This is a story of unconscionable racism and profound bravery. We’ll start with the bravery.
In late June 1919, Elijah B. Lane, who lived at 506 Locust Ave., stood before Long Beach city officials. Born in Illinois a few years before the start of the Civil War, Lane had moved west and was now working as an apartment building housekeeper. One of about a hundred African-Americans who called Long Beach home—the city’s population was about 55,000—Lane went to the city council meeting bearing a petition signed by about 20 black residents.
He brought the council’s attention to a popular midway game at the Pike called “Drowning the [N-word].” The game was popular all over the country, appearing by other names such as the “African Dip” and “Dunking the Darky.” Whatever the name, Lane found the game disturbing and disgusting and, on this day, more than two decades before the NAACP would open a chapter in Long Beach, he hoped to convince city officials to close it down.
The Pike, built in 1902, had a wide variety of midway games, amusements, and food stands by 1919. This particular game was simple, and very popular, according to David Pilgrim, curator of the Jim Crow Museum at Ferris State University in Michigan.
“A black person, usually a man, would sit on a plank and yell insults—some racial—at the white customers,” states an essay Pilgrim wrote in 2007 on these types of carnival attractions. “The game’s owner encouraged blacks hired as ‘Africans’ to verbally taunt whites; thereby, ensuring long lines of angry, paying customers. The insulted white customers would try to hit a target device attached to the plank. When the target was hit squarely it caused the black man to be dumped in the tank below. Typically, a huge crowd, some inebriated, would shout encouragement to the person throwing—and shout insults at the black man in the ‘cage.’ When a direct hit sent the black men into the water there were shouts of joy.”
Often, according to Pilgrim’s essay, whites would ignore the purpose of the game and simply throw directly at the black man. Amazingly, this game was considered the “progressive” alternative to an even more violent game, “Hit the Coon,” in which an African-American would stick his head through a hole in a wall so white customers could throw baseballs at him. That game caused all manner of serious injuries and, in some cases, death.
These games could be found all over the nation: Illinois, Indiana, Florida, Iowa, New York, Pennsylvania. There was even one at the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco (of interest is that journalist Dave Gilson wrote extensively about this particular “African Dip” game, but noted that historians could find no record of African-Americans protesting it). In any case, the presence of such games around the country discredits a common belief among whites that overt Jim Crow racism was confined to the South.
Though such games were very popular, there is very little information about the Pike game in contemporary sources of Long Beach history. Indeed, the book “The Pike on the Silverstrand,” published by the Historical Society of Long Beach in 1982, contains no mention of the game. In fact, officials at the Historical Society said they had never heard of it. The game is mentioned in the report “The State of Black Long Beach,” published in 2012 by Alex J. Norman and Lydia A. Hollie. The report’s source is the 2007 book “The Heritage of African-Americans in Long Beach,” by Aaron L. Day and Indira Hale Tucker, which reprinted an old Long Beach Press article on Lane’s 1919 protest.
John Malveaux, who helped found the African-American Heritage Society, remembers the game very well. He saw it as recently as 1955, not long after he moved to Long Beach.
“I was 12 years old when I saw it,” he said. “I moved here from the South. This was my first experience in an integrated community, so it wasn’t as shocking to me as it would have been to others.”
In any case, these types of attractions were profoundly racist—not just in demonizing blacks, but in redefining the whole concept of what it meant to be “white.”
“African Dip allowed immigrants, many first-generation Americans from Ireland, Yugoslavia, Poland and other European nations, to define themselves as ‘real Americans,’ racially white, united by skin color with the white immigrants who came earlier and were already assimilated,” says Pilgrim in his essay. “They were, after all, not like the blacks in the tank.”
In Long Beach, Elijah Lane was worried about the “Drowning the [N-word]” game at the Pike, which is why he and roughly a fifth of the entire black population of Long Beach took the extraordinary act of signing a petition asking the city to do away with it.
“Colored residents of Long Beach today appealed to the legislative body to abolish the pastime on The Pike known as ‘drowning the [N-word],’ urging that the designation of the game and the sport itself is objectionable to Negroes of this city,” the Long Beach Press reported on June 27, 1919. “Mr. Lane, colored, protested that in the first place the sport is unhealthy in that it is conducive to rheumatism. The principle objection, however, was that the pastime tends to create race prejudice, according to Lane.”
Lane and his colleagues’ actions seem especially brave given how dangerous 1919 was for African-Americans. All over the country, whites rioted, burned neighborhoods, and murdered blacks. On April 13, whites killed six blacks in Jenkins County, Georgia. A month later, rioting white U.S. Navy sailors attacked blacks in Charleston, South Carolina, killing three. Just days after Lane and his neighbors made their appeal to the Long Beach City Council, enraged Bisbee, Arizona, cops attacked blacks soldiers serving with the 10th Cavalry Regiment–the famed “Buffalo Soldiers.” Later that July, the Chicago Race Riot would claim the lives of 23 blacks and 15 whites, injure another 537 people and leave 1,000 black families homeless. And throughout the year, enraged whites in Arkansas would eventually kill 237 black sharecroppers who were trying to unionize.
Being black in the U.S.—anywhere in the U.S.—in 1919 was dangerous. Long Beach was no different. At the turn of the 20th century, black citizens were not allowed to purchase land to build homes in the city. A year after Lane’s protest, 1920, there were 142 African-Americans living in Long Beach but, by 1924, the Long Beach Press reported that the local Ku Klux Klan Klavern had more than 10,000 members.
Imagine being one of the few blacks in the city, forced by exclusionary homeowner policies to live in just a couple neighborhoods, asking city officials in public to do something about a game at one of the most popular tourist attractions in California. And then having to sit there as those officials debated your objection, only to ultimately decide to do virtually nothing about it.
“City Attorney George Hoodenpyl explained that they knew of no legal method of prohibiting the game unless it could be shown that the sport is a rheumatism producer, in which the Humane Society might have power to order the sport discontinued,” the Long Beach Press reported.
But it wasn’t a complete loss for Lane and his neighbors, because the Press also reported that “Mayor [William] Lisenby said that the designation ‘drowning the [n-word]’ was objectionable and should not be used.”
As for the petition Lane brought, the Press dryly noted that city officials referred it to a committee.
According to the Jim Crow Museum, and John Malveaux, many of these games lasted into the 1950s. Indeed, the “Dunk the [N-word]” game at the Riverview Amusement Park in Chicago wasn’t renamed until the late 1940s. As for the game at the Pike, there’s little to no information as to when the game finally shut down. The Pike itself closed in 1979.
Though there’s little in newspaper archives or history books on what happened to Lane following his protest, it’s clear the game lasted long after 1919. In fact, Sharon McLucas—the co-curator of the “Forgotten Images” traveling exhibit of African-American historical images—remembers seeing the game as late as the 1950s, when she visited the Pike as a little girl.
“We used to go every other week, my family and I,” she said. “They had babies in a jar, Siamese twins, and that game was actually there. And I remember the community was very upset that it was still going on—because California was supposed to be the future.”
What became of Lane is a mystery. At a time when blacks could only live in select parts of town, when they were lynched all over the country on the flimsiest of pretenses, when the Klan itself was enjoying a massive rebirth (thanks to the film Birth of a Nation, which premiered in 1915), he had taken a petition with 20 names to powerful white men who ran Long Beach and asked them to do something. He was just a working-class guy, but he risked everything he had and everything he was. Yet, neither the 2012 State of Black Long Beach Report nor the 2007 book “The Heritage of African-Americans in Long Beach” has any information on what became of him.
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