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Remembering Baton Rouge's segregated pools
New exhibit sheds light on 60th anniversary of the Baton Rouge swim-in
Not many people know, but at the entrance of the historic golf course located in Baton Rouge City Park used to be a massive public swimming pool. Although hundreds could comfortably float in the pool, only white people were allowed the use of the facility. A new exhibit at the Baton Rouge Gallery takes a look right outside its windows to tell the story of Baton Rouge’s first community pool that was closed during the fight for desegregation.
The exhibit is called And We Went: 60 Years After the Baton Rouge Swim-In. It features original art from 12 artists. It was curated by Jonell Logan, the Vice President and Creative Director for McColl Center, a nationally-acclaimed artist residency and contemporary arts hub in Charlotte, North Carolina.
The opening reception for the exhibit was held Wednesday, July 5. That was the kick off for a month-long series of events. One spotlight event will happen on Saturday, July 22 with a special evening to honor the activists who were part of the swim-in. This will be the day before the 60th anniversary of the event.
The entire area we know today as City Park and its neighboring LSU Lakes were once a massive swamp. In the 1920’s, the city set out to transform the undesirable landscape into a recreational oasis, complete with a golf course, tennis courts, a small zoo, a club house and a massive swimming pool.
The pool opened in 1928 and was the only public swimming pool at the time. The city was still pretty small, so the massive pool catered to most of the community. Well, most of the white community.
For African American kids who wanted to beat the heat and take a swim, their options were far from ideal, thanks to segregation. They had to settle for public waterways. One of those spots got dubbed "Graveyard Creek" because it was close to a graveyard! And the other spots weren't much better – strong currents, snakes, you name it. Definitely not the best place to enjoy a carefree afternoon dip.
I came across an article from September 7, 1937, talking about some heavy rain causing chaos. Picnics, barbecues, Labor Day celebrations – all ruined. And get this, a store called Ourso & Co. had a whopping $200 in damage from all that rainwater rushing in. In the midst of this soggy tale, there was a tragic incident. A young 18-year-old named Julius Colmean drowned. Sadly, it was just a footnote in the story. The real focus was on the weather, a flooded store, and even a canceled yacht race.
In an attempt to right some of the wrongs, Reverend Willie K. Brooks formed the United Negro Recreation Association in 1945. He was determined to get a pool built for the African American community. He held fundraisers and by 1947 the new pool was a reality. They named it the Brooks Park Pool and handed it over to the Baton Rouge Recreation and Parks Commission. BREC still maintains the facility to this day and it is still open to the public.
Although the Brooks pool at least provided a recreational facility for the Black community, it would be another 10 years before segregation would be lifted. And unfortunately, no one would get the opportunity to enjoy the beautiful pool at City Park.
On July 23, 1963, a group of around thirty-six African Americans decided enough was enough. They staged a "swim-in" at the City Park Pool. Although the demonstrators set out with the objective of a peaceful protest, things got heated when they were greeted at the front gate by police officers.
A physical altercation broke out and there were some minor injuries. Additionally, Pearl George, Sam Green, Betty Jean Wilson (Claiborne), James F. Williams, and Richard Thompson were all arrested and charged with disturbing the peace and simple battery. They were all convicted and sentenced to fines and even some jail time.
A lawsuit was filed on November 187, 1953 challenging the legality of segregation in public recreational facilities. On May 18, 1964, the U.S. District Court ruling stated that there was “no legal obligation or duty on the part of the City-Parish to provide or operate recreational facilities, but if they do, they cannot provide and maintain them on a racially segregated basis.”
Because of that ruling, BREC shut down all nine of its public pools. Over the years, some of those facilities reopened, but the City Park was not among them. In fact, it NEVER reopened. It was left stagnant for decades. Finally, it was filled in in 1990.
The former clubhouse for the City Park pool became the home for the Baton Rouge Gallery after BREC and the nonprofit arts organization entered a cooperative agreement. The two organizations have been partners ever since and the BRG has made great use of the facility.
So, there you have it, the hidden history of Baton Rouge's pools. It's a reminder of the not-so-distant past when racial segregation was the norm. It took brave protesters to challenge the system and bring about change. Even though things have come a long way, the struggle for equality ain't over, but these stories inspire us to keep pushing for a more inclusive and fair society.
Join us every Monday at 6 p.m. for a ride that explores the history of our city. We meet at the Electric Depot, 1503 Government Street. We meet there because it’s one of the many locations that underwent renovation in recent years to live a new life in the local economy.
Rides do get canceled due to weather. During the summer, that’s primarily rain-related, but this summer we are experiencing record breaking temperatures that have forced several ride cancellations.