The First 2,000-Seat Jim Crow Ice Skating Rink
The frequently recited story of the Elysium has been expertly told for decades. The traditional story is one of Cleveland lore, heavily laden with adjectives that conjure images of firsts, greatness, and business-genius. Missing from the Elysium story, however, are the multiple incidences of racial discrimination that took place at the famed ice skating rink.
Cleveland's new east side leisure-time hotspot opened to the public on November 23, 1907. The Elysium, a 2,000-seat indoor ice rink that stood on the corner of E. 107th and Euclid, held the title of the world's largest indoor ice skating rink – for roughly three years – until Berlin's Sportpalast opened in 1910. As reported, by the end of the Elysium's opening day, "hundreds of people had tried out the new ice." The papers praised the proprietor of the Elysium, Dudley Humphrey, of Euclid Beach Park and the popcorn ball fame, for erecting another place of wintertime recreation for the city's growing middle-class.
The Elysium's management encouraged almost all Clevelanders to forget about their winter blues. They hosted hockey games and people from all sides of Cleveland came to see the acclaimed Coddy Winters. In addition, you could free skate with your sweetheart, or buy tickets to watch figure skaters glide across the ice like elegant swans. One self-proclaimed "hockey bug" reminisced on the accessibility of the entertainment at the Elysium. Gordon Cobbledick, Sports Editor for the Cleveland Plain Dealer, said he often went to the Elysium as a young boy "because one could buy one's way into the Elysium for 35 cents, a sum which any red-blooded American boy could earn, with a nickel left over for popcorn, by shoveling only four snow-covered walks at a dime a piece." Of the hundreds of people that glided across the fresh ice with their friends, or cheered on one of Cleveland's first amateur hockey league teams, there was one group not in attendance – African Americans.
In 1939, the Humphrey Company was the target of two civil rights lawsuits because of incidents that occurred at the Elysium. In one of the episodes, an African American mother accompanied her children to the ice rink. The manager stopped the mother and children at the door and barred from admittance to the Elysium. The mother reported "that she and her children were approached by a Mr. Shannon … who informed her that the Elysium had never made preparations for Negro patrons, did not admit them, and had no intention of doing so in the future." In another incident, an African American child arrived at the Elysium for a school field trip. She too was prevented from joining her white classmates on the ice. The Elysium's front desk operator told her "gently…'Honey, colored children can't skate here.'"
These two racially motivated incidents were covered only by the Cleveland Call and Post and were settled outside of the courtroom. However, with the addition of these accounts a fuller picture can be formed concerning Cleveland's Humphrey Company. The Humphrey Company was repeatedly a "defendant in similar suits…which are reported to flagrantly discriminate against Negro[e]s." Rumors spread that the company even had a "slush fund" of "$10,000 annually set aside to take care of any suits that may arise out of their proclaimed policy of denying the use of the dance floor, and the roller rink to Negroes" at the Euclid Beach Park. The Humphrey Company appropriated some of this "slush fund" money to settle the discrimination lawsuits filed against the Elysium twice in 1939. The Humphrey Company's belief in segregation and prejudice filtered into all facets of its multi-venue operation, and Euclid Beach Park, like many amusement parks nationally, was marred by Jim Crow, leading to incidents such as the Euclid Beach Park Riot in 1946.
The beloved Elysium was clearly not a place of leisure for all Clevelanders. As the Elysium became the legendary birthplace of Cleveland hockey, the site's failure to abide by the State of Ohio's civil rights statutes was forgotten. In the 1930s, as hockey became more popular the old 2,000-seat Elysium could no longer host all of the fans. By 1941 the Elysium finally closed, and with it the stories of the blatant racial discrimination faded.
The old Elysium site operated as both a bowling alley and a used car-showroom over the ensuing decade, a far cry from its former glory. In 1951, the old Elysium site went up for sale. The city, after a lengthy debate as to whether or not to purchase the land, ultimately acquired the property. The city then tore down the Elysium as part of a beautification effort. The City of Cleveland anticipated the land would "add greatly to the beauty of the grand entrance of Wade Park." Once the original site of the Elysium was re-imagined as urban green space, the public leisure area could finally be enjoyed by all – regardless of race. However, the legacy of Jim Crow continued to plague skating into the 1950s. Often denied entrance to the popular Skateland at Euclid and East 90th, black skaters found sanctuary at Pla-Mor Roller Rink, located just two blocks south of the former Elysium.