How Black Roller Skaters Helped Make The Rink A Place For Grownups

By | April 7, 2019

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A still from the HBO documentary 'United Skates,' which tells the story of black roller-skating culture in the '60s and '70s through today. Image courtesy HBO

Black roller skaters of the '60s and '70s developed skating as an activity for adults, and helped turn the roller rink from a kids' space into a place where grownups could socialize. Roller skating -- if you're good at it -- can be every bit as demanding and artistic as figure skating or dance. Black skaters who kept skating into their 20s and beyond, in inner-city skating rinks around the country, helped lay the foundation for the massive fad of roller disco.

Skate nights were a key social activity in many black communities in the '60s and '70s -- and continue to be, despite closures of roller rinks around the country. A recent HBO documentary, United Skates, sheds light on the history of black skate culture and its significance as an American phenomenon of the groovy era.

In the segregated 1960s, most roller-skating rinks were off-limits to black skaters, but that didn’t stop the black community from embracing the pastime. In fact, African American skaters had to stage protests to fight for admittance into roller rinks. Even then, they weren’t always allowed to skate with white skaters and had to participate on black-only nights. From this, however, came the rise of the black skate culture, which thrived throughout the 1970s and even helped give rise to rap and hip-hop of the 1980s.

From Early Beginnings

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Dancer Ben Vereen (C), co-host of the NBC-TV show America Alive, gets some pointers in the art of disco roller skating from roller disco dancers at Xenon. Source: (

Roller skating rinks began springing up around the country in the late 1880s but reached peak popularity in the 1950s and 1960s. The growth of suburbs after World War II meant that roller skating rinks spread out of the cities, too. The rinks became more modernized during this time. The old organ music was replaced with rock-n-roll, and neon signs and colored lights were installed. In the 1970s, disco balls were hung above the skating rinks so skaters could participate in roller disco parties in a festive environment. Roller rinks served as a gathering place for people in the community. For older roller rinks in urban areas, this meant a heavy African American presence and the beginnings of the black skate culture movement.