they had come to believe was inherent in a consumer-oriented market economy that northerner merchants began to champion in the 1880s. Writing in the Christian Recorder on August 3, 1893, J. H. Morgan offered an alternative solution to the values northern whites attached to the common law and the postwar marketplace. “We think Mr. Bradley’s position is better illustrated,” Morgan instructed, “by a party who owns a house and turns it into a public inn for the accommodation of the public,” with the exception, Morgan acknowledged, “of ejecting all disorderly and obnoxious persons, but not simply on the ground of color.”28

In calling for a free consumer society, black activists pushed to make the right of consumer choice the new proving ground in deciding economic freedom. In redefining the legal and ideological parameters of public and private in a free market system, blacks and whites reached opposing definitions of choice. Northern whites believed that the market permitted segregation because economic sanctions and regulations were based on social tastes and public opinion, a feature of the market, which if deregulated would erode the moral foundations of civil society. Black protestors, however, believed that the right of consumer choice was absolute, and if struck down would allow other industries to promote racially restrictive covenants. In an editorial to The Sun, a black visitor to Asbury Park remarked that the right of consumers to make unregulated choices was a basic civil right. “If seats are provided for the public,” the unnamed visitor to Bradley’s resort noted, “the colored people have as much right to them as the white people. First come first served must be the rule, and whoever finds an empty seat is at liberty to take it, whatever his complexion.” Noting the insistence by many whites that property rights precluded demands for integration, the editorial forcefully declared that the religious origins of towns like Asbury Park disallowed such harsh measures. “Nor even if they are private property,” the visitor exclaimed, “is it possible to make any reasonable discrimination against their use by decent colored people.”29

To counter the Jim Crow sentiments and segregation laws, many black workers resorted to a variety of hidden tactics and strategies to desegregate the region’s public sphere. Occupying spaces white citizens had deemed off-limits to black visitors, African Americans stripped those spaces of their cultural value and, as a result, their economic value. In 1893, the Atlantic City Daily Union reported that after a black waiter became disgruntled with the food options available to him (p.53) during his shift he decided to order a meal from the main menu. Upon being refused his request because the menu was off-limits to black workers, the waiter rounded up the waitstaff and walked out. A similar demonstration took place when black workers at the Albion Hotel in Atlantic City walked off the job to help secure better wages and integrated access to the hotel’s leisure accommodations during their free time. In even less visible ways, many black service workers sought out revenge outside the watchful eye of white consumers. As one Atlantic City black worker explained, a waiter might act the role of a dutiful servant in front of white patrons, but back in the kitchen he or she often resorted to more subversive and rebellious behavior. A black college student who waited on white guests in Atlantic City recounted, “We suffered from rude or half drunk guests who called us degrading names because of our color. We could in a way always get back at them. We could spit in their soup or in their beer … Rebellion caused us to think of ways to get even the very minute we stepped on the floor.”30

For these and other black domestic workers, consumer culture offered a way to reject the ideologies of the marketplace that white, middle-class northerners assigned to the northern public sphere in defense of segregation. As producers of a popular culture landscape dedicated to amusement and mass consumption, as well as consumers whose spending and social habits threatened the tastes and customs of a northern Jim Crow culture, black workers found themselves in a unique position to challenge and undermine the cultural hierarchies and legal boundaries of segregation that often restricted the consumption habits of many northern black workers. By relying solely on black seasonal labor, civil rights protests from black northerners made the project of Jim Crow in the North—particularly in places along the New Jersey shore—as difficult for northern business owners as it did for those in the South. Thus, while many white northerners might have viewed black industrial laborers as a threat to white wages and free labor ideology, the demands of a service economy placed greater restraints on the marketing agents and proprietors of leisure venues than they sometimes did for other northern capitalists. James Bradley, for example, acknowledged that many families left his resort because they could not “endure the crowds of Africans infesting every promenade and public space, day and evening with their presence.” After the barroom brawl at Asbury Park’s Plaza Hotel in 1893, the hotel’s proprietor remarked that his decision to readmit the black waiters came after he was unable to persuade whites to dine in the hotel. Many families, proprietor James Bly noted, “have been compelled to get their meals elsewhere, as the waiters would not allow any one to enter the dining room to serve the families.”31

(p.54) As a result of these protests, James Bradley was forced to assemble Asbury Park’s black workers and civic leaders in town hall meetings throughout the 1880s and 1890s to reiterate that such decisions were not made to appease his personal prejudices, but enacted as a last resort to protect area businessmen who relied as much on seasonal white tourists as he did on black service workers. Speaking to local audiences in Asbury Park, Red Bank, and Long Branch, Bradley attempted to win local black support by hosting elaborate galas and allowing black audiences a chance to voice their concerns. The move backfired, however, when many northern black voters believed Bradley was resorting to bribery to retain black support. Members of the black press criticized the events as an attempt to “draw the wool over their eyes” with music and refreshments. Criticizing “Founder Bradley’s case” in The Sun on October 3, 1893, New York civil rights leaders challenged black voters at the Jersey shore to protest the events and defeat him at the polls. “They ought to vote against him, and knock him out at the polls,” the editorial declared, not only because of his segregation policies, but also “because of his conduct since he became a candidate for political office.” At a campaign stop in Long Branch on November 2, 1893, soon after Bradley began speaking a black voter sprang to the podium. Rattling off a list of offenses enacted against local black citizens, the individual was soon accompanied by several black preachers and lawyers who used the public platform to call on the black voters in attendance to refuse Bradley’s appeals for support and to reject his candidacy.32

Despite Bradley’s eventual electoral victory, the consumer politics of segregation in leisure settings offered black seasonal laborers and community leaders an opportunity to engage in political issues of regional and national significance that were often denied to them by mainstream northern politics. While black intellectuals and national civil rights leaders struggled to overturn Jim Crow laws throughout the country, black workers at the Jersey shore employed an array of successful strategies and tactics to upset the social and legal boundaries that many white northerners fought to maintain throughout the late nineteenth century. Indeed, black occupations of consumer venues and commercial spaces left them virtually alone among Reconstruction-era consumer activists in lobbying for an unregulated marketplace. Unlike traditional boycotts, which were often waged to enact workplace changes or secure product safety, acts of civil disobedience on the Jersey shore attempted to fundamentally alter ideas about political economy. Black protestors who organized “wade-ins” on local beaches and refused to leave amusement venues were not lobbying for wage increases, more humane workplace treatment, or regulations on food and drugs (although they participated in these campaigns as well). Instead, in both their strategic objectives (p.55) and their tactical maneuvers, public occupations of consumer venues aimed to transform the legal boundaries and social accessibility of the postwar marketplace by threatening the financial solvency and political legitimacy of local business owners.33

By lobbying local Republican officeholders, engaging in infrapolitical protests, and challenging the rhetorical cover of white supremacy, black workers helped make issues of leisure, entertainment, and consumption indispensable from other educational, electoral, and economic concerns that preoccupied the nation’s more famous black political figures. In doing so, they made sure that free labor ideology could not be reinterpreted to exclude black recreation or to forestall political decisions on the rights of consumers. Instead, by occupying the Jim Crow spaces of the region, they actively fought to reshape segregation policy—and won—by consistently calling on white segregationists to institute a more democratic form of market capitalism that defended the rights of all consumers.


(1.) “Defining the Color Line,” Asbury Park Press, June 27, 1889; “Palace Guard Incident,” Shore Press, June 28, 1889.

(2.) “Riots Feared at Asbury Park: Colored Waiters Will Resist Their Supplanting by Whites,” Evening World, August 4, 1893.

(3.) Blair Kelley’s Right to Ride is one of few works that addresses the Gilded Age civil rights campaigns of northern black activists and consumers. See Right to Ride: Streetcar Boycotts and African American Citizenship in the Era of Plessy v. Ferguson (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010). In contrast, southern scholars have done a much better job exploring the civil rights achievements between the end of Reconstruction and the formal declaration of Jim Crow in 1896. See Jane Dailey, Before Jim Crow: The Politics of Race in Postemancipation Virginia (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000); Glenda Gilmore, Gender and Jim Crow: Women and the Politics of White Supremacy in North Carolina, 1896–1920 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1996); and Leslie Schwalm, Emancipation’s Diaspora: Race and Reconstruction in the Upper Midwest (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009). For an excellent treatment on the ways in which African Americans negotiated leisure space and historical memory in the postwar border South, see Andrew W. Kahrl, “The Political Work of Leisure: Class, Recreation, and African American Commemoration at Harpers Ferry, West Virginia, 1881–1931,” Journal of Social History 42, no. 1 (2008): 57–77.

(4.) A. K. Sandoval-Strauss, “Travelers, Strangers, and Jim Crow: Law, Public Accommodations, and Civil Rights in America,” Law and History Review 23, no. 1 (2005): 53–94; Kelley, Right to Ride; Judith Giesberg, Army at Home: Women and the Civil War on the Northern Home Front (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009); John Mercer Langston, “Equality Before the Law,” in Philip S. Foner, ed., The Voice of Black America: Major Speeches by Negroes in the United States, 1797–1971 (New York: Simon & Schuster, 1972); John P. Green, “These Evils Call Loudly for Redress,” in Foner, Voice of Black America.

(p.149) (5.) “Defending Their Race,” New York Times, July 20, 1885; “Color Line at Asbury Park: Negroes Indignant at Threatened Exclusion from the Beach,” New York Times, June 25, 1887; “250 People,” Shore Press, July 1, 1887; “Answering Mr. Bradley: Colored People at Asbury Park Speak Out in Meeting,” New York Times, June 28, 1887; “Drawing the Color Line at Asbury Park: Negroes Who Offend the Residents of Asbury Park,” New York Times, July 19, 1885; “Asbury Park Colored Question,” Christian Recorder, August 3, 1893.

(6.) “From a Colored Man’s View,” Daily Journal, July 21, 1885; “The Color Line at Asbury Park,” The Sun (New York), June 29, 1887. In promoting black lawlessness and stigmatizing the “degraded” and “criminal” nature of black leisure, white segregationists pointed to “impartial” empirical evidence to justify racial policies. See Khalil G. Muhammad, The Condemnation of Blackness: Race, Crime, and the Making of Modern Urban America (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2010); William H. Tucker, The Science and Politics of Racial Research (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994); Kali N. Gross, Colored Amazons: Crime, Violence, and the Black Women in the City of Brotherly Love, 1880–1910 (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 2006). Northern efforts to minimize white racism date back to the late nineteenth century when a new generation of race experts argued in favor of a color-blind approach to explaining the “plight of the negro.” See Frederick L. Hoffman, Race Traits and Tendencies of the American Negro (New York: Macmillan, 1896); Nathan S. Shaler, “The Negro Problem,” Atlantic Monthly 54 (November 1884): 696–709; “Science and the African Problem,” Atlantic Monthly 66 (July 1890); The Nature of the Negro,” The Arena, December 1890, 23–35; Francis A. Walker, “The Colored Race in the United States,” Forum 11 (September 1891): 501–9; Katherine B. Davis, “The Condition of the Negro in Philadelphia,” Journal of Political Economy 8, no. 2 (1900): 248–60; The Sun (New York), June 29, 1887; New York Times, July 19, 1885.

(7.) The Sun (New York), June 29, 1887; New York Times, July 19, 1885.

(8.) “Colored People Indignant: Likely to Place Obstacles in Founder Bradley’s Way,” New York Times, July 20, 1893.

(9.) “Colored People Aroused: Suits Begun All over the Country against Men Who Have Refused to Recognize Their Rights,” New York Times, July 26, 1895; “The Cost of Drawing the Color Line,” Boston Transcript, December 21, 1893.

(10.) “The Black and White Problem,” Minnesotan-Herald, March 12, 1870.

(12.) “Civil Rights at Indianapolis,” Cincinnati (Ohio) Daily Gazette, September 1, 1877.

(13.) “The Trouble at the Grant Hotel,” Indianapolis Sentinel, September 1, 1877; “That Civil Rights Case,” Cincinnati (Ohio) Daily Gazette, September 3, 1877.

(14.) Camden (N.J.) Courier, August 25, 1888.

(15.) Patrick Rael, Black Identity and Black Protest in the Antebellum North (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002); “Proceedings of the National Colored People, 1847,” in Patrick Rael, ed., Pamphlets of Protest: An Anthology of Early African American Protest Literature, 1790–1869 (New York: Routledge, 2001), 167; Charles L. Remond, “Address to a Legislative Committee in the Massachusetts House of Representatives, 1842,” The Liberator, February 25, 1842.

(16.) “For Our Colored Friends,” Daily Journal, July 8, 1885.

(p.150) (17.) “Answering Mr. Bradley,” New York Times, June 28, 1887.

(18.) New York Times, July 20, 1893; Cincinnati (Ohio) Daily Gazette, September 1, 1877.

(19.) “Jubilee Singers’ Trials,” New York Times, December 25, 1885.

(20.) “Asbury Park’s Warfare: Colored People in Mass Meeting Denouncing Mr. Bradley’s Actions,” New York Times, July 6, 1887.

(21.) “Their Jubilee Day,” New York Times, July 21, 1887.

(22.) “Jim Crow Theater Seats,” New York Times, October 10, 1904.

(23.) “The Prosperous Season Seems to Have at Last Arrived,” New York Times, August 10, 1891.

(24.) Washington Post Complained,” Atlantic City Daily Union, July 23, 1900; “What Are We Going to Do?” Atlantic City Daily Union, July 23, 1893.

(25.) “Asbury Park’s Warfare,” New York Times, July 6, 1887.

(26.) Roy Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will: Workers and Leisure in an Industrial City, 1870–1920 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1983); Kathy Peiss, Cheap Amusements: Working Women and Leisure in Turn-of-the-Century New York (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1986); Nan Enstad, Ladies of Labor, Girls of Adventure: Working Women, Popular Culture, and Labor Politics at the Turn of the Century (New York: Columbia University Press, 1999); “A Colored Man’s View,” Daily Journal, August 12, 1886; “A Travesty upon Justice and Truth,” Christian Recorder, August 6, 1885.

(27.) Saidiya Hartman argues that the “social” in nineteenth-century political thought encompassed an “asylum of inequality.” See Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 201. The impact of commercialization on the Gilded Age public sphere is well documented. Few of these works, however, address the influence of northern race relations in reconfiguring the ideological and political parameters of public and private space. See William Leach, Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture (New York: Pantheon, 1994); Mary P. Ryan, Civic Wars: Democracy and Public Life in the American City during the Nineteenth Century (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997); David Scobey, Empire City: The Making and Meaning of the New York City Landscape (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2002); Alan Trachtenberg, The Incorporation of America: Culture and Society in the Gilded Age (New York: Hill & Wang, 1982).

(28.) “Asbury Park Colored Question,” Christian Recorder, August 3, 1893.

(29.) The Sun (New York), June 29, 1887.

(30.) Atlantic City Daily UnionAtlantic City Daily UnionWilliam M. Ashby, Tales without Hate (Newark, N.J.: Newark Preservation and Landmarks Committee, 1980), 36–37.

(31.) David R. Roediger, The Wages of Whiteness: Race and the Making of the American Working Class (New York: Verso, 1991); Heather Cox Richardson, The Death of Reconstruction: Race, Labor, and Politics in the Post–Civil War North, 1865–1901 (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001); “It Must Be Stopped,” Daily Journal, July 30, 1886, Evening World, August 4, 1893.

(32.) “Founder Bradley’s Case,” The Sun (New York), October 3, 1893The Sun

(p.151) (33.) In the 1970s, scholars began to chart the ways that citizens shifted their identity from workers to consumers through a series of strikes, boycotts, and national campaigns for product regulation. Although this study also details boycotts and other forms of labor activism undertaken by black workers, it situates the black consumer movement at the Jersey shore at a critical juncture in the nation’s transition from a free labor to a free consumer society. For works that document the link between consumer advocacy and labor rights, see esp. Erna Agnevine, Roots of the Consumer Movement: A Chronicle of Consumer History in the Twentieth Century (Washington, D.C.: National Consumers League, 1979); Lawrence Glickman, A Living Wage: American Workers and the Making of Consumer Society (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1997); Rosenzweig, Eight Hours for What We Will; David Montgomery, Beyond Equality: Labor and the Radical Republicans, 1862–1872 (New York: Vintage, 1967); Michael Gordon, “The Labor Boycott in New York City, 1880–1886,” Labor History 16 (Spring 1975): 184–229; and Daniel R. Ernst, “Free Labor, the Consumer Interest, and the Law of Industrial Disputes, 1885–1900,” American Journal of Legal History 36 (January 1992): 19–37.