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On a brisk, bright afternoon in late March 1953, Anita Brown, a thirty-one year old housewife, left her apartment in the Bronx River Houses, boarded a city bus and traveled three miles southeast to the Castle Hill Beach Club (CHBC). She went to apply for a seasonal membership pass, which would have given her access to the club's pools, locker areas, picnic spaces, eateries and athletic fields. If the CHBC approved Mrs. Brown's application, she would have been the first black person admitted since the club opened its doors to the public in 1928. (2)
Anita Brown had acted boldly that morning. An African American attempting to integrate a predominantly white social club in the New York City in 1953 was not commonplace. Twentieth century New York is not often thought of as a city defined by its racial tensions or patterns of racial segregation. (3) Still, New York's social development throughout the first half of the twentieth century is emblematic of the forms of racial animosities in America's northern cities that created segregated housing patterns, influenced discriminatory hiring practices and blanketed many everyday interracial interactions with discomfort and sometimes downright hostility, as occurred during Harlem's riots in 1935 and 1943. (4)
Those moments of violence, combined with the democratic spirit of the nation's wartime ethos, inspired the passage of the country's first permanent anti-discrimination legislation and the creation of the first state-level anti-discrimination oversight and investigative commission, the State Commission Against Discrimination (SCAD). Not since Reconstruction had a state acted so boldly to address racial discrimination. (5) Still, racial bigots thrived in many postwar New York City neighborhoods and large sections of its labor market. Anita Brown's story reflects these trends. "I was given an application to fill out," Brown later testified in a SCAD hearing, "and was informed that they had no vacancies at the moment." The membership staff told her that if an opening in the club became available at a later date, they would notify her and process her application. (6) Anita Brown's neighbor, Ethel Lubarsky, who was white, arrived at the CHBC membership office the same time as Brown. Lubarsky submitted her application and paid the required $5 deposit. The staff immediately assigned her a locker number and issued a key and a temporary admissions pass. After the women chatted about what had transpired at the CHBC, Anita Brown suspected that she had been the victim of racial discrimination. On April 6, with still no word from the CHBC regarding her admission application, Anita Brown filed a complaint with SCAD against the CHBC, which set in motion a ten-year process to desegregate the club's facilities. (7)
The history of the Castle Hill Beach Club's discrimination against blacks provides a small, but significant window through which to view the history of Jim Crow racism in the postwar North. For far too long, Americans have ignored the ways twentieth-century racism was a national, not merely a regional, phenomenon. Part of the problem has been the de jure/de facto dichotomy, which understood the South's legally enforced (de jure) racial segregation as evidence of that region's peculiar character. When viewed through the de jure paradigm, Jim Crow racism was merely another example of how the South's society was out of step with the rest of the country. On the other hand, the de facto paradigm presents discernable signs of racial segregation in public schools and residential communities in the North as a result of individuals' natural choices, not codified law. When viewed through this lens, the North's racial segregation seems benign and unfortunate, but nonetheless unavoidable in a free society where people chose their neighbors and where public school students attended neighborhood schools. According to this dichotomy, racism in the North was considered to be more subtle and insidious than racism in the South, and therefore impossible to identify and eradicate. (8)
The de facto/de jure formula, unfortunately, obscures more social and political realities than it helps to illuminate. Racial discrimination in the North was public, visible, and intentional, and it was perpetuated through multiple aspects of everyday life. Expressions of racism certainly varied between the North and South, especially with respects to extralegal violence and public enforcement of the color line, but it is well documented that northerners were also capable of using violence to maintain racial segregation. (9) When it comes to the history of racial segregation and twentieth century racism in the United States, the South and the North actually had more in common than previous historians recognized. The historical reality is not that racism in the North was impossible to detect, but rather that too many people either ignored northern racism or failed to identify it when it stared them in the face. (10)
In Anita Brown's case against the CHBC, we can examine closely the deceptive methods that perpetuated discriminatory practices and segregated outcomes in the changing social and political milieu of the postwar Jim Crow North. Brown's case provides further evidence of how, throughout the postwar US those who wanted to prevent racial integration efforts tactically employed anti-Communist ideology to discredit civil rights activists' legitimacy and to justify unofficial racial segregation policies. Also apparent in the history of this case are the good faith efforts of the state to investigate and sanction blatant practices of racial discrimination. Fighting racial discrimination through state enforcement procedures, however, was a slow and arduous process. Guilty verdicts were difficult to enforce and civil rights victories often proved to be fleeting and intangible. Nevertheless, as the decade-long effort to integrate the CHBC indicates, activists often regrouped, reorganized and continued their fight. The struggle against racism in the North may be less well known than the southern civil rights movement, but its historical lessons regarding how and why racism persists in American life are no less important.
"OUR ONLY REASON FOR NOT WANTING TO ADMIT NEGROES IS WE ARE SCARED TO DEATH:" BLACKS AND WHITES IN THE POSTWAR BRONX
On April 10, 1953, SCAD investigator Henry Craft toured the CHBC facilities and interviewed club managers Robert Beiersdorfer and George Davis. Craft's report meticulously described the club's physical layout and its recreational facilities. His interview with the club managers also provided clear evidence that racial discrimination influenced their decision to reject Brown's application. The report, therefore, satisfied SCAD's rules for determining probable cause in discrimination cases and the information Craft recorded played a significant role in the official hearing, which began that December. (11)
Each year, roughly 13,000 people (7,500 adults and 5,500 children) received CHBC membership passes, which allowed them access to the club from the third week in April through the first week in October. The CHBC grounds covered sixteen acres and contained two 200-foot long swimming pools as well as a large children's wading pool. There were 3,780 bathhouses: cabana-styled lockers where members changed into swim gear and stored their personal items while using the pools or athletic areas. The number of athletic fields, ball courts and recreation spaces was notable: 32 handball courts, 4 squash courts, 6 soft ball diamonds and basket ball courts, all with spectator stands; 10 tennis courts, 12 ping pong tables, and boxing equipment; an area with beach chairs reserved for sunbathing, a roofed open air picnic area with tables and large grass fields with shaded lounging areas; a sand lot for children, hot and cold showers, a cafeteria that accommodated 300 people, a 40-foot bar that served beer and soft drinks, and two ice cream and soda fountain stands. Two parking lots were reserved for members and their guests. Each season, in addition to the members, over 10,000 people were issued one-day passes and gained access to the CHBC facilities. During the summer season, the CHBC employed about 100 people, 75 full-time and 25 part-time, and ran a six-day-a-week day camp for several hundred children. (12) Thousands of people in the postwar Bronx undoubtedly felt pride and personal connection for the CHBC. None of them, however, neither a seasonal member nor a one-day pass holder, had ever been African American.
Craft's investigation uncovered that this exclusion was achieved by design, not by accident. Beiersdorfer and Davis informed Craft that the club terminated an individual's seasonal membership "if their actions or their behavior," proved to be unacceptable. The membership committee, however, had no set criteria for judging a person's fitness for membership, and it did not screen all 13,000 people who were seasonal members of the club. In the interview, Beiersdorfer then admitted to Craft that Anita Brown "was turned down" or received different treatment "because she was a Negro." The managers then explained to Craft that, "they feared, greatly, that the admission of a Negro to the use of the facilities would result in a violent reaction by the white members of the club and the disturbance may be of such proportion that it would get out of control." (13) Craft testified that, "Mr. Beiersdorfer said, 'Our only reason for not wanting to admit Negroes is,' and I put this in quotations so I would remember it very definitely, 'we are scared to death to admit them for fear of the untoward results which might follow their admission.' " (14) Davis, perhaps having sensed that Beiersdorfer had just given Craft ample evidence to find them in violation of the anti discrimination law, quickly told Craft that the CHBC "had no particular objection to Negroes, per se, but that they didn't dare go along with the admission of them." Neither Davis nor Beiersdorfer knew if any current members of the club were black, but Davis "assumed that since they didn't admit them they didn't have any as members." (15)
The club managers were selective in who they admitted, but Davis and Beiersdorfer stressed that, "there was no discrimination on the basis of creed or nationality." They swore their choices were based on a person's behavior, not their race or religion; or, if a person was already a seasonal member, unacceptable behavior (which was undefined) could result in expulsion from the club. The CHBC managers told Craft that, "If a person didn't behave themselves they would put them out" (sic). (16) Membership may not have been restricted to any one group, but Craft's conversation with Davis and Beiersdorfer uncovered that, "about 80 percent of the membership was Jewish and in the remaining 20 percent, there were many Catholics, Protestants, Italians, and people of other nationalities." Davis and Beiersdorfer told Craft, "Since the law required that applicants shall not be rejected on the basis of color, they would comply" with an order by the …