|1954: A Year In The Life Of Lincoln Beach
Keith Weldon Medley
(Versions published in New Orleans Observer(1985) and Preservation In Print(1999))
Lincoln Beach abuts Lake Pontchartrain in the Little Woods neighborhood of eastern New Orleans. Started as a segregated Black swimming area in the late 1930’s, the site underwent a major renovation in 1954. Thereafter, until its closing in 1964, Lincoln Beach provided a summer long festival of water sports, carnival rides, music and food.
In its original form, Lincoln Beach typified the problems of the separate-but-equal era. Acquired by the Orleans Parish Levee Board in 1939, the site’s original 2.3 acres contrasted with Pontchartrain Beach’s easily accessible 50 acres and $100,000 roller coaster ride. Conversely, Lincoln Beach stood 12 miles from the Central Business District down a two lane road and just shy of Rogers Lagoon with no public transportation. Sandwiched between Lake Pontchartrain fishing camps, the site contained one building. Over the years its beach front fell victim to erosion and sewage.
Things changed in the late 1940’s. Social worker, union activist, and Civil Rights leader Ernest Wright and his People’s Defense League organized voter registration campaigns that increased Black electoral participation. Under the administration of Earl K. Long who Ernest Wright supported, the Levee Board unveiled plans for a million dollar renovation of Lincoln Beach. Pile driving ceremonies took place in the spring of 1953.
On May 8, 1954, Ernest Wright chaired the new Lincoln Beach’s dedication ceremonies. On the dais sat Reverend Avery Alexander, Reverend A. L. Davis, Dillard University president Albert W. Dent, Orleans Levee Board president Louis Rousell, and top state and city leaders. Governor Robert Kennon viewed Lincoln Beach’s redevelopment as an example of Louisiana looking after “all of her citizens”. Mayor deLesseps Morrison used the occasion to promise a trade school for African-Americans, and development of the Pontchartrain Park subdivision for the Black middle class. Ernest Wright saw the 17 acre expansion of Lincoln Beach as a “step forward in the Negro’s fight for first-class citizenship”.
On May 28, 1954, at 9:00 a.m., manager Walter Wright threw open the gates. Eleven-year-old Paul Castille bought the first ticket. He then led thousands onto a midway lined with shrubbery as Papa Celestine’s Dixieland Band greeted the crowd with lively jazz. In place of the barren landscape and solitary building of old, the new Lincoln Beach contained a bath house with two-thousand lockers. Pools matched the specifications of Pontchartrain Beach’s pools. Barges brought in white sand to expand the beach front to a quarter of a mile in length.
Every week thereafter, advertisements in the Louisiana Weekly newspaper beckoned residents to “Take a Dip Day or Night” and “Relax in the Cool Summer Breeze on Lake Pontchartrain.’’ Families and church groups took advantage of picnic shelters, carnival rides, and supervised swimming activities. Couples dined on the Carver House restaurant’s outdoor roof terrace, attended the Friday night “Dance Under The Stars”, or took romantic strolls down the moonlit beach. Outdoor entertainment over the years included the Bob Ogden Orchestra, the rock and roll Hawkettes, pianist Walter ‘Fats’ Pichon, the Ink Spots, Earl King, and Fats Domino. On Thursday nights, WMRY Radio’s Larry McKinley hosted free midway dances.
On Friday mornings, scores of buses unloaded hundreds of day campers. They donned their swimsuits, raced through a cold water shower alley, and plunged into Lincoln Beach’s gigantic three to six foot deep pool. There, a generation of New Orleanians learned Red Cross swimming safety and engaged in swim meets. In the adjoining sixteen foot deep pool, Lincoln Beach provided a rare opportunity in the deep South for Black divers to hone and display their skills. Crowd favorite James ‘‘Pump” Chatman conducted coordinated team diving stunts from the ten meter board.
Lincoln Beach ended 1954 with a month long competition for the title of Miss Lincoln Beach. McDonogh #35 High School dramatics student June Foster won and received a 50-inch gold-plated cup, a dozen roses, a music scholarship, and gifts from Phil Werlein and the People’s Defense League.
In the years that followed, Lincoln Beach lured Southern travelers. It called itself the “Coney Island of the South”. In 1956, a 3500 car parking lot opened along with new rides. In 1958, Ernest Wright organized a Negro State Fair at Lincoln Beach with themes of music, youth, and labor. A popular Wright received nearly 40,000 votes in a 1960 campaign for lieutenant governor of Louisiana.
With the passage of the Civil Rights Bill in 1964, Lincoln Beach met the fate of segregated lunch counters and water fountains. Despite its uniqueness in the deep South and the memories it created, the Beach’s facilities, accessibility, and amusements never reached the level of Pontchartrain Beach. Historical and market forces prevailed, attendance dropped dramatically, and Lincoln Beach closed in the autumn of 1964.
Today, its pavilions, pools, and restaurant sit in the ruins of 35 years of dormancy. Still, its beach is one of the cleanest lake swimming spots on the south shore of Lake Pontchartrain. State Representative Cynthia Willard wrote a resolution to study its being declared a historic site. City Councilwoman Ellen Hazeur-Distance chaired a task force that developed a master plan for its renewed usage. A study by Burk-Kleinpeter, Inc recommended a phased approach that would eventually include a new fishing pier, improvements of the surrounding city infrastructure, family picnic shelters, fountains, and restoration of the sand beach and two existing pavilions. Hazeur-Distance stated, “The primary goal of the Master Plan for the lakefront Lincoln Beach site is the creation of public family oriented recreational opportunities on both a regional and the neighborhood scale.”. One future day, Lincoln Beach may once again bring recreational joy to new generations of New Orleanians.