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Soul on ice: who decided skating is not for blacks?

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Twenty years ago, when he was a young teen living with his grandmother, Ron Tate would sneak a radio into his bedroom at night and sit under his covers listening to Blackhawk games.

His grandmother, a strict disciplinarian, had a rule against listening to radios, but he willingly risked his grandmother's wrath because he loved the Hawks. Even today he can do a passable imitation of announcer Lloyd Pettit's signature bellow: "A shot--and a goal!"

But as the years went on, Tate found he couldn't really indulge his interest in hockey, and neither could his friends.

"I was a black kid growing up in the Robert Taylor projects," says Tate, a 33-year-old media consultant who lives on the south side. "Hockey is just not something black kids in the projects get into. The more I think about it, the more it bothers me. Because there are all sorts of self-imposed and societal pressures pushing me and other blacks toward some things and away from others."

Tate is thinking a lot these days about the notion that some activities are off-limits to blacks: he's organizing a campaign to force the Chicago Park District to build an indoor skating rink somewhere in the black community.

"The specific issue is introducing black kids to ice-skating, but there's also a larger issue," says Tate. "We should realize that we have accepted roles that other people have assigned for us. A lot of blacks won't skate because it's not a 'black thing.' Well, why isn't it a black thing? And how many other activities are not black things? What about law, medicine, or business? Are they not black things as well?

"We are taught to believe that in America we have freedom of choice and we can do whatever we want. But our freedom to choose is limited because so many of the choices are already made for us."

Tate's recent concern about ice skating and race came out of the realization last year that he was getting too old to play tackle football.

"I used to play in Grant Park," says Tate. "They were rough games without pads or helmets. One day I decided, 'That's it.' But I needed some kind of aggressive release because I have a lot of energy to burn off."

In December 1989 his aunt Elma Douglas bought him ice skates. "I had never skated before but I took to it right away," says Tate. "I loved it."

He skated on Hyde Park's Midway, which the Park District floods yearly to create a rink. People could skate there, however, only when the temperature fell below freezing, and last winter was mild. So Tate started skating at an outdoor rink with underground refrigeration at Daley Bicentennial Plaza, near Lake Shore Drive and Randolph. It was there that he met skater Larry Holliday.

"Larry was the most brilliant skater on the ice that day," Tate recalls. "He was so good people got off of the ice to watch. What really blew my mind was that Larry is black."

They chatted, and Tate discovered that the 26-year-old Holliday dreamed of making the U.S. Olympic team. He had no corporate sponsors, however. He lived with his mother to save on rent, and delivered newspapers and pizza to raise money for uniforms, skates, lessons, and ice time.

"He was at a major disadvantage," says Elma Douglas, "because unlike his competitors, Larry didn't have regular year-round rink time." Instead he had to try to find uncrowded public-skating hours at indoor rinks. "He had to drive around from rink to rink in the suburbs, and even to Indianapolis," Douglas says. "Despite these disadvantages, he was nationally ranked and had a chance to make the Olympic team."

Tate decided to call attention to Holliday's plight.

"I said, 'Elma, this kid needs our help, but it's going to cost some bucks,'" says Tate. "She couldn't say no."

So Douglas, a retired schoolteacher, paid $1,000 for a full-page ad in the Chicago Defender; it ran on June 11, headlined "Some Say Black Men Are an Endangered Species--Here's an Extraordinary Talent Fighting to Stay Alive."

The text, written by Tate but signed with his aunt's name, called on corporations, local politicians, religious leaders, and private citizens to make tax-deductible donations to Holliday's cause.

"I didn't think the white media would pick up on the story if I was the central character," says Tate. "The idea of one black man helping another black man doesn't fit the conventional media image of what black men do--we're either robbing the currency exchange, raping a woman, or in prison. So I took myself out of the story, and Elma agreed that she would go in. I thought the ad would generate a lot of support."

The ad itself didn't draw one phone call.

"It was ten o'clock in the morning on the day the ad ran, and the phones weren't ringing," says Tate. "I said, 'Elma, we're in trouble.'" So they got on the phone and made at least 50 different calls, to newspapers and television and radio stations.

"We'd call a TV station and say, 'Did you see that ad in the Defender about the black skater?' Then we'd call the station again and say the same thing under a disguised voice," says Tate. "After a while, the reporters got interested in Larry's story."

Over the summer there were dozens of articles on Holliday, countless radio spots, and at least four different television reports, including a segment on the Today show. Father George Clements and Alderman Danny Davis (29th Ward) championed Holliday's cause. The Park District agreed to let Holliday skate for free at the McFetridge Sports Complex, which had the only indoor skating rink in the city. Although the waived charges were only a couple of dollars, they made a difference to Holliday. And the Independence Bank of Chicago, a black-owned south-side institution, agreed to hold donations in a special "Larry Holliday Olympic Fund."

"The media did its job; Larry had his day," says Tate. "So far he's raised about $10,000."

But Tate happened on another problem while he was helping Holliday.

"I found out that there was only one indoor skating rink in the city, and that's in a mostly white area on the northwest side, where blacks don't feel welcome," says Tate. "I heard horror stories about mothers who took their kids to McFetridge and overheard white mothers tell their kids, 'You'd better beat that nigger or I won't give you supper.'

"The Park District told me that out of 97 rinks, 22 are in black communities and 20 are in 'mixed' communities. But that's misleading. If you're going to become a serious skater, you need an indoor facility. I realized this because I try to skate every day myself, and I couldn't because the winter was mild and the ice was melting."

In February, Tate started skating at the Robert Crown Community Center in Evanston.

"The first time I went there, I was awestruck by what I saw," he says. "There were all these little white kids effortlessly skating around. I wanted to know why is it that blacks don't take up skating?"

To help find the answer, he called the Ice Skating Institute in Buffalo Grove.

"I wanted a list of all the indoor skating rinks in the country, and they said come on in," says Tate. "When I walked into the door, they just froze. I must have been the first black person they'd ever seen in there."

He and Douglas then called all the rinks--there were well over 100--on the institute's list.

"We asked every one whether they were located in a black neighborhood," says Tate. "There would be silence. I got the feeling they were wondering, 'Why the hell are you asking me this stuff?' Some people laughed, like this lady at a rink in Maine. She said, 'There are no blacks around here.' Other people were supportive. They said there should be rinks near blacks."

It turned out that not one of the rinks on the institute's list was near a black community. "It all came together," says Tate. "The all-white skaters in Evanston, the frozen looks in Buffalo Grove, the absence of rinks in any black community. Somewhere it had been decided that ice-skating is not for blacks."

He found a few allies, like Les Hanson, who teaches skating at Crown.

"Even in Evanston, which is integrated, you only have a few black skaters," says Hanson. "Black kids may skate until they're 13 or so, but then they'll quit. At 14, kids of all races are very sensitive to peer pressure. If skating is not the 'black thing,' black kids won't skate, even if they love it."

The self-imposed psychological impediments anger Tate.

"As a child, I could have easily reached McFetridge by train or bus," says Tate. "I might have been ostracized by the white people there. But if I really wanted to skate, I could have done it. What bothers me is that so many blacks don't even consider skating as an option. Those who do have to make a tough choice. Either you drop out, which means you don't persevere and you don't exercise your capabilities and you don't reach your potential. Or you skate and pay the cost of being ostracized by your black friends or abused by whites."

Tate hopes that an indoor facility in a black community will help change those attitudes. So far that goal seems a long shot, though Park District superintendent Robert Penn is willing to discuss the matter.

"Mr. Penn would love to provide a rink for those who are not close to McFetridge," says Shawnell Richie, the district's press secretary. "However, municipal agencies, including the Park District, don't have the money for facilities."

If the money is to be found, it will be because Tate and others generate political pressure. "There is support," says Alderman Davis. "But to make it happen, we have to be a little relentless."

Tate, for one, says he won't give up.

"We'll have an indoor facility on the near west or south side within a few years," Tate predicts. "There's too much at stake to give up."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Kathy Richland.

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