Swimming against the tide of desegregation in Little Rock 

Integration came late, if at all, to public pools in Little Rock.

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.

Speaking of...

Comments (4)

Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

 
Subscribe to this thread:
Showing 1-4 of 4

Add a comment

More by John Kirk

People who saved…

Readers also liked…

Most Shared

  • The martyr of Danville Mountain

    Jacob George, 'moral injury' and one soldier's losing struggle against the encroaching darkness of war.
  • Eugene Ellison: Little Rock's Michael Brown

    A couple of weeks ago I accompanied 10 students to St. Louis for a mass rally in support of indicting the police officer responsible for killing Michael Brown in mid-August.
  • Tom Cotton campaign's dirty telephone tricks

    A Democratic voter of my acquaintance who lives in Conway received a call this week that informed he was not registered to vote.
  • Clarke Tucker: a vote for the future

    If the Democratic Party of Arkansas has a future, it is in people like Clarke Tucker, the Democratic nominee to succeed term-limited John Edwards in representing House District 35 — the Heights and northwestern Little Rock.
  • Good news abounds even if you don't see it in the polls

    Ernest Dumas is back from vacation with a column that chronicles abundant good news in the land and an electorate that either pays it no mind or disbelieves anything could be good on Barack Obama's watch.

Latest in Cover Stories

Event Calendar

« »

October

S M T W T F S
  1 2 3 4
5 6 7 8 9 10 11
12 13 14 15 16 17 18
19 20 21 22 23 24 25
26 27 28 29 30 31  

Most Viewed

  • The martyr of Danville Mountain

    Jacob George, 'moral injury' and one soldier's losing struggle against the encroaching darkness of war.
  • Pre-K and taxes define race for governor

    Ross, Hutchinson disagree over what state can afford.
  • Cotton's muddy record

    The best thing we have to look forward to is the certainty that we will have someone other than Tom Cotton to represent us in the 4th Congressional District. His voting record has been an embarrassment to humanity. When his record was brought up as an issue after he announced his candidacy for the Senate, he accused his opposition of slinging mud. At least we know that Tom Cotton is honest: He acknowledged what his voting record looks like.
  • Roommates

    The Observer is a few months from 30 and still has a roommate. Just to be clear, this is a share-the-rent deal, not a share-the-bed deal. I'm not gay, and therein lies the problem.
  • On the eight day, Jason Rapert was a thin-skinned bully

    Also, War Memorial should host a catfish derby, health care-cuttin' Tom Cotton, smartphones are the devil and no-show Mark Martin.

Most Recent Comments

  • Re: The martyr of Danville Mountain

    • Koon connects. 2012 the year of Old Guard Dropping like Flies. As Durango notes by…

    • on October 25, 2014
  • Re: A head-scratcher

    • Nice photo. Hayden Fry (Bielema's college coach) would've said that the head Hog ought not…

    • on October 24, 2014
  • Re: The martyr of Danville Mountain

    • Excellent story David about a young man I was around a few times.His life seemed…

    • on October 23, 2014
 

© 2014 Arkansas Times | 201 East Markham, Suite 200, Little Rock, AR 72201
Powered by Foundation