Gordon Park is a public park, owned and administrated by the City of Cleveland. The park offered public access to water through its swimming beach and small boats. Cleveland residents could easily reach it by public transport or by car. The park was integrated during the 1940s, but racist incidents remained common. Shifts in the demographics postwar in the surrounding neighborhood of Glenville lead to the parks patrons becoming largely African American.
Neglect by Authorities towards the park cause it to decline, and made the beach unsafe to swim at. Such neglect of public beaches by city authorities was common throughout the United States at the time, to both deny equal access to water for recreation to African Americans and to avoid having to desegregate certain concessions by allowing them to decay to justify their closure and demolition. Changes in city planning which threatened African American recreational spaces were also common. In Gordon Parks’ case, its decline culminated in it being bisected by an interstate highway in the 1960s.
Violence against African Americans attempting to swim often made swimming in Lake Erie at public parks unsafe. In August 1938, a Cleveland Policeman (Badge No 4) falsely claimed that a group of African American children were not allowed to swim at Gordon Park. They additionally refused to protect the children, ranging in ages between six and ten, from racist white harassers. In September 1942, a lifeguard started a fist fight with an African American bather. The Call & Post later published an article which detailed a larger pattern of poor policing and lifeguarding at Gordon Park and other lakefront parks. Combined with the growing pollution of Lake Erie by industrial polluters, the city’s beaches were deemed no longer safe for swimming.
In 1953, issues of segregation at Gordon Park’s rowboat concession were reported in the Call & Post. The concession was originally a public amenity, but by that time had been taken over by a private business, similar to how Euclid Beach had transformed its Dance Pavilion into a private club. The private business was theoretically subject to city laws forbidding segregation in public places, but was not directly controlled by the city. The concession owners only provided boats to fishermen, and not pleasure boaters as had previously been the case. The Cleveland Police investigated the matter, and claimed this restriction was due to the dangers using of small rowboats on Lake Erie.
During the Civil Rights Movement, promoting water safety was a matter of both demanding better access to beaches and public pools. Lack of swimming knowledge, borne from limited access those places, made both swimming and pleasure boating on Lake Erie a dangerous proposition.
In September 1960, a cabin cruiser exploded and sank off Gordon Park due to a leak in its fuel system. The operator of the boat, a 34-year-old African American man, could not swim. Fortunately, he and the five other survivors of the explosion were saved by other nearby pleasure boaters.
Knowledgeable members of the community took action to improve water safety during the 1960s. The Call & Post reported that an African American scuba diving club called the “Sea Dragons,” led by dive master Deanna Wilson, dove off Gordon Park and taught water safety classes.
In the late 1960s, Gordon Park was bisected by the new Interstate 90 highway, and Doan Brook, which ran through the park, was culverted. These changes caused a marked decline in the fortunes of the park.
Actions were taken beginning in the 1980s to reverse the park’s decline, starting with establishing a new fishing pier and yacht club. Today the park still exists and, despite it’s bisection, happily still offers a modern boat launch facility, a fishing pier, and picnic areas.
- “Gordon Park.” Cleveland Historical. https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/143.
- “Gordon Park” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History https://case.edu/ech/articles/g/gordon-park
- “Gordon Park Guard Fisticuffs Youth.” Call & Post. August 1, 1942.
- “Juvenile Head Finds Everyone Welcome to Use Gordon Pk. Boats.” Call & Post. June 27, 1953.
- “Police Refuse to Protect Tots At Gordon Park.” Call & Post. August 11, 1938.
- “’Sea Dragons,’Skin Divers, Mix Safety, Water Sports.” Call & Post. September 3, 1960.
- “What’s Wrong With CLEVELAND: Pollution and Prejudice Keep Race Away From City Beaches.” Call & Post. August 22, 1953.
- Seawell, Stephanie L. The Black Freedom Movement and Community Planning in Urban Parks in Cleveland, Ohio, 1945-1977, University of Illinois, 2014.
- Bush, Gregory W. White Sand Black Beach: Civil Rights, Public Space, and Miami’s Virginia Key. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 2016.
- Kahrl, Andrew W. The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2016.
- Wolcott, Victoria. Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.