The Not-So-Secret History of Roller Skating

Image of a woman crouching in quad roller skates with two disembodied pairs of skating legs behind her


Like many Peachy Keen followers, I’m in my early 20s. That means a lot of things: it means I cried this morning while watching a TedTalk about climate change. It means I’ve only recently begun to actually drink red wine for the taste rather than simply for the aesthetic value of drinking red wine. It means I follow Mianne Chan on Instagram. But most importantly as it pertains to this article, it means half of the people in my immediate social circle bought roller skates this year. 

You would have to be completely off the grid (or just not use TikTok) to be unaware of the fact that roller skating is currently having a Moment. While this can partly be traced to roller skating scenes in TV shows and movies like Euphoria or Birds of Prey, roller skating probably wouldn’t have burst back into the mainstream without either video after video on social media going viral or the newfound desire people had for new, socially-distanced activities. But, like most trends associated with white women, roller skating has a long, rich history in the Black community that started almost a century ago and never really stopped. So, before you order those pastel quad skates from Amazon or start picking out 70s-inspired outfits to skate in, let’s learn a little about the history of roller skating in the Black community!


Image of Civil Rights era protestors outside of a roller rink

Though public school curriculum teaches us to associate the Civil Rights Movement with restaurant counters and the Washington Mall, one often overlooked venue for these protests was the local roller rink. In fact, one of the first sit-ins of the era actually didn’t involve sitting at all- it was a skate-in hosted at a roller rink. These skate-in’s continued throughout the 60s with Black and white skaters organizing boycotts or blocking the entrances of segregated rinks, often facing down Klan members as they did so. 

But using roller rinks as a battleground for racial equality dates back to decades before the Civil Right Movement’s “official'' start-date. Picket lines and boycotts were used to protest the segregation of roller rinks from World War II on, with successful protests dating back to the late 1930s (if you’re interested in reading more roller rinks and the Civil Rights Movement, check out Victoria Wolcott’s bookRace, Riots and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America”). 

Unsurprisingly, the prejudice that Black skaters faced didn’t just magically disappear once the Civil Rights Act was signed. Rather than allowing skaters of any race to skate whenever they wanted, roller rinks began planning racially-coded theme nights like “Soul Night” and “Family Night” to keep Black and white patrons separate. It’s worth noting that though the reasons for these separate nights may be abhorrent, skaters who remember this era argue that it helped to create an environment where Black skaters could skate to their own music and socialize without worrying about white rules and standards, resulting in a tight-knit community of Black skaters that exists to this day. 

To read more about the ways Black culture has shaped modern schools of thought, check our article on how Black individuals shaped the body positivity movement!


Image of Mary J. Blige, N.W.A., and Salt-N-Pepa

The history of roller skating in the Black community doesn’t just end with political and human rights activism. Rinks actually played an intrinsic part in launching the careers of dozens of legendary hip-hop artists and shaping the landscape of the genre as we know it. In the late 70s, when rap was still in its infancy (“Rapper’s Delight” would be released in a few months and Afrika Bambaata had only started hosting events two years prior), MCs were already performing sets in roller rinks in Brooklyn. With New York roller rinks as a base, the style of music quickly spread. DJs (primarily Black DJs) returned from trips to New York and began playing hip-hop tracks at their own roller rinks in other states, introducing the genre to an entirely new swath of young people.  

Even as hip-hop and rap became more mainstream, roller rinks were still used for performances. More established venues often were suspicious of the fan bases of groups like N.W.A and Salt-N-Pepa (I don’t think you have to be a critical race theorist to figure out why) and refused to book them, causing musicians to perform more frequently in roller rinks. And roller rinks didn’t just help the careers of existing artists, they also served as a place for Black artists to experiment with their own sound. Some of the more notable examples of this are with Dre working as a DJ in a rink when he was young and artists like  Queen Latifah and Mary J. Blige  performing some of their earliest concerts there. 

Roller rinks also helped disco, another genre of music created by Black people, rise into the mainstream. It goes without saying that these two genres of music are the foundation for most of the top-40 music we listen to today. Imagine what “Say So” by Doja Cat, a certified-Platinum record with over 219 million views on YouTube, would be without disco or rap influences. It would probably just be her doing a TikTok dance in total silence. Rap and disco have completely altered the cultural landscape of America (and really of the world when you consider things like disco’s influence on Japanese city pop or rap's pervasiveness in K-Pop) and the history of both genres would be extremely different without the existence of roller rinks. 


So why is it that so many people believe roller skating was dead until TikTok revived it? One key reason is that roller skating has objectively become less profitable in recent decades. It is, for example, objectively true that around three roller rinks close each month. As retail prices soar, historic rinks like Brooklyn’s Empire Roller Rink have no choice but to close, replaced by chain stores or rental storage facilities. However, the removal of roller skating from the mainstream has allowed for a flourishing subculture to form. Festivals like Soul Skate in Detroit annually attract skaters from across the country and the small size of the community has allowed for each region to cultivate its own signature style of skating, from Philadelphia’s “fast backward” to Chicago’s “J.B. style,” an homage to James Brown.


But in the past few months, roller skating has become strongly associated with white women cruising along to Fleetwood Mac rather than the thriving subculture that’s kept it alive for the past few decades, and that’s problematic for a number of reasons. Obviously, it’s a problem that a trend popularized by the Black community is once again being co-opted and capitalized on by white people (specifically white women). Giving credit to white women for Black cultural trends is sadly nothing new and we need to make sure that we’re open to learning the origin of new trends as they become mainstream.

Associating roller skating with whiteness rather than it’s real origins will also draw in more and more white skaters who lack understanding about the culture they’re entering into or how things like increased policing and metal detectors on adult skate nights and banning baggy pants in rinks are rooted in antiblackness. If white people are going to make skating their favorite new hobby, then they need to be ready to use their privilege to change rules and understand when Black skaters may want them to stay out of certain spaces. After all, in the words of Reggie "Premier" Brown from the documentary United Skates: “The legacy and history of roller skating as it pertains to the African-American community is not only massive as far as influence, but also in the success of roller skating—that’s been because of the consistent support of our community. Period.”

READ MORE: Check out our interview with Akilah Stewart on the whitewashing of the sustainability movement!




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