Fifty years ago, on July 2, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law. The act tackled segregated education, voting rights, women’s rights and worker’s rights. Its most immediate impact, however, came in ordering the abolition of segregation in all “public accommodations.”
Little Rock was already ahead of the curve in most areas of desegregation. In 1963, it had implemented a program to allow equal use of many public and some private facilities downtown. Jet magazine quoted James Forman, national executive secretary of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), saying that Little Rock was “just about the most integrated [city] in the south.”
But Little Rock, as many other places, faced one final hurdle: desegregating public swimming pools. Pools brought African Americans and whites into close and intimate contact more than any other publicly sponsored facility. This in turn touched on the fraught issue of African-American men and white women bathing together in states of undress. And with that came deep-seated white fears of miscegenation.
Little Rock’s first public swimming pool opened in the Pulaski Heights amusement area known as White City on June 16, 1922. The pool operated for 17 seasons before finally closing in 1939 when the land was sold to developers to create a new subdivision in the city’s first, fastest growing, and exclusively all-white suburb. After the closure of the White City Pool, the Little Rock Recreation Commission proposed a city bond to fund a 45 per cent share in a new pool at a cost of $47,000. The other 55 percent came from the federal New Deal agency the Works Projects Administration (WPA).
By 1941, the pool was completed. Its official title was J. Curran Conway Pool, named after the chair of the Little Rock Recreation Commission and vice president of Little Rock’s Federal Home Loan Bank. It was more popularly known as Fair Park Pool, and then later as War Memorial Pool. Conway did not object to this. As one newspaper account noted, “More than modesty prompts him to beg off from the honor. He just can’t handle the telephone calls that always follow when his name is connected with the pool in public print. Mothers tell him to send Sonny home, or would he please wade out and look for little Gertrude’s bracelet. Some want to know the price of admission; others want to complain about the towels.”
On Friday, May 28, 1942, ahead of Memorial Day weekend, J. Curran Conway Pool opened for its first season. As with other public swimming pools across the country at the time, it proved a wildly popular facility. Designed to accommodate 1,800 bathers, it was reportedly packed to capacity from the first day.
The opening of the new pool highlighted the lack of similar facilities for the city’s African-American population. Under the terms of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson decision, the Court required “separate but equal” facilities for blacks. Clearly, Little Rock’s provision of a whites-only pool without any facilities whatsoever for its African-American population violated that requirement. In 1949, the city passed a bond issue for the development of an African-American Gillam Park southeast of the city, which included a swimming pool. The pool opened on Sunday, August 20, 1950.
J. Curran Conway Pool’s segregation policy was first tested on June 27, 1963, when Dr. Jerry Jewell, president of the Little Rock NAACP branch, and L.C. Bates, Arkansas NAACP field secretary, led a group of four would-be swimmers. “We are still segregated here,” pool manager Leroy Scott told them. After the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Jewell and Bates, along with 15 African-American boys and girls, returned. They were denied entry again. Barely five hours later, Little Rock City Manager Ancil M. Douthit announced that J. Curran Conway Pool and Gillam Park Pool “would be closed or sold to private owners” to avoid integration.
The following Monday, both J. Curran Conway Pool and Gillam Park Pool were closed and drained. Douthit claimed that the city was “close to selling” them. He advised the roughly 300 season ticket holders that refunds would be available from the front desk of the pool between 9:30 a.m. and 6 p.m. on Tuesday and Wednesday. Since approximately one-fifth of the season had already elapsed, the city gave a $4 refund on the $5 season tickets.
Things stayed the same until mid-April 1965 as the beginning of the new swimming season approached. Then, the local press revealed that the city’s M.M. Eberts Post No. 1 of the American Legion was considering purchasing the J. Curran Conway and Gillam Park pools. The plan was to operate both pools on a private and segregated basis, with the Gillam Park Pool being turned over to an unnamed African-American Legion Post to run. The furor the plan caused, together with its dubious legality, quickly ended Legion interest.
A campaign to re-open the pools on an integrated basis grew. Ahead of the next scheduled city board of directors meeting, local SNCC activists collected 1,300 signatures in a petition to desegregate city swimming pools. At the meeting on June 2, 1965, City Manager Douthit announced that the swimming pools would open on an integrated basis “as soon as … physically able.” Developments in the courts after the 1964 Civil Rights Act had made it clear that the city could no longer legally evade desegregation.
On Monday, June 14, the Gillam Park Pool was the first to open in drizzling rain. Only a small group of African Americans and no whites used it. Meanwhile, engineers over at J. Conway Curran Pool battled with water pump and motor repairs, along with a cracked pipe. Business was slow when the pool reopened the following Monday. About two dozen whites, mostly children accompanied by their mothers, were ready and waiting to swim. The first three African Americans arrived that afternoon at 1:30 p.m. About half an hour before closing, at 5:30 p.m., there had been 210 swimmers that day, 22 of them African-American. Gillam Park Pool’s numbers had increased slowly since opening the week before and a few whites had swum there.
Near the end of the summer, reports indicated that usual attendance at public pools was down by 50 percent. That short-term trend was indicative of the much longer-term trend in swimming pools in Little Rock and the nation. The post-desegregation era in the United States has witnessed a dramatic decline in public pool construction and usage, and a massive expansion of private and privately owned pools. Increasingly, Americans have built home pools and retreated still further into their backyards for recreation. According to historian Jeff Wiltse, at mid-century only 2,500 U.S. families owned in-ground home swimming pools. By the end of the 20th century, that number had skyrocketed to 4 million.
The impact of this shift in Little Rock is still palpable, showing how the segregated past still bears a heavy footprint today. Despite the increase in the city’s population by nearly 80 percent between 1960 and 2010, the number of operating outdoor public swimming pools has remained exactly the same. J. Curran Conway Pool closed for demolition in 1989 and was replaced by a reduced-size outdoor pool in 1992 as part of the Jim Dailey Fitness and Aquatic Center. The center also contains Little Rock’s only indoor public swimming pool. Indicative of the shift in pool culture, in 1952 there were over 10,000 swimmers in just one week at J. Curran Conway Pool; 60 years later, in 2012, the new pool reported fewer than that for its entire three-month summer season.
Gillam Park Pool closed in 2001 and has been derelict since. Only two new public swimming pools have been constructed since 1965, both, tellingly, in areas of high African-American residence, which virtually guarantees predominantly African-American usage. East Little Rock Pool opened at the East Little Rock Community Complex in 1972. It closed in 2002. Southwest Community Center Pool opened in 1998 and remains in operation. The Southwest Little Rock area witnessed a dramatic shift in population in the period before the pool was built, with 9,000 whites leaving and 6,200 nonwhites arriving in the decade between 1982 and 1992. In the same decade, the population in the almost exclusively white far west of Little Rock, where the number of private pools has proliferated, leapt from 14,874 to 25,930.
Fifty years after the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Little Rock perfectly fits the bill as described in Atlanta by historian Kevin Cruse: “In the end, court-ordered desegregation of public spaces brought about not actual racial integration, but instead a new division in which the public world was increasingly abandoned to blacks and a new private one was created for whites.”
John A. Kirk is the George W. Donaghey Professor and Chair of the History Department at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock. A longer version of this article will appear in the Arkansas Historical Quarterly later this year.