Chicago’s Riverview Park and the Racist Dunk Tank

Photo Credit: Chuck Wlodarczyk

Chicago’s iconic Riverview Amusement Park closed fifty years ago, in 1967.

Riverview was a place of carnies and pink spun cotton candy; where the Bobs roller coaster careened around tight curves and plunged down steep tracks so fast that thousands of women’s clip-on earrings tore off–later to be displayed in a huge trunk on the loading platform.

Aladdin’s Castle–with its huge, cartoonish, somewhat sinister rendition of Aladdin, greeted visitors into a creepy “fun-house” that terrified me as a little child.

Chicago Tribune archives

On the Pair-o-chutes, we rose ever…so…slowly…up…up…up…The anticipation was a killer, not knowing when we’d hit the top. When we did, the chutes burst open with a gut-wrenching jolt, and we plummeted, leaving our stomachs somewhere along the way.

But there was a less amusing side to Riverview Amusement Park, one that was a perfect metaphor for racial attitudes common in Chicago, and most of the country, prior to the park’s closing.

It was the Dunk Tank.

The Dunk Tank had various names over the years, and today it’s shocking to think that, for decades, no one (at least not most white people) found them offensive:  “the N—-er Dip, the Darktown Tangos, the Chocolate Drops, the African Dip, and finally the Dip.”

The dunkees were African American men. The dunkers were (almost always) white men. (In the accompanying photo, you can see a black teen or young man pulling back his arm to throw, but not many blacks visited the park). White men were never dunked.

Photo Credit: LivingHistoryOfIllinois.org

The black men sat on stools within cages, a target over their shoulders. They goaded white men passing by with insults like, “Hey Shortie, I bet you couldn’t hit the side of a barn,” or “Hey Buddy, that’s not the same girl I saw you with yesterday.”

It was understood that the very idea of a black man openly insulting a white man was so infuriating that the white men would buy ball after ball to get even with that “son-of-bitch” (as I heard many yell) and throw, veins popping out of their necks, with all their might at the target. If it was hit, the black man plunged into the water.

But the black men weren’t cowed. They gamely jumped back onto their stools and started in again on the same guy or the next passing white dupe, who, sure enough, bought more balls. Even as a young girl, it was obvious to me that the taunts from the dunk tank were intended to get the white men to keep spending their money. I couldn’t understand why the white guys didn’t get it.

Yet the white men’s over-the-top fury seemed mean (and frightening) to me as a little kid in the 1950s. I could see the racial division: white ball-throwers; blacks in the dunk tanks. I wondered if the black men felt bad (even though they laughed at and kept goading the whites), but I didn’t have a name for the discomfort I felt. I now realize the discomfort I felt came from sensing the racist nature of the game (though I didn’t have a name for it).

In the early ‘60s, a Pulitzer-Prize winning Chicago newspaper columnist, Mike Royko, decried the Dunk Tank as racist in one of his 1964 columns. He wrote the accussation less than a year after the August 1963 March on Washington, where Dr. Martin Luther King had given his “Dream” speech. As the Civil Rights Movement gained steam, many white Americans were beginning to recognize the racism prevalent in just about every area of life, from housing to entertainment. Riverview closed the concession.

Just three years later, Riverview shut down. According to the book, Laugh Your Troubles Away, the main reason the park closed down was economic. When first built, Riverview had been “on the outskirts of the city,” but the park was now right in the center. “The land was worth more than the revenue the park generated, and it was sold.”

Chicago Tribune archives

My friends and I have nostalgic memories of the great fun we had at the park as kids in the fifties and sixties. As whites, we moved easily among the rides and concessions, our presence never questioned, blinders firmly in place as to the racism that the Dunk Tank represented.

Share some of your memories, or what your parents may have told you, about racism that was ignored, overlooked, or accepted in the past. What kind of ongoing racism do you see even if more subtle? What work is left to do?

**Quotes from Laugh Your Troubles Away, A Complete History of Riverview Park, Chicago Illinois.  by Derek Gee and Ralph Lopez

Some images from: Living History of Illinois dot com

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