On Aug. 18, the six flags flying over Texas’s most iconic theme park were all American flags for the first time in its 56-year history.
When Six Flags opened in 1961, it flew the flags of the places that had historically reigned over Texas: Spain, France, Mexico, the Republic of Texas, the United States and the Confederacy. The park was divided into themed areas to match the flags, including a Confederate section where reenactors ran a recruiting station and “executed” a captured Union spy chosen from the visiting crowds. In the mid-1990s, the park replaced the more controversial Confederate battle flag with the less-recognizable first national flag of the Confederacy and renamed the Confederate section the “Old South.”
But even after the 2015 Charleston church massacre brought down other Confederate flags, the park managers stubbornly kept what they considered a less offensive version of Confederate history.The uproar after Charlottesville, however, changed their minds.
Although less iconic than Confederate statues on tree-lined southern streets, Six Flags’s use of the Confederacy illustrates the reach of Jim Crow into every facet of American life, in the North and South. The history of recreational segregation is a largely forgotten one. But the exclusion of African Americans from coveted recreational spaces marked them as inferior and deprived them of the basic human freedom to play and experience pleasure. It also deprived Americans of a space where they would have interacted across racial lines, perhaps shattering stereotypes. Confederate monuments may have captured headlines over the past few weeks, but racial superiority was embedded in the most commonplace American experiences, including enjoying amusement and theme parks.
Amusement parks sprung up in American cities after 1900. Their owners marketed them as clean and orderly spaces where families could congregate for wholesome fun. This image was predicated upon the exclusion of black consumers, who many whites viewed as inherently unclean and disorderly. The restriction of black park customers signaled safety and security to white consumers and reflected the limitations of citizenship for African Americans.
Commercial amusement attractions proliferated at the same historical moment that Jim Crow was codified in the South. And although many northern states had civil rights statutes that should have prevented segregation, they were rarely enforced, allowing most northern parks to offer African Americans only limited access. This was particularly true within swimming pools, dance halls and roller-skating rinks, which were common in parks. These spaces provoked the most intense fears of racial mixing among young men and women. Scantily-clad bathers flirting and playing raised the specter of miscegenation, and some feared for young white women’s safety.
Thus, white owners and customers believed recreation could only be kept virtuous and safe by excluding African Americans and promoting a sanitized and harmonious vision of white leisure.
This recreational segregation had a heartbreaking impact on African American children born during Jim Crow. For example, in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King, Jr. described the tears in his daughter’s eyes when “she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children.”
Major civil rights campaigns targeted amusement park segregation, most notably at Gwynn Oak Park in Baltimore and Glen Echo Park outside of Washington, D.C. And other parks, such as Fountain Ferry in Louisville, were sites of major racial clashes when African Americans sought entrance. These struggles resulted from African Americans demanding access to the same recreational facilities that had delighted white families for decades.
When Six Flags opened in 1961, the Texas real estate developer Angus G. Wynne Jr. wanted to avoid such attention from civil rights activists. Instead, he followed the lead of Walt Disney, who opened the first theme park, Disneyland, in 1955. Wynne opened Six Flags, and its subsequent franchises, in suburban areas, reachable only by car.
By locating their parks outside of cities, inaccessible by public transportation, Wynne and Disney did not need to explicitly define their parks as white spaces to limit black customers. In contrast to older urban amusement parks, Six Flags also charged a steep single admissions price to limit less wealthy patrons and avoided building the swimming pools and dance halls that had provoked controversy elsewhere.
Though Six Flags had no segregation policies, lack of accessibility and the parading of faux Confederate soldiers ensured that it, like Disneyland, was an unfriendly space for blacks during the height of the civil rights movement. Romanticizing Texas’s history didn’t bother whites and proved to be quite profitable. But the Confederate flag flying over Six Flags exposed the racially exclusionary intent that shaped Six Flags’s history, and that appealed to white southerners determined to resist racial equality.
Integrated amusement parks did not have such financial success. By the early 1970s most of America’s Funtowns — urban amusement parks — were closed as some white consumers perceived the newly integrated parks as unsafe. Park owners sold the valuable land for considerable profit.
Other urban leisure sites — public swimming pools, bowling alleys and roller skating rinks — also closed down as white consumers fled cities for the suburbs. In some cases, city officials shuttered recreational facilities, particularly swimming pools, rather than complying with desegregation orders. And owners at times created private clubs to skirt the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Ironically, some blamed African Americans for the decline of urban amusements, disregarding the decades of exclusion and violence they had experienced at those sites.
Meanwhile, suburban theme parks such as Six Flags thrived. Thanks to high gate fees, teenagers could not easily roam the grounds of these parks, and the parks’s well-trained staff helped defuse conflicts. This was a public accommodations version of colorblind meritocracy. Those who could afford to go to the theme park in their private cars belonged there. Those who could not were relegated to cities with few recreational options.
Main Street USA in Disneyland and Six Flags are now diverse spaces — for those who can afford them. By eliminating the Confederate flag, Six Flags is taking another step toward full inclusion. Yet the suburban location of most of America’s theme parks, along with their prices, are stark reminders that “color blindness” often cloaked racial exclusion. To undo this legacy and achieve racial equality, we must acknowledge this history and work to eradicate its effects.