The first time Kristal Jones attended a Lincoln Beach cleanup, she was hit with a “wave of familiarity,” a deep connection to the space. When discussing it with her family later, she discovered she had frequented the beach, pre-Katrina, as a young child.
“Even if we don’t remember, our bodies remember the land,” Jones said during the Ashé Cultural Arts Center’s Losing Louisiana community event on Nov. 12.
The fall event at Ashé was one of several new efforts calling for the reopening of Lincoln Beach, a historic place where Black people found solace in a leisure space designed for them.
Opened on the shore of Lake Pontchartrain in Little Woods in 1939 with a swimming area and a few rides, Lincoln Beach was one of the city’s few recreational water spaces created for Black people during the Jim Crow era.
By 1954 Lincoln Beach had expanded to include two Olympic-sized pools, a wading pool, restaurants, and a modest amusement park.
That version of Lincoln Beach was only open for a decade — competition from other lakeside attractions, desegregation, and termination of Lincoln Beach Corporation’s lease contributed to the beach closing in 1964.
This led some Black New Orleanians to the formerly whites-only Pontchartrain Beach, the extensive and better-funded beach with more amenities and attractions compared to Lincoln Beach. Located at the end of Elysian Fields Ave., Pontchartrain Beach was closer to the center of the city and more easily accessed by a majority of New Orleanians.
But today, there are new efforts to reopen Lincoln Beach.
In 2020, as Lincoln Beach cleanup events gained widespread support, a group was formed to take on the challenge of getting the beach reopened for families. The New Orleans for Lincoln Beach Coalition was founded to not only work on modernizing the beach, but also to keep the rich history of Lincoln Beach alive.
As those who experienced the heyday of Lincoln Beach age, the urgency to preserve their stories has become apparent. New Orleans for Lincoln Beach has partnered with historian Shawanda Marie and the Friends of the Cabildo to collect these oral histories and preserve them in a digital archive.
Marie, a New Orleans East native, and self-proclaimed “story gatherer,” grew up hearing her mother’s stories about Lincoln Beach. She never knew it lay just on the other side of the Hayne Boulevard levee.
“My mother played in this area, and I’m finally here … walking on the same soil as my family,” Marie said about her first time visiting Lincoln Beach. “This place was mystical in my mind, like discovering the lost city of Atlantis.”
The stories Marie has gathered so far in the digital archive show a deep connection and appreciation Black New Orleanians had for Lincoln Beach and the refuge it offered from the harsh realities of Jim Crow segregation.
Dr. Lena Ampadu recounted taking three buses every Saturday with her sisters to get to Lincoln Beach as a little girl. Her family only lived a 10-minute drive from the beach but they didn’t have a car. The long journey through the rural Little Woods area was a test of patience for the little girl, but “it was an adventure.”
A woman in her 80s recalled attending a Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke concert at Lincoln Beach as a young woman. She remembers Cooke patiently attempting to teach her how to dance the Twist. She continued to practice and by the next time Cooke performed at Lincoln Beach, she got on stage and “showed him what she learned.”
As for the physical restoration of the beach, project plans are still in early development with the city, with the expectation to roll out a phase-by-phase outline sometime in 2023, according to Tricia Wallace, president of New Orleans for Lincoln Beach. The city completed a site assessment of Lincoln Beach last year, which includes cost estimates for various structural and utility improvements.
Development plans tiptoe a careful line — honoring the beach’s historical significance and natural beauty as well as New Orleans East’s desire for more recreational and economic opportunities. New Orleans for Lincoln Beach surveyed community members for feedback on the beach’s future in their vision report.
Community members were asked for their opinion on possible development options for Lincoln Beach which included a waterfront public park, a nature preserve, an environmental center, or a resort or amusement park.
Out of the hundreds of survey respondents, none of them voted in favor of redeveloping the beach as a resort or amusement park, according to Aron Chang with the Water Leaders Institute, which conducted the survey.
“It’s finding that balance, creating spaces where that natural habitat can continue to exist, but weaving in space for humans and human activity,” said Chang.
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