INside Story

Skater, 80, provides generational bridge linking Black skate culture history

A centuries-old activity is gaining renewed momentum.

Roller skating, once considered something for the posh and wealthy, has undergone a transformation with Black skating culture leading the trend. There’s evidence that the Indianapolis Black skate culture goes back roughly 70 years or more.

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INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) — The right to skate for Black people was just as much part of the Civil Rights Movement as was sitting at an whites-only lunch counter, or refusing to sit at the back of the bus.

Even when they did earn the right, people alive today say discrimination still steeped in.

During the 1950s and ’60s, Black people had few options to gather outside of churches. Skating rinks would serve as meeting places for political rallies and planning.

A longtime skater who only wanted to go by Ms. Nina said, “Once you pick up the skating, it’s in your blood.”

The 80-year-old can provide a firsthand account of Indy’s deep Black skate culture. “Once you get it, it’s there forever if you’re a real skater.”

She put on her first pair of strap-on skates 74 years ago and she hasn’t slowed down. She shows younger skaters she’s still got it. “I make sure I’m not dressed like grandma now.”

Early on, skating was posh. A 1963 article in the Indianapolis Recorder Newpaper reads, “None of the white Indianapolis skating rinks are patronized by negroes.”

Once integration happened, if you were Black, some things you just didn’t and couldn’t do.

“They were so strict you couldn’t skate backward until they said so. You couldn’t wear a hat. You get in a fight, they’d called the police, and sic dogs and children.”

In the early days, she says, many of the skating rinks were burned, some due to racism, some due to vandalism. So, the community raised a tent for a skating ring in the late ’50s near Hillside Avenue and East 19th Street.

“Roller skating was considered what they called ghetto. We called it ‘slum.’ ‘Oh, they are from the slum’ if you roller-skated.”

That tent broadened the racial divide. A September 1950 article in the Indianapolis Recorder outlined a proposed ban. “The skating ring is situated on a line dividing a predominately Negro neighborhood and an all-white community.”

The article added that white residents, in part, complained about it being too loud.

“After the tent, they built the skating ring back up again, and that was in the ’50s, the late ’50s, and it was 25 cents to get in. You wouldn’t believe how hard it was to get 25 cents.”

Getting that kind of money is a lot easier these days, but the stories she can tell are priceless. If you happen to see her pass you on the floor, consider yourself lucky.

“I fell in love with skating.”

Ms. Nina hasn’t kept the fun to herself. Her children are skaters. She says her son Michael is the best, and even her grandkids get out there on the floor with her.

Part 3