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Coastal Desk

Q&A: Historian Andrew Kahrl On The Segregation History Of Lincoln Beach And Plans To Reopen It

Lincoln_Beach_in_New_Orleans.jpg
The Times Picayune
Mayor Cantrell has launched a study to assess reopening Lincoln Beach.

Mayor LaToya Cantrell is looking into re-opening Lincoln Beach, the long-shuttered African American beach in New Orleans East.

New Orleans Public Radio talked about it with historian Andrew Kahrl, author of the book "The Land Was Ours: How Black Beaches Became White Wealth in the Coastal South."

Tegan Wendland: Lincoln Beach does not have the greatest history. African-Americans were relegated there during a time of racist segregation. It was also incredibly polluted, which spurred protests that eventually resulted in its improvement. And then integration, as you've written, basically heralded the end of both city beaches. Can you explain how that happened?

Andrew Kahrl: Yes. So Lincoln Beach was created by the city in response to the demands of African-Americans for recreational spaces in the city during the time of segregation. And at the very moment when the Civil Rights Act was passed, ordering cities like New Orleans to desegregate public facilities and public accommodations, the city promptly ended its contract with the managers of Lincoln Beach, and it closed in very short order. So it was very soon after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that Lincoln Beach was promptly closed. And at the same time, whites-only beaches in the city were also resisting efforts amongst African-Americans to access them. So you have a period following desegregation in which African-Americans are actually seeing their summer recreational options dwindle even further.

And then Pontchartrain Beach ended up closing as well, partially because whites resisted its integration.

Exactly.

Can you describe what Lincoln Beach looked like at its heyday?

Yes. It was a modest beach and it also had a clubhouse that had a very vibrant nightlife during the summer months. The whole variety of what you would expect to see at a summertime recreational destination. The site itself was chosen, in part, because of its remote location. In the years prior to the designation of Lincoln Beach or that site for the city's African-American beach, there had been other attempts to create a "colored beach" in New Orleans. But each time nearby white homeowners would rise up in resistance. So there were numerous attempts at other areas that were closer to the city and closer to the city's African-American population that were shot down by the coordinated resistance of local residents.

So Lincoln Beach came into being in part because it was so far out from the city that it didn't raise the type of opposition that other areas had, which made it very difficult to get to and was part of what many initially saw as how this was more of an insult than it was a public accommodation for African-Americans because it was inaccessible by public transportation. The area surrounding it was initially very polluted. The water was deemed unfit for bathing. So it had a really checkered history right from the outset, but one that in spite of that, the community was able to really make into a vital and very vibrant space.

For decades, the beach has fallen into disrepair. The old structures have fallen apart and are covered with graffiti. There's lots of broken glass and poison ivy. But still, families hop the railroad tracks and go out there and grill out and fish and swim. What have people told you about it's legacy in the community and how people felt about its deterioration over the years?

When I was doing interviews for my book back in the early 2010's, one of the themes that consistently came up when I was speaking with longtime black New Orleanians was just how fond their memories were. It seemed as if many of the other unsavory aspects of the site, its location, had melted away. And instead, many remembered dates that they went on, shows that they saw and summer afternoons that they were able to spend along the shores of Lake Pontchartrain and how unique that experience was for many — many of whom, again, had very few other options for safe places for children and families to recreate in the city. So it was seen as a very unique and a very warm and inviting space. That made its closing all the more bitter a pill for many to swallow, and also one that has continued to galvanize these attempts to revitalize the area, to bring it back and to bring back some of the memories that that space seemed to embody.

It's important to understand what drives these repeated attempts to bring back Lincoln Beach — in a sense, to bring back a vital community and cultural space for the city's African-American community, one that I think is unique to New Orleans in particular.

It was kind of a surprise to get this email in my inbox about the mayor announcing that they're researching what it would take to reopen the beach. Advocates have been trying to redevelop it since the '90s. So why hasn't it worked out so far?

The site itself seems to pose a whole host of logistical challenges in terms of cleaning the area out. It has been essentially an abandoned site that has been falling into disrepair since 1964. There have been periodic attempts to clean up the area and to make it more suitable for families to gather. But these have been on kind of a sporadic basis. That's one of the one of the challenges.

The other are just the challenges that face any attempts to develop along the lake front or along areas that are threatened by future storms and by the prospect of other effects of climate change in the city's future, so that could also be playing a role here.

But I think in particular, there have been no shortage of ideas for revitalizing Lincoln Beach. It seems as if there might be a shortage of capital and a shortage of the kind of resources that would actually be needed to carry out a project. But there have been many who have attempted to do so. In each in each instance where you've seen attempts to revitalize Lincoln Beach, there is a lot of broad-based public support from the community, because of what that place meant to an older generation — those who still remember going there. But again, that can only go so far in actually bringing these plans to fruition.

Do you think there are ways to honor the history of the beach, were it to reopen?

Yeah. If it were to reopen, you would you would have to honor and recognize its history in all aspects, not just the good times were had there but the context that brought about its creation, which is a much more troubling, darker chapter in the city's history.

I would be disappointed if, say, Lincoln Beach came back and the only recognition of its history were those that emphasized all the positive aspects of it without recognizing the overarching reason why that site was created in the first place, which was ultimately to preserve segregation, to preserve Jim Crow in the city. So it's a complicated history. And it's also the product of the determined efforts of African-American civic leaders, parents, activists who fought for years to have decent, safe places for summer recreation for the African-American community.

The reasons why that was so important weren't just about the ability to enjoy their leisure time, but it was also a matter of public health and safety. During the Jim Crow era in New Orleans in particular, each summer, there were shockingly high numbers of drowning deaths among African-American children. Most of them were preventable. Most of them were the product of children swimming in dangerous waters that that they went they ventured to because there was nowhere else they could safely go, because the city pools were closed to them, because the beaches were closed to them.

Support for the Coastal Desk comes from the Greater New Orleans Foundation and the Walton Family Foundation.

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