While Pontchartrain Beach would continue to grow into a major beach and amusement area, colored bathers had few options other than water hoses to find relief from the heat. Finally, in 1938, a wealthy real estate investor and international fruit magnate, known as Sam “The Banana Man” Zemurray, decided to deed land to the city for the purpose of using it as a permanent beach for the colored community. This land consisted of 2.3 acres in a section east of the Industrial Canal known as Little Woods. It would become known as Lincoln Beach, in honor of the Great Emancipator. The following year (1939) the WPA built a sand beach and beach house on the site.
By no means was Lincoln Beach comparable to the white-only Pontchartrain Beach. For starters, it was located 14 miles from the center of the city, far removed from the bulk of black neighborhoods. It was also very inaccessible by public transportation. There were railroad tracts separating the beach from the major street, Haynes Blvd., which meant that beach goers had to dodge oncoming trains. Many felt that the city purposely chose this site so far out to make sure no one could see the colored folks but the colored folks themselves.
The most serious problem occurred when the levee board cancelled the leases on all fishing camps located on the south shore and offered new leases for the stretch of shore adjacent to Lincoln Beach. By 1941 over 175 fishing camps emptied raw sewerage within a three-mile radius of Lincoln Beach where beach goers were swimming. The pollution was so serious that the N.O. Urban League produced scientific evidence showing Lincoln Beach to be unfit for bathing and grossly contaminated. The city’s sanitation department reported also that the beach area was definitely polluted and unsanitary. Closure was highly recommended.
Lincoln Beach-1954-1964 (Aerial View)
By 1951, the uproar in the community grew so loud that newly elected Mayor Morrison and the levee board announced a $500,000 plan to refurbish Lincoln Beach and, as they said, to make it the equal of Pontchartrain Beach. Several initiatives were undertaken:
1. Barges dumped white sand along the expanded shoreline and fill was used to expand the site to 17 acres from its original 2 and 1/3 acres.
2. Three swimming pools-a wading pool for children, a large swimming pool and a separate deep-water diving pool were constructed along with a purification plant.
3. Adjacent to the pool was a new bath house with approximately 2,000 lockers for the use of both lake and pool bathers.
4. The area across the highway from the beach was landscaped for use as picnic grounds and a restaurant and midway were added.
5. The Levee Board leased Lincoln Beach to a company led by Paul Lacassin to construct an arcade, Ferris wheel, roller coaster and numerous other rides.
On May 8, 1954, at a total cost of one million dollars, a huge dedication ceremony took place that included Mayor Morrison, Governor Robert Kennon and a host of other state and local dignitaries. Ten thousand filled the midway as Papa Celestine’s Dixieland Band played jazz. Despite its distance from the city, this area became an increasingly popular summer destination for the city’s working-class black population.
Thursday night dance parties were now hosted by deejay Larry Mckinley, and a Friday night “Dance under the Stars” were held on the outdoor roof terrace. Regal Beer hosted its annual Regal Hospitality Hostess Contest where young women could compete for a $250.00 cash prize. Candy and soda companies offered free admission to children bearing their wrappers and bottle caps. Sunbeam placed coupons for free rides inside packages of their loaves of bread, while Kaiser Aluminum provided its employees and families with a day of free rides, food, and entertainment.
Talent shows were regularly staged on the beach’s pavilion each summer, and this is where the Aubry Twins and other groups got their start. In 1954, the levee board held its first annual Miss Lincoln Beach Contest.That year’s winner was a high school senior, June Foster who received a 50 inch gold-plated cup, gifts, and her picture in Jet magazine receiving a kiss from the master of ceremonies, Nat King Cole. Great musical performers as Ray Charles, the Ink Spots, and Sam Cooke graced the stage. Such well known local artists as Fats Domino, Fats Pichon, Neville Brothers, and Irma Thomas performed here before hometown fans.
Lincoln Beach soon became not only a city but a statewide recreational center. Its growth continued until the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Federal courts ordered an end to discrimination at amusement parks on public lands, and Lincoln Beach abruptly closed.
The neglected buildings eventually fell into disrepair and were allowed to decay. They became victims of nature and vandals. Plans at various times have been discussed about bringing the property back to life, but to no avail. A piece of New Orleans’ history has now faded into the past.
In the meantime, Pontchartrain became integrated in 1964. It remained opened for the next 19 years, closing its doors on September 23, 1983. Several of its rides ended up in Gulf Shores, Alabama. The land is now occupied by the University of New Orleans and a mile long beach is still in the same area that Pontchartrain Beach once made accessible to its public.
Sources: Louisiana Division/City Archives, New Orleans Public Library (photo-aerial view); Research on Lincoln Beach, taken from many of the same primary sources, has been published by Andrew W. Kahrl in his book, The Land was Ours, African American Beaches from Jim Crow to the Sunbelt South, published by Harvard Univ. Press, 2012; The LA Weekly (photo-1948)15 May,1948 p.6 ; web sites: www.waymarking.com; www.examiner.com; www.wikipedia.com
Lolita V. Cherrie