Vacationing got off to a slow start in America with a few of the nation’s elite traveling by coach to resorts on the oceans, in the mountains, or by lakes or springs. As transportation options improved and got faster and cheaper, more and more Americans took vacations and more destinations emerged. Eventually, at some point in the mid-20th century, affordable family autos and paid vacation time meant that most Americans were taking part.
But from the very beginning vacationland America was a reflection of the society of which it was a part. And for racial and religious minorities that meant discrimination and bigotry.
In Working at Play, author Cindy S. Aron describes how Jews were excluded from resorts in New York State in the 19th and early 20th century. A high profile incident in 1877 involved a well known and wealthy Jewish banker, Joseph Seligman, being turned away at the Grand Union Hotel in Saratoga, a place he had visited regularly, because the new manager had instituted a policy of not accommodating Jews.
The Quaker run Mohonk Mountain House near New Paltz discouraged Jewish guests. Aron found this quote in a 1917 house manager’s report: “Hebrews are few. Wm. W. Cohen, a high-class Hebrew, rather insisted on coming, even after learning that he would probably be unwelcome. It took only three days for him to realize his mistake.”
One of the most shameful incidences of discrimination was in the nation’s newly created national parks. Author Marguerite S. Shaffer (See America First) provides evidence of one Robert Sterling Yard, who was executive secretary of the National Parks Association, talking out of both sides of his mouth. On the one hand he proclaims “In the national parks all are just Americans.” But in reference to blacks he confides “While we cannot openly discriminate against them, they should be told the parks have no facilities for taking care of them.” That nonsense was dated 1922.
Segregation in the national park system lasted well beyond that at Shenandoah National Park in Tennessee. Thinly disguising their policies, park officials there had a private concern build separate accommodations. Toilet facilities were separate although no signs indicated that and at restaurant facilities, blacks were ushered into the dining areas reserved for staff.
Among the most popular of the Minnesota lake resorts were those operated by the Ruttger family. The first was started in 1898 and by the 1930’s they ran five properties. Susan Sessions Rugh, author of Are We There Yet?, notes that the Ruttger’s promotional brochure included the phrase, in all caps, “CLIENTELE CAREFULLY RESTRICTED.” Rugh writes “Certainly that meant they excluded black customers, but it also meant Jews were not welcome to stay at their resorts.”
There were some notable exceptions. Atlantic City, N.J., was known as a place that welcomed all from the 1890’s onward. And later Disneyland, opened in 1955, was always open to everyone and in fact was very public about hosting well known black athletes and entertainers.
Rugh’s book is subtilted “The Golden Age of Family Vacations.” That is from the end of World War II through the 1960’s. But for blacks “vacationing was an uncertain even fear filled experience because blacks never could be sure that they would find places to eat and sleep on the road.”
The problem existed even for those who chose to visit the nation’s capital. According to Rugh, “For African-Americans, the civic pilgrimage was a bitter lesson in the limits of citizenship. Washington was a southern city with segregated hotels and rooming houses, evidence of racial prejudice in stark contrast to the ideals inscribed on the capital’s monuments.”
Rugh tells the compelling story about how black organizations like the NAACP and CORE fought discrimination by organizing boycotts of large travel properties like Howard Johnson’s and Hilton Hotels, until they adopted non-discriminatory policies throughout their systems. She also believes that the protests over segregation within America’s travel facilities played a part in winning passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Like everyone else in America, blacks and Jews did not want to spend their vacations having their families and children met with hostility. So these groups built their own tourist infrastructure that enabled them to enjoy many of the same experiences and amenities as other Americans.
Some hotels in existing resort areas were built by blacks to accommodate blacks. These included the Hotel Dale, which opened in Atlantic City, in 1900, and then opened a second Hotel Dale in Cape May in 1911. The Jersey European Hotel began welcoming black guests 1908 in West Baden Springs, Ind. Idlewild in Michigan was founded by four white land developers with the intent of creating a resort community that would attract middle class black professionals from throughout the Midwest. It became known as the “Black Eden of Michigan.” Even in the neighborhood of the racist Ruttger’s clan two black resorts sprung up, the Northern Lights Resort in Richville, Minn., and Flaggs’s Resort in Emily, Minn.
In the post World War II era many black professionals avoiding discrimination by taking their families to Mexico or Bermuda. But for many others, black-owned travel agencies (Admiral Tours, King Travel) and travel guides (Green Book, Travelguide) emerged to lead them comfortably through the U.S. Rugh describes these black owned travel businesses as “a way to circumvent humiliation and it re-circulated tourist dollars within the black economy.”
Resorts for Jews were centered in the Catskill region of New York State. A wide range of accommodations were developed ranging from rooming houses and bungalow communities to grand hotels. Thus it was accessible to Jews at all socio-economic levels and could be reached by train from New York City. Rugh comments that the “nightly entertainment at the Borscht Belt resorts…featured singing stars and comedians who poked fun at Jewish culture” and notes that the resorts also served as a marriage market.
Perhaps the best known of the Catskill resorts was Grossinger’s. It’s roots date to the early 20th century when a New York City transplant Asher Selig Grossinger began renting out some rooms and his wife Malke supplied the appropriate Kosher food. In 1919 they expanded by buying a larger property which they named Grossinger’s Terrace Hill House. By the 1950’s it had become the “Waldorf of the Catskills” with 35 buildings, its own airport and post office and 150,000 guests a year. It declined as discrimination against Jews in the U.S. abated and as later generations of Jews became less interested in the traditional Jewish culture of their parents.
Eventually the separate travel infrastructure for blacks also began to disappear as segregation declined, beginning with the 1964 legislation. But these travel facilities of the disenfranchised played a role in the growth of vacationing in America. They assured that there was a place for everyone.
Reblogged this on galesmind and commented:
A lot of this I did not know some sadly I did. When my father was transferred to Lackland AFB in 1960 he chose to drive down there from Massachusetts where we lived. On the way we encountered separate bathrooms and water fountains. I couldn’t understand it. To be honest I still don’t. We also stopped near a cotton field where workers were pulling the bolls off. Mama thought education could be found everywhere and demanded we stop. She went up to one of the ladies in the field an asked for a cotton boll to show us. I will never forget those fields and the bent backs of these people. It was tough brutal work. The lady in the field was very kind to this nutty white lady and mama and she had a long talk. My mother talked to everyone I learned a lot from her. I am glad those days of segregation are gone. It was a brutal time. A lot of the Jewish resorts are gone now too. Victims of air travel and time constraints as well as people wanting to expand their world. If you would like to see what they were like see the movie Dirty Dancing. It takes place there. Thanks for this post it really made me think and go back in time.
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I really did not know this shameful part of our history, other than peripherally. You sure brought it front and center in this post. Of course, my family only vacationed by visiting the family farm or driving to see other relatives or friends that my parents knew. I think the first time I stayed in a hotel was when I was 13 years old, when we traveled to see Niagara Falls. It was our first real vacation!
I enjoyed this post, especially because you wrote about the Catskills – yes, the Catskills and those hotels wouldn’t have existed without the discrimination. I don’t think the hotels folded just because Jews were no longer traditional (plenty of us still are), but because instead of going to the Catskills Jews with money can go to Florida, California, Bermuda or Israel. I remember going to one Catskill hotel when my sons were really little – I had never seen so much food. It wasn’t my thing, but it was an interesting glimpse into history.
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Discrimination prevails till date in different parts of the world. The time may have changed and with this our situations as well as our priorities have changed too. But discrimination somehow finds its place in every age and sadly enough many countries across the globe are still struggling to get rid of this issue.
The history of discrimination is something that makes me not so proud to be an American. It has changed a lot but the attitudes still linger as we all know. Shameful.
This was a fascinating read. The history of vacationing and discrimination in America was something that I had never thought about together. It is sad and hard to imagine that this was taking place in the US not that long ago. We have come a long way as a country, but recent issues just go to prove we still have much farther to go.
I found this very interesting. How discrimination had affected vacations was not something I’d thought about before.
It’s always sad to read articles referring to the historic era of discrimination. It seems so out of whack with what we think today but I then always wonder how far under the surface of society is it really? With all the racism being shown against the President it makes me wonder further.
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I was surprised to see that picture from wikipedia. You know anyone from Asian country like me can not think that America have been through all this. I am happy that many black organization stood for their rights and got them.
I feel that discrimination is part of our societies in many ways. If I talk about my place then may be we discriminate on the basis of area, cost etc. I feel that Allah( Creator) has created us equal then why we try to discriminate. As you said non of us want to be discriminated when we are on vacation with families. Its really hard to believe that people have been through such situation in America as well.
Just shocking. The 1950’s and 60’s were a trying time for Caribbean people living in the UK. They were placed in dire accommodation, treated like non humans and shunned by the very people who brought them to the UK to work as nurses, bus drivers/conductors.
Beilieve it or not, I knew about that chapter in US history. And, what’s worse, it still going on to some extent, Merry Christmas!
You’re right Caterina, it has gotten worse recently. I think it stems from the fact that the racists in America can’t deal with the fact that we elected a black president. Personally I think that we should be proud to have elected a black man as president, irrespective of whether you think he is doing a good job or not. Merry Christmas to you as well.
Discrimination aside, I am guessing there weren’t many African Americans in the position to take a resort vacation prior to and in the 1960’s. I am familiar with the borscht belt and the top notch entertainment hosted by their resorts back in the day. People are people and we are all one. Perhaps the decline in the separate travel infrastructure has helped more of us to realize this.
You’re right about resorts having an economic barrier. But there were other types of vacations that were affordable, like driving to Shenandoah National Park and staying in cabins there, that were undesirable because of the segregation.
Really interesting piece. It is amazing how recent such discrimination was in our culture. I did spend some time in the Catskills as a child and never understood the history. A performing arts camp I attended was housed in an old resort and our bunks were in old hotel rooms. It is interesting to understand how that hotel became abandoned. The picture on the top of your blog is sobering but powerful.
It’s hard to imagine having to factor discrimination into vacation planning and sad it was a reality for so many. I like to think Canada was above this and I believe we were better than the US. But I still remember one of my first jobs as a waitress many moons ago. A black person came in and the manager wanted to make sure I was OK serving them. She explained they had to by law but would seat them on the other side if it bothered me since they didn’t want to lose me. I couldn’t believe it would be an issue for ANYONE, let alone me. But apparently it had been, both in her restaurant, and at a huge, landmark one she and her husband both worked in before opening their own.
Shameful and nonsense were the two words that jumped out at me as I read through this post. It’s so hard to face this part of our past, but also so important not to turn a blind eye, especially in light of recent current events in the US.
I never knew about the different tourist companies that catered toward black people. It sucks that it has only been 50 years since the Civil Rights Act has passed. That really wasn’t that long ago. I’m sure that type of discrimination still exist depending on where you travel. Thankfully I haven’t experienced any of it.
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Very minor quibble: Disneyland actually opened in 1955.
Thanks. I’ll double check and correct.
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