In July 1910, the Akron Beacon Journal ran an article under the sensational headline “Starts a Row; Shows Weapon.” The story opened with the account of a “colored damsel,” Retchel Park, who caused a commotion at the train station at Silver Lake Park, an amusement park on Silver Lake between Cuyahoga Falls and Stow, Ohio. Those who read further quickly learned that Park’s “weapon” was just one of her shoes that she removed and used to hit several people waiting for the train. Notwithstanding the paper’s choice to call out the incident, some 4,000 African Americans had enjoyed a festive summer day, including a picnic and turns on the merry-go-round, Figure Eight, and miniature railroad. The article’s comment that the crowd gave Silver Lake the appearance of “a picnic grounds in the Southland for the day” makes clear that while open to Blacks, Silver Lake Park was segregated.
Founded by Cleveland businessman Ralph H. Lodge in 1876, Silver Lake Park hosted Black outings at least as early as 1892, when the Akron Beacon and Republican reported the sale of seventy-seven tickets at the Wadsworth depot for “the colored people’s picnic at Silver Lake.” After its giant dance pavilion opened in 1903, Silver Lake Park became particularly popular with African Americans from Youngstown and other Mahoning Valley communities in northeastern Ohio and northwestern Pennsylvania. A few of these included members of the Black community from Salem, Ohio, in 1904; a large picnic the following year arranged by the Clover Leaf Combination that organized Black social and dancing clubs from the Youngstown area; the United Order of True Reformers from Cleveland and Youngstown in 1907; and Youngstown area A.M.E. congregations in 1908.
While segregation of events remained the rule at Silver Lake, events during one week in August 1908 tested the boundaries. A group of eight Black couples managed to rent a lake cottage “by correspondence.” When these couples “invaded” the dance pavilion one evening, the white dancers “fled” until the park’s management coaxed them back by erecting a partition on the dance floor. The following night the Black patrons were apparently thwarted in their efforts to enjoy the pavilion, but on the third evening they strode onto the floor, prompting a return of the barrier. Some 200 white dancing couples paid for their prejudice by having to crowd onto one half of the pavilion while just eight Black couples enjoyed ample room on the other side. Before long, the large numbers of white dancers gravitated to the edges of the Black side of the pavilion to watch what they saw as dances “entirely exotic to Akron and vicinity.” Unlike two nights before, this time there was “no open complaint.” Everyone was, to outward appearances, enjoying themselves.
The tests of Silver Lake’s racial boundaries seem not to have led to wider Black usage. Well before the Great Migration boosted Northeast Ohio’s Black population, the end of railroad excursions to Silver Lake in 1912 hurt the park attendance regardless of race. The end of rail service may explain why the Twelfth Ward Republican Club picnic in 1912 was the last sizable African American outing reported. Two years later, following further decline in patronage during World War I, the amusement park closed and was redeveloped as a suburban residential allotment.
- “Danced and ‘Rubbered’ at Colored People in Turn; Eight Children of Ham Again. Monopolize Half of Silver Lake’s Big Dance Hall.” Akron Beacon Journal. August 14, 1908.
- Lyons, H. B. “Loyal Legion of Labor.” Akron Beacon Journal. July 21, 1904.
- Lyons, H. B. “Loyal Legion of Labor.” Akron Beacon Journal. July 22, 1905.
- “Negro Republican Picnic,” Cleveland Plain Dealer. August 22, 1912.
- “Silver Lake Park.” Akron Beacon Journal. August 27, 1908.
- “Silver Lake Park Now Open Daily Except Sunday.” Akron Beacon Journal. July 17, 1907.
- “Starts a Row; Shows Weapon.” Akron Beacon Journal. July 15, 1910.
- “Wadsworth Waifs.” Akron Beacon and Republican. August 20, 1892.
- “Welcome to the Village of Silver Lake!” The Village of Silver Lake. villageofsilverlake.com.