This is my 9th (and second to last) post in a special series that I am calling “The Color of Water.” In this series, I am exploring the history of Jim Crow and North Carolina’s coastal waters, including the state’s forgotten history of all-white beaches, “sundown towns,” and racially exclusive resort communities. Today—civil rights activists take on Jim Crow swimming pools and beaches.
In the Jim Crow era, the quest of black and Indian people in North Carolina to get to the water was endless. During our sweltering hot summers, many families headed to segregated beaches on coastal rivers, sounds and the seashore. Others traveled to Jones Lake State Park, and some people fled to the Jersey Shore.
Other, though, simply looked for a public swimming pool where their children could swim and have a good time.
That was often not easy, though. In most North Carolina towns, if they had a public pool at all, they had only a “whites only” pool.
Faced with that reality, many black and Indian parents made great efforts to find safe and welcoming pools for their children to swim.
The Gravel Pit & Big Boy Hole
Some people of color thought it was so important for their children to learn to swim and enjoy the water that they traveled considerable distances to find a swimming pool.
Crystal Sanders’ parents, for instance, grew up in Clayton, in Johnston County, but there was no swimming pool for black kids in the town. Crystal told me that their parents carried them all the way to the John Chavis Memorial Park in Raleigh to go swimming.
Built with federal WPA funds in 1938, that park was named after John Chavis (ca. 1763-1838), an African American educator, Revolutionary War patriot and preacher who spent much of his life in Raleigh.
That was a 30-mile roundtrip, but to Crystal’s family it was worth it to swim in a welcoming and safe place.
(Crystal is one of this series’ guiding lights, by the way. I’ve mentioned her scholarship several times previously. She was one of my students at Duke, and she’s now an associate professor of history at Penn State.)
Many other African American families in North Carolina’s small towns and rural areas made that trek to John Chavis Memorial Park, as well as to swimming pools in the state’s other cities.
In Charlotte, for instance, most of the city’s public pools were also “whites only.” But there were some swimming pools that welcomed African American families.
When my dear friend Jean Frye asked around her church on my behalf, she learned that a swimming pool for black citizens had existed in Charlotte as early as the 1930s, when there used to be one in the Greenville neighborhood, behind Johnson C. Smith College.
When they spoke with Jean, others recalled a public pool called Double Oaks and, somewhat later, a private pool called Sunset Park.
Plenty of other people told her that they just took their chances at the “gravel pit” or Big Boy Hole in Sugar Creek.
Monroe’s Swimming Pool Protests
The days of Jim Crow at North Carolina’s swimming pools and coastal beaches were numbered, though. In the 1950s and ‘60s, many “whites only” public swimming pools became flashpoints for civil rights protests both in North Carolina and other states.
In some cases, community activists made those swimming pools their very first focus for racial integration campaigns. Even before they challenged Jim Crow at lunch counters, schools or hospitals, civil rights leaders sometimes targeted whites-only swimming pools.
That may be surprising to many people, but if you read the old newspapers from that era I think you would understand: they are full of accounts of black children drowning in unsupervised and dangerous creek bottoms, old quarries and gravel pits, where the children were swimming because they had no other place to go.
One of the first civil rights protests that drew national attention to those tragic deaths and to Jim Crow swimming pools occurred here in North Carolina.
That was in the town of Monroe, in Union County, in 1956-57. Monroe is located in the state’s piedmont, not far from Charlotte.
Led by the president of an unusually militant local branch of the NAACP, the town’s black citizens staged the protests after several black youths drowned in unsupervised swim holes.
That president of the Union County NAACP was a Marine Corps veteran named Robert Williams.
In his path-breaking biography of Williams, Radio Free Dixie, Tim Tyson described how Williams originally petitioned merely for the town council to allow black children to have the opportunity to swim in the town’s whites-only pool once a week.
Monroe’s city councilmen rejected his request, saying that such a policy would be “too expensive” because “they would have to drain and refill the pool each time.”
The town council also refused to build a segregated swimming pool for the black community.
The swimming pool campaign in Monroe led to a firestorm: massive white resistance, death threats, street battles with the Ku Klux Klan, and white mobs that sometimes numbered in the thousands.
In response, Williams and his fellow NAACP activists took up arms to defend the African American community. Their example helped to inspire the Black Power Movement in the late 1960s, but in a way it all started with a swimming pool in that small town in Union County.
The Biloxi Wade-Ins
Other civil rights protests aimed at integrating swimming pools and beaches elsewhere in the South.
Three of the most noteworthy protests occurred in Biloxi, Mississippi, between 1959 and 1963. Led by a black physician, Dr. Gilbert R. Mason, Sr., black citizens “waded in” at beaches on the Gulf Coast. Much like the civil rights “sit-ins” that began in Greensboro, N.C., and swept across the South in 1960, those “wade-ins” were acts of non-violent resistance aimed at ending Jim Crow.
The first Biloxi “wade-in” in 1959 was one of the earliest civil rights protests in Mississippi history that was aimed at any facet of Jim Crow.
At the second “wade-in” in Biloxi in 1960, the protestors faced an unruly white mob that was out for blood. A pitched battle broke out, shots were fired and stones thrown. For an entire weekend, Biloxi was in turmoil. By the end of the fighting, gunfire had wounded eight black men and two white men.
In a third “wade-in” in 1963, Biloxi police arrested 71 demonstrators. The black citizens escaped with no major injuries despite a mob of 2,000 whites protesting their efforts to integrate the beach.
Biloxi’s leaders ultimately did not integrate the beach until 1968, but the protests helped to launch the local civil rights movement and inspired other “wade-ins” around the U.S.
Swim-Ins in St. Augustine
Another important struggle over a Jim Crow beach that got widespread national attention was in St. Augustine, Florida.
That protest was part of a much bigger and very bloody civil rights movement in which Ku Klux Klan activists repeatedly assaulted black and white demonstrators.
When civil rights activists attempted to integrate Anastasia Beach in St. Augustine, they too met with violent resistance. A white mob beat the protestors and drove them into the water. Some of those that could not swim had to be rescued.
Later that summer, civil rights activists staged a “swim-in” at the Monson Motor Lodge in Biloxi. After blacks and whites jumped into the pool together, the motel’s manager poured what he said was muriatic acid into the pool to drive out the swimmers.
Muriatic acid is another name for hydrochloric acid. It’s a strong corrosive acid that burns skin and can irreversibly damage skin, eyes and internal organs.
Photographs of that incident were broadcast around the world. They helped to build political support here in the U.S. for the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which, among other things, made it illegal to discriminate in public accommodations based on the color of one’s skin.
The “Swim-In” at Pullen Park, Raleigh
Civil rights protests such as those in Monroe, Biloxi and St. Augustine also inspired other black communities to push for equal access to public beaches and swimming pools.
Maybe Monroe or Biloxi—St. Augustine’s “wade-ins” hadn’t happened yet—inspired young people in Raleigh, N.C., to integrate the public swimming pool at Pullen Park.
On August 7, 1962, four young black protestors jumped into Pullen Park’s swimming pool.
The four boys were ahead of the curve. At that time, even Raleigh’s public schools were still segregated by race.
Eight years earlier, the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled separate schools to be unconstitutional, but Raleigh and the state’s other public school districts had forcefully resisted efforts to merge their white and black schools. Most would not desegregate until the period from 1968 to 1971.
Closing the Swimming Pools
Here in North Carolina, many towns and cities closed all of their public swimming pools rather than allow black and white young people to swim and sunbathe together.
To this day, I sometimes see the concrete ruins of what were once “whites only” swimming pools in little towns across eastern N.C., as well as in the state’s cities and suburbs.
In Raleigh, city leaders closed the public swimming pool in Pullen Park after those four young protestors jumped into the pool in 1962. They later filled it with concrete to make sure that it would never been used by white or black youngsters again.
That kind of vehement white opposition to racially integrated swimming pools and beaches is a part of our history that young people today often find difficult to understand.
But in a way, in many white people’ eyes at that time, a swimming pool or a beach was even more fraught with danger than a racially integrated school.
Those whites saw the prospect of black and white children swimming and playing in the sun together (in bathing suits, mind you!) as a threat to Jim Crow’s most fundamental taboo: the flowering of friendship, romance and love between blacks and whites.
That was the taboo at the core of everything I have learned so far about white efforts to keep blacks and Indians away from the water or, at the very least, at their own beaches and swimming holes.
To the Jim Crow powers-that-be, an ocean beach or a swimming pool was considered an Achilles Heel in that day and age when black and red and white were supposed to live in segregated worlds.
I think that they were afraid that, amidst the beauty of the shore, the joy of being by the water, and the pleasures of the summer heat, people might forget that they were supposed to be scared of one another.
I think they also feared that, there by the water, people might forget that they weren’t supposed to love one another.
A Day at the Beach
The other day I walked by a little river beach in New Bern, not far from where I grew up. Young children of all races were playing in the shallows, and feeding the ducks, and laughing with joy at being by the water and surrounded by people they love.
A group of women in hijabs was tossing a ball with their children on the water’s edge. A family of Vietnamese immigrants, dressed like they had just come from church, strolled along the shore, too.
Two ecstatic young boys, maybe 10 or 11 years old, one white, one black, were chasing crabs with a dip net.
Black and white and brown children all played and swam in those great waters that flow down from the piedmont’s upper reaches and mingle there with the sea.
As I watched the waders and swimmers, the boys fishing and one of the hijab-clad ladies introducing a tiny child to the water for the first time, I could not help but think, despite the great distances we have yet to go, how far we have come, and how beautiful the shore can be.
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Next up– The Color of Water, part 10– Restrictive Covenants