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.