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.
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