African American Sailors in Chicago - Really? Really.

African American Sailors in Chicago - Really?  Really.

Long ago there were jokes made about the shortest books written – Italian War Heroes, Amelia Earhardt’s Guide to the Pacific, The Amish Phone Directory,………….and African Americans I have Met While Boating.  But for boating, times are a changing.  Diversity is here and looking for more sailors to join in the fun.

Within the boating industry, there is a lot of effort going on to introduce boating to all segments of society and get everyone involved in the fabric of boating. There is this great concern that there just isn’t diversity in boating today. And not unwarranted. While there is a long way to go, there have been great strides with African American boaters in the Chicago region.  However it seems like it is off the radar and not publicized.  Hopefully this is a surprise to you.


With the number of people interviewed for this piece, one thing was very clear.  They are all sailors or boaters.  No one thought of themselves as something special or noteworthy.  No one thought that joining a yacht club was something special.  It’s just what they did, and is just like one would expect of any boater or a sailor.  No one expressed any difficulties or challenges making an entrance into these clubs.  One summed it up pretty well – “Out on the water all mariners watch out for one another, it is what we do.  If in need of help, we go assist another mariner.  It makes no difference at all what anyone looks like.  A boater is a boater is a boater.”

Museum Shores Yacht Club

Tucked on the back side of The Museum of Science and Industry is the 59th Street Harbor, a powerboat harbor (the entrance to the Lake goes underneath Lake Shore Drive which precludes masted boats).

African American James Reid joined Museum Shores Yacht Club in 1972.  The first African American became a member in the 1950’s or 1960’s.  The place was a shack originally (leased from the Chicago Park District and called a “shack” in the lease document).  Through time, and through dues, the building has been rehabbed inside and out, added onto including restrooms and a kitchen and has been rented out for parties and weddings due to its new grace.

Docks in the harbor were old school for a long time – wood poles pounded into the harbor bottom and a wiggly dock nailed on.  They had no power, fresh water, or anything else.  In more recent years the Chicago Park District and Westrec (Private Company Manager of Harbors in Chicago) upgraded the docks to floating, with electricity, fresh water, and a pump-out station.  A much appreciated and accepted improvement.

Being off the radar due to its location, the people in the harbor love the location.  It’s right off Lake Shore Drive, right next to the Lake, within walking distance of the Museum or Science and Industry, Chinese Gardens, Tennis Courts, and Bowling Greens.  The fauna around the harbor is beautiful.  Location, location, location.

The members worked hard to make sure it was youthful and astronomical fun.  They ran boating classes for the youth, and within the harbor was a building for the Sea Scout Ship and they included the Sea Scouts regularly in club activities.  They worked at being good community citizens, not only with the youth, but with the elderly too.  Each year they organized a Senior Citizens Day doing a cook-out with burgers, hot dogs and boat rides by busing the Seniors from local homes to the event.

They held lots of parties throughout the year, and are known for being the partying club.  Their biggest event is their Fish Fry.

James loves the club as it was full of great people who stepped up to volunteer to run the place through the years.  He also is convinced that it is the best harbor in the Lake in his not-so humble opinion.  While it’s not often anyone publishes the dues of a yacht club (I don’t know why?).  James shared with me that dues are $150…….annually.  Such a deal.

Did I mention this club is 100% African American?

Southern Shore Yacht Club

As you travel further south on Lake Shore Drive, off to the left is the “Outer Harbor” of Jackson Park, and tucked away on the right behind the trees is the “Inner Harbor.” Again, because the boats must travel under Lake Shore Drive, the boats in the Inner Harbor are powerboats only.  These harbors were part of the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition layout.

The first African American Commodore of the club in 1994 was Roland Wright.  He explained that bringing African Americans into the club and bringing him to leadership went about as smooth as anyone could imagine, and gives credit to the Commodore before him, Brian Burke.  Burke understood the future and opened the doors that needed opening, and leaders like Wright stepped up and did the job.

In 2012, the club celebrated its 100th year, and what they love about their club is that it really is a hide-away.  The worst storm could be raging out on the Lake, but all they might notice is some rain falling. Hundreds of thousands of cars drive right by each year, and they don’t even know they’re there.  It is safe from all waves and protected by trees surrounding the harbor, besides being the second harbor in a chain away from the Lake.  The club has knotty pine floors – old school, and an attractive place to be.  There’s a public golf course within walking distance.  Today it’s available for rental (commonly to friends and family of members), they hold meetings, and have events to socialize with one another.

When the harbor was at full capacity at 150 boats, membership was about 110.  When the recession hit, and the fees for moorings increased (the public needs to understand that boaters are middle-class citizens, with middle-class incomes and are highly sensitive to increased costs), the membership dropped proportionately to the drop to the current 75 boats in the harbor.  Membership stands today at about 90% African-American.

In the past, they were highly known in the boating community for their 2nd Tuesday of the Month Night Steak Fry.  Boats would come from as far away as Waukegan or Michigan City and the harbor would fill up with guest boats for dinner.  They’d serve 140 on a good night.

Speaking with Past Commodore Sandra Smith (2005-2008), she believes she was the first Female African American Commodore in all of Chicago.

Jackson Park Yacht Club

In the Outer Harbor in Jackson Park is the Jackson Park Yacht Club. It’s entrance to the Lake is not encumbered with a bridge, as a result it is friendly to sailboats (except there’s been a bit of littoral drift causing sand to fill the harbor making it shallower each year and getting tougher on getting sailboats in and out). Jackson Park Harbors are my favorite, I don’t think it is because I started sailing out of there as a kid, I think it is because the harbors are so well protected from the Lake. On the stormiest day, it is calm in the harbor. All other harbors in Chicago are exposed to incoming waves or wind damage depending on the wind direction.

In the early 1980’s Frank Gardner, an African American, was leader of a Sea Scouts Ship operating small boats in Jackson Park Harbor.  There were no public restrooms available, and the girls had nowhere to go.  He asked if the club would let the Scouts use the restroom?  The answer was, “Become a member.”  So Frank became the first African American member of the club in order to accommodate the young African American women in this Sea Scout Ship.

Al Thompson, another African American, had a ton of fun in the 1980’s and 1990’s as there was a good fleet of people who cruised their boats together.  They’d head off to Michigan City, Saugatuck, St. Joseph, and really enjoyed themselves.  And then a departure occurred internally, many decided to take up racing their boats.  This translated into either taking their own boats or many boat owners jump on board one boat to do the big Chicago to Mackinac Race, as well as other weekend and weeknight races throughout the season.  Al misses the cruises.  But he keeps himself occupied with two windsurfers and two kayaks for fun.

Al convinced 19 others through the years to join the club.  One of his successes was a woman lifeguard from the 67th beach, and suggested that she buy a sailboat, which she did.

The fun continues as the club has “Movie Night”, hosts many races throughout the year, their major events include the Lutz Regatta, Michigan City to Chicago race on Labor Day weekend, has a Jazz Fest, Blues Fest and Island Fest, has an open “Community Sail” giving back to the community once a year while looking for new sailors simultaneously, hosts a number of safety, safe boating and weather seminars, pot luck dinners, and has galley service on the weekends and once a month Saturday buffet with entertainment.  There are Super Bowl parties, and other big events as get-togethers.  The camaraderie is great.  If you’re looking for a safe harbor to keep your boat, and looking for a place to have camaraderie, and willing to put in some sweat equity (the club is maintained by member volunteerism), this is the place for you.  As the membership records don’t keep track of people by race, I’ll just guess that the membership is about 45% African American – plus or minus.

Other Yacht Clubs in Chicago
I think it is only fair to share what I have seen, and have met African Americans in other clubs in Chicago, and everyone likes to boat close to home. You would expect higher percentages of African Americans in the South Shore, and less as you go to the club’s north, and this is true by observation. The point being, the barriers were broken long ago, and boating and sailing is open to all sailors of any walk of life.

Black Chicago Sailors
This website is working to capture the history of African America sailors in Chicago, and they’re off to a great start.

First Black Man of Any Nation to Sail Solo Around the World via the “Southern Route” (under Cape Horn) – Chicago’s Own William “Bill” Pinkney –

Bill was born in Bronzeville, and served in the U.S. Navy for eight years.  This led to getting his USCG Captain’s License and making his trip around the world in a well-founded boat, a Valiant 47.  Later, he became the Captain of the replica Amistad built by Mystic Seaport Museum in 1999, and launched in 2000.  Bill and crew retraced the slave routes of a different era with this vessel.

Phew. I just got this one published just in time for Black History Month!

9/26/14 addition – I don’t care for segregation imposed by others, or self-imposed.  A fellow with the name “Cap’n Paul Mixon” wrote describing opportunities for African American sailors.  On the other hand, if this gives the opportunity for new sailors to build skills and confidence, so when the return home they continue to present their confidence in operation of their boats, it can be a good thing:

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