By Richard White
In the 1880’s, a roller skating craze prompted the openings of rinks in central New York for recreational skating for the public as well as exhibitions by professional skaters. According to NYS’s civil rights statute of 1873, all races were guaranteed equal access to public venues. In fact, depriving equal admission was a misdemeanor punishable by a $150 fine. Yet in 1884, this law faced racism’s challenges at skating rinks in Norwich and Owego. African Americans in those villages were determined to defend their freedom and equality that resulted in two divergent legal outcomes.
In Norwich on Friday, June 13, residents were anxious to attend the new roller rink’s grand opening at the Wilson Opera House. In spite of the law, co-proprietor Calvin King left instructions at the ticket booth to bar admission of blacks. Excluded were George Breed, William Wycoff, Charles Robbins, and others—a few accounts also name Hannibal Molson and Thomas Randall, two of the region’s leading civil rights activists. The New Berlin Gazette succinctly summarized the next act in this racial drama. On June 16, there was a widely attended “indignation meeting” at the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church which was chaired by Rev. Loren (1) T. Rogers whose words captured the assemblage’s emotions and anger. He declared that not since “darkest days of slavery no such outrage had been perpetrated in Norwich.” Wycoff and Robbins were appointed secretaries. Molson then inspired the audience with a reading of the 1873 law. Finally, the group adopted resolutions including one that contended that they appointment “a committee to consider the propriety of instituting legal proceedings against the management.”
The unnamed committee members recommended a legal course of redress, and Robbins, a local constable, arrested King on a complaint from Randall, according to Greene’s The Chenango American on July 3. After the grand jury’s indictment, his trial strategy in court of sessions was examined by historian David McBride. First, counsel maintained that the 1873 statue was “unconstitutional and void” because it compelled owner(s) of private property for use by blacks. Second, “the rink owner argued that according to [another court ruling] he could refuse to serve blacks as long as he did not deprive this group of establishing similar rinks of their own.”(2)
King was found guilty and fined starting with a trial in Chenango County Court later in the year but he appealed. In early 1889, New York’s Court of Appeals affirmed King’s conviction. Research does not show whether, or when, blacks could skate at the Opera House. Owego’s civil rights case ended much quicker.
Unlike the situation in Norwich, admission tickets were purchased by local blacks at the door of the new rink in Owego on June 26. The group which included Enoch Spaulding, Lincoln White, Mr. and Mrs. Peter G. Kennedy, and John Williams attempted to put on the skates but the manager, Melvin Compton stopped them. He stated that his rules prevented them from skating, and offered to refund their money whereupon Messrs. Kennedy and Williams put on the skates, and skated until closing without incident. According to the Owego Evening Blade the next day, the manager had stated that “his objections to having a colored man skate was not personal, but simply to protect his patrons who might have such objections.” Later, Compton would suggest that the banning of blacks was the same as barring “objectionable women.” But would blacks be barred the following night for being “objectionable?”
Compton awaited a potential confrontation with black civil rights activists on June 27 but while they sought admission to the rink, they did not adopt a confrontational posture. Compton was adamant—he would not admit Kennedy and Williams at all while other members of the group agreed to be admitted into the hall but not the rink. According to The Owego Gazette (3), “Mr. Compton is willing that colored people shall enter the hall as spectators, but says he will resist any further attempts on their part to go upon on the floor. The law is without question on his side….” According to the Blade’s coverage of these events on the 28th, “Manager Compton announced that he was ready for a test case….,” and that was the next step.
On July 19, the Blade reported on Compton’s arrest based on the 1873 law on a warrant pursued by Francis M. Spaulding -- apparently misidentified on June 26 as his relative, Enoch—but unlike a month earlier in Norwich, there was no indignation meeting, although the black community must have been in an uproar. Compton was released on bail until his court appearance on July 23 when there was a surprise. Again, the Blade provided the details—Compton was given a choice of court settings of either the Court of Special Sessions apparently without action by the grand jury, or the County Court of Sessions where he would “answer and stand trial upon whatever may be prepared against him by the grand jury.” Compton was released on bail to await the grand jury’s action the following September. The Compton Case ended when the grand jury refused to indict the rink manager, and Spaulding’s complaint was dismissed. Grand jury proceedings are secret, and there was no speculation in the Blade on this decision. At this point, it cannot be determined if, or how, race relations in Owego were addressed concerning the skating rink after the grand jury’s inaction.
The events in Norwich and Owego in 1884 aptly illustrate W. E. B. Du Bois’ assertion that “the North had never been thoroughly converted to the idea of Negro equality.”4 In two small towns in central New York in 1884, though, African Americans showed their resolve in their struggle for equal rights.
About the author: Richard White's articles have appeared in Civil War History, The Journal of Negro History, New York History Review and other publications.
(1) Some sources give his name as Lorenzo.
(2) Fourteenth Amendment Idealism: The New York State Civil Rights Law, 1873-1918, New York History, April, 1990
(3)As reprinted in The Montrose Democrat on July 18, 1884. Compton’s hometown was near this Pennsylvania village south of Binghamton.
(4) See Black Reconstruction in America (New York, 1962, p. 631)