"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."
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.
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