Racism At The Rink

"Puck" magazine political cartoon depicting a person of colour on a skating chair at the Union Skating Pond

One year after civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous "I Have A Dream" speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March On Washington, a riot broke out at a Medford, Massachusetts skating rink when a young black man asked to cut in on a young couple ice dancing together. According to the July 30, 1964 issue of "The Age", "before the brief fracas ended, at least 10 people suffered minor injuries, and the stone-throwing, club-wielding crowd damaged a bus and turned over a police car... Fifty club-swinging police from five nearby communities broke up the disturbance. Several police were pushed and punched by rioters. Others said they were hit by rocks... To prevent further fighting, the police escorted groups of youths out of Sullivan Square and made sure the crowds dispersed quickly. Police from Malden, Somerville, Boston and Cambridge and the metropolitan district commission assisted in breaking up the riot."

Flashback to almost twenty years earlier, north of the border. In 1945, a fifteen year old Toronto student named Harry Gairey Jr. made his first trip to the Icelandia indoor arena on Yonge Street with his friend Donny Jubas. Jubas was Caucasian; Gairey a person of colour. Gairey started skating at the age of eight and regularly frequented the Varsity Arena and Ryerson Park rink but when he and Jubas arrived to skate at this new rink on Yonge Street one day that winter, everything changed. "I go up to buy tickets and the guy says to me, 'We can't sell your friend a ticket,' I turn around and look behind me, then I turn back and say, 'Are you talking to me?' And he says, 'Yeah, I'm talking to you. We don't sell tickets to Negroes. We don't let them in here. So do you want only one ticket?' And I turn and say, 'Let's get out of here,'" Jubas recalled in a February 16, 2009 article in the "Toronto Star".

Like a broken record of Mabel Fairbanks' experiences in New York City, rink racism was still very much alive and well in many North American cities during that era... and like Fairbanks, Gairey didn't turn the other cheek. His father, a Pullman porter, had studied race relations and arranged a meeting with Alderman Norman Creed which alerted Mayor Robert Hood Saunders to the situation. Twenty five University Of Toronto students picketed the Icelandia rink with signs saying  "Color Prejudice Must Go" and "Racial Discrimination Should Not Be Tolerated". Two years later, as a direct result of the rink's refusal to admit Gairey, Toronto's city council passed an ordinance against discrimination based on race, colour, creed or religion. Gairey's father became a prominent activist for civil rights and the rink where Gairey, Jr. and Jubas skated as children was renamed the Harry Ralph Gairey Ice Rink. At the naming ceremony, Gairey and Jubas rekindled their childhood friendship.

In terms of breaking down colour barriers, skating has come a long, long way since the earlier decades of the twentieth century. There have been Olympic and World medallists of colour like Debi Thomas, Robin Szolkowy and Surya Bonaly. Just this past week, Vanessa James became the first woman of colour to win a medal at the European Championships in pairs skating.

Over the course of the next couple of weeks in conjunction with Black History Month, we'll be exploring the historical impact of persons of colour in the skating world on Skate Guard and I sincerely hope that these stories - some heartwarming, some heartbreaking - serve as a reminder of how far the skating world has come but how far it still has to go.

Skate Guard is a blog dedicated to preserving the rich, colourful and fascinating history of figure skating. Over ten years, the blog has featured over a thousand free articles covering all aspects of the sport's history, as well as four compelling in-depth features. To read the latest articles, follow the blog on FacebookTwitterPinterest and YouTube. If you enjoy Skate Guard, please show your support for this archive by ordering a copy of the figure skating reference books "The Almanac of Canadian Figure Skating", "Technical Merit: A History of Figure Skating Jumps" and "A Bibliography of Figure Skating": https://skateguard1.blogspot.com/p/buy-book.html.