It was Friday night, January 9, 1885, and Edward Everett Brown and George Freeman wanted to do something fun. Brown was a lawyer and Freeman worked as a furniture salesman in downtown Boston. The two friends finally had some time to relax after a busy year, so they decided to check out a new roller-skating rink in Roxbury.
After eating supper at Freeman’s house in Chelsea, the friends hopped on a streetcar to the Highland Rink, at Shawmut Avenue and Ruggles Street. Open for only about three months, it was advertised as “the best appointed rink in the world,” and the boast might even have been true.
Roller skating was all the rage in Victorian-era Boston. When the Highland Rink opened to the public for the first time in October 1884, thousands of people attended the festivities. A live orchestra played on a raised stage while men and women teetered on four-wheeled skates, smiling and laughing as they circled the smooth birch floor, clutching the nickel-plated mounted railings to keep from falling.
The rink was housed inside an elaborately decorated hall with wood-paneled walls and stained glass windows illuminated by electric lights. The skating surface gleamed under the soft glow of 1,600 Japanese lanterns suspended from the ceiling, which soared 40 feet up to an arched roof that seemed to float in the air.
Everyone was talking about this new rink, and Brown and Freeman looked forward to seeing it for themselves.
Brown and Freeman arrived at 7:30 p.m., walked into the elegant lobby, and each paid the 50-cent entrance admission. While Freeman sat down and started to put on roller skates he’d brought from home, Brown walked over to get tickets for the skating floor. But when he got to the ticket window, the employee shook his head and said no, he couldn’t have one.
Brown asked why. The employee said those were his orders from his manager and pointed to a man nearby.
The man he was pointing to was David H. McKay. He owned the Highland Rink and had designed it himself. McKay was proud of his Scottish ancestry, and the décor of his rink reflected that. The hall was ornately festooned with flags, banners, and shields fastened with thistle, the national flower of Scotland. The balconies and base of the bandstand were covered in the national colors. He even made the skate boys, who helped customers, wear Scottish kilts, sashes, and caps.
Brown strode over to McKay. “Are you the manager of this rink?”
McKay replied that yes, he was.
Brown explained that the employee was refusing to let him and his friend skate.
McKay didn’t look surprised. “I have given orders to that effect,” he replied, according to Boston Globe reports of their exchange.
“On what grounds?” Brown said.
“It seems to me the grounds are plain enough,” McKay replied. “I do not allow colored people, of either sex, to skate in my rink.”
Brown was shocked, but perhaps not surprised. “The only reason why you refuse to allow us to skate is because we are colored?”
“That is the only reason,” McKay said. “I allow no colored persons to skate on my floor.”
Freeman looked up and immediately knew what was happening. He took his skates off and put them back in his bag.
Brown informed McKay that he was breaking the law, and he went on to cite the exact one. “You are guilty of an offense against Section 69 of Chapter 207 of the public statutes,” he said, “which provides that there shall be no distinction or discrimination on account of color or race. As a member of the bar I shall push this through.”
Realizing that Brown was a lawyer, McKay offered to return their money.
Freeman and Brown refused to accept it, and stepped back outside into the night air.
As they walked away from the warm glow of the rink, they processed the injustice that they had just suffered. It wasn’t right. And on that cold January night, Brown and Freeman decided to fight back.
Boston may have prided itself on being a force in the abolitionist movement, but in the years following the Civil War, racial discrimination was rampant all over the city. And it wasn’t just Highland Rink that was shutting out Black people in the late 1800s. People of color found themselves in similar situations at pool halls, hotels, and other local businesses.
Several days before Brown and Freeman were kicked out by McKay, a similar incident unfolded in the Back Bay at the Boston Roller Skating Rink, when a Black man tried to bring two of his grandchildren to skate. They were refused entry, and the man was violently thrown out of the rink because of the color of his skin, while his grandchildren looked on and cried.
Brown and Freeman wanted to tell as many people as they could about their experience at the Highland Rink. So, they went to the press.
A Boston Globe reporter named Thomas H. Murray jumped on their story. After listening to how Brown and Freeman were treated at the rink, Murray went to Roxbury to interview McKay and get his version of the events.
McKay acknowledged that Freeman and Brown hadn’t done anything wrong. “I have nothing to say against their behavior or their dress,” McKay told the reporter. “They were colored; that was my objection.”
McKay said Black customers could buy tickets and watch as spectators, but they could not skate at the Highland Rink. It was his rink, and he made the rules. “They cannot skate here,” he said. He wouldn’t make any exceptions, he added, not even for Frederick Douglass.
On January 15, Brown and Freeman went to Roxbury Municipal Court and applied for an arrest warrant for McKay, which was granted.
The case against McKay drew the attention of many Black citizens in Boston. On the morning of January 23, a large crowd of spectators gathered in the courthouse to watch the proceedings. When the case was called, the hum of conversation in the courtroom turned to silence and people leaned in closer to hear Brown and Freeman testify from the witness stand.
When it was over, McKay was found guilty of discriminating against the two men. He was fined $100 — $50 for each of them — and the costs of the case.
A few days later, a powerful winter storm overtook the city of Boston. The wind-driven snow began in the morning and would not let up. Crews of workmen shoveled snow onto sleds to be shuttled away. By nightfall temperatures had plunged into the single digits. But the bitter cold and deep snow couldn’t keep the crowds away from the Twelfth Baptist Church in the West End.
An important meeting was getting underway. Some 200 Black men and women walked through the doors of the church that night to discuss what had happened at the Highland Rink and to make sure it never happened again.
One of the speakers was Archibald Henry Grimké, a prominent civil rights activist who had been born into slavery in South Carolina. He escaped when he was 13 years old and went on to college, earning bachelor’s and master’s degrees, and, in 1874, became the second African American graduate of Harvard Law School.
Grimké walked to the front of the crowd and addressed the audience. “It is right for us to be here when the rights of our people are assailed,” he said. “It is right for our people to consider the means by which the wrongs that have been put upon us may be redressed. The principal means should be public agitation.”
As a result of that meeting, a committee was formed to draft a new civil rights law that would prevent business owners from discriminating against Black customers. State Representative Julius C. Chappelle introduced the bill to lawmakers on Beacon Hill. Chappelle had also been born into slavery in South Carolina, and he was the only African American member of the Massachusetts House of Representatives.
A hearing on the bill was scheduled for the morning of March 13.
Still smarting from his loss in court, McKay was a vocal opponent to the proposed legislation and made sure to attend the hearing. McKay arrived early and found a seat in the hearing room. He watched silently as Chappelle briskly strode in. As Brown and Freeman arrived, the ruddy-faced rink owner continued to sit there, expressionless. But McKay’s face brightened when the first member of the Judicial Committee, a white man, showed up. The lawmaker greeted McKay cheerily. “Flourishing, Mr.
McKay?” he asked.
“Yes,” McKay replied with a smile.
At one point during the hearing, a white lawmaker with graying sideburns suggested that skating rinks were “immoral places” and asked Chappelle why Black men were so interested in visiting them.
Chappelle argued that he had missed the point.
“We do not care particularly about the skating rinks, but it is the principle that underlies the whole thing that we argue for,” Chappelle said. “I tell you, if a notice should be put up over the gates of hell that colored men would not be admitted, we would try to enter, because we have a right to.”
Their efforts proved victorious on Beacon Hill. The Legislature passed the bill and, in June 1885, Massachusetts Governor George Robinson approved the new law, which punished anyone who “makes any distinction, discrimination, or restriction on account of color or race” in any place of public amusement, regardless of whether it was licensed by the state, and doubled the previous penalty for breaking the law to $100.
Historian Millington W. Bergeson-Lockwood, author of the book “Race Over Party: Black Politics and Partisanship in Late Nineteenth-Century Boston,” has written extensively about the racial discrimination in Boston’s roller rinks during that time. He says Brown is an example of the robust activist community in Boston during the second half of the 19th century. “Boston pays greater attention to its abolitionist history, but this story is incomplete,” he says. “Boston doesn’t talk enough about its civil rights struggles during Reconstruction.”
Bergeson-Lockwood noted that while Massachusetts led the nation in the passage of these laws after the Civil War, it took the continued work and action by Boston’s Black activists to make sure that businesses abided by them, and that they were enforced.
“This was not the end of the story,” he says. “Many [businesses] found new and creative ways to maintain segregation or discourage Black support.”
But Brown and his cohorts had managed to change Massachusetts law to protect their right to access roller rinks and other recreational spaces, and that was a clear victory — one that made history.
Brown, Freeman, and other advocates who pushed for tougher antidiscrimination laws don’t get as much recognition as famous antislavery activists, “but they played a crucial role in defining what freedom after the Civil War would mean for Black men and women,” Bergeson-Lockwood says. “The passage of these laws was not inevitable, but depended on the constant pressure from African American activists.”
Edward Everett Brown continued to have a successful career in law and went on to become the deputy collector for the city of Boston.
Meanwhile, McKay worked on trying to keep his roller rink business afloat, offering all types of odd activities and promotions — anything to get people in the door. He hosted contests, races, costume parties, and all-female roller polo games. He even brought in a skating horse and had ponies come in and play polo. Little did he know, the Highland Rink’s days were numbered.
As a construction trade magazine would later note, McKay had gotten in over his head in designing his rink himself — the design of his soaring roof was flawed, and seemed to have “no strutting or wind-bracing of any kind.” The magazine would blame the owner while defending the architectural profession, and say “for the honor of the profession, we are glad to say that no architect’s name is mentioned as having been concerned in the design of the truss.”
On a cold day in December 1886, when the city of Boston was blanketed by a heavy layer of snow, the roof of the Highland Rink collapsed with a thunderous crash. Only about a dozen people were in the building at the time, and luckily no one was seriously injured, but McKay’s prized rink was destroyed beyond repair.