A number of people at the Peony Park pool in Omaha in 1930. The pool was not de-segregated until 1963.
Simone Manuel made history at the 2016 Summer Olympic in Rio de Janeiro as the first African-American woman to win an individual swimming event at the Olympics. She earned gold in the 100-meter freestyle on August 11. Her race was a remarkable feat of strength, but its historical significance is important as well because of America’s long history of segregating swimming pools. As Jeff Witse writes in The Washington Post, “swimming pools have long been contested spaces where Americans express social prejudices that otherwise remain publicly unspoken.” Nebraska shares in this history of racism and segregation, with one of the more notable examples happening at Peony Park in Omaha.
History of National Pool Segregation
The first public pools were built in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and they served mostly poor and working-class boys. When city planners proposed to build a large public pool in New York’s Central Park, the city’s middle and upper classes protested. Witse quotes one critic saying, “I should consider it disastrous if the only swimming pool belonging to the city was put [in Central Park]. It would attract all sorts of undesirable people.” Later, when pools began allowing males and females to swim together, pools became the stage for Americans to display both sexism and racism. Witse writes, “Public officials and white swimmers now objected to the presence of black Americans because they did not want black men interacting with white women at such visually and physically intimate spaces.” On paper and by law, public swimming pools were racially desegregated in the years following World War II.
However, in practice, this was not the case. African American actress and singer Dorothy Dandridge was forbidden to swim in the pools of the hotels where she was paid to perform. One story relates how during one visit, she casually dipped her foot in a hotel pool, and the hotel later drained it. While this story was dramatized in an HBO movie and there isn’t a primary source that confirms it, other incidences of hotels or public pools shutting down to exclude African-Americans from swimming are confirmed (Snopes.com). Pool owners often drained pools, either because of such extreme racist feelings that African-Americans had “contaminated” the water, or because they wanted to prevent African-Americans from swimming by any means necessary. Some owners claimed pools had to be drained “for repairs” to avoid confrontation.
On June 18, 1964, the owner of the hotel pool at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida, used acid. None of the African-American or white swimmers who had jumped into the pool as part of a protest were injured, but the hotel owner’s methods exemplify just how much American swimming pools have been battlegrounds for social justice. (NPR)
Swimmers at Omaha’s Peony Park in 1930, three decades before the park was de-segregated.
Omaha’s Peony Park was originally a gas station and café at 78th and Cass Streets. It then evolved into a lavish amusement park with carnival rides, a dance hall, and a swimming pool with sand beaches. The pool at Peony Park was segregated until 1963, when a group of NAACP youth challenged the park’s racist and illegal policies. On August 26, 1955, Peony Park barred two African-American swimmers from participating in an Amateur Athletic Union swim meet because the park wouldn’t allow them in their pool. Discrimination like this was illegal under Nebraska law. Peony Park was taken to court, found guilty, and paid a $50 fine. And then nothing else happened to de-segregate the pool, which remained whites-only for eight more years.
The catalyst for change came from Fred Winthrop, a young black airman from Offutt Air Force Base, who went to Peony Park for a swim on June 4, 1963. A lifeguard told him that he couldn’t use the pool, though he said he was sorry. “It’s not me,” the lifeguard said. “It’s the people I work for.” Winthrop brought the matter to the city of Omaha, which said it was a case for the Human Relations Board. Winthrop argued it was a criminal case, not merely a social one. The board had already been widely criticized as ineffective, and later that month its chairman, Rev. Edward Stimson, pastor of Dundee Presbyterian Church, told the weekly Sun newspaper that he advocated for the moral screening for African-Americans seeking to move into white neighborhoods.
Stimson explained that “a substantial number” of African-American families “tolerate a permissiveness in matters we consider moral and would make them unacceptable in most communities… We must have a means of screening out the morally undesirable.” On the legal side, the City of Omaha made excuses that the law didn’t make clear if swimming pools were covered because the law guaranteed equal accommodation at “inns, restaurants, public conveyances, barber shops, theaters, and other places of amusement.” Peony Park’s lawyers argued that the pool was exempt from this clause because it was a place of public ‘recreation,’ not ‘amusement.’ The NAACP Youth Council, led by 18-year-old Archie Godfrey, decided to stage a peaceful protest at Peony Park. “A lot of parents were cautious,” Godfrey said. “We were kids.” Parents were cautious because they could lose their jobs due to negative backlash. The group of teenagers brought three carloads to the park on Saturday, July 13. African-Americans had been allowed in the amusement and picnic areas, but on this day park operator and owner Charles Malec denied the cars access to the entire park “until everything settles down,” the Omaha World Herald reported. What exactly needed to “settle down” – the teenagers hadn’t even gotten out of their cars – was unclear. The teenagers were simple with their request. “We just wanted to swim, sir,” one told the World-Herald. Malec, in contrast, told the paper: “It’s hysteria. I don’t know what to do. It will take someone smarter than me to figure out what to do.” Malec then estimated that 25 of every 26 callers to the park threatened to stop swimming at Peony Park if he allowed African-Americans to swim in the pool.
The Malec family insisted that their refusal was based on economics, not malice. “We’re not here to go broke for the cause of civil rights,” Joseph Malec, Sr., said. During the following week, African American youths kept arriving at the park and standing quietly by the gate. The Malecs kept shutting down and refunding admissions. When a group of 14 protestors arrived on Tuesday, July 16, the park had already closed in anticipation of their arrival, refunding 500 admissions. This peaceful protest continued even when white youths taunted them. At one point, the African-American youths stood up, clapping and shouting “Freedom! Freedom!” and stepped toward the white youths. The white youths stood up, too. Two police officers intervened, ordering the white youths to go home (Bristow). The protestors received weak support from Gov. Frank Morrison. Morrison said publicly that Peony seemed to be violating state law, and that people had a right to protest peacefully. However, after some rumors that the governor was planning to personally lead a group of African American youths into the park, Morrison distanced himself from the protesters. He said he could see “no useful purpose to be served by demonstrations of any kind,” because they “only inflame people and prey upon their passion” (Bristow).
As July continued, the Malec family learned even more about the economics of what happens when you close your park in spite. The protestors refused to leave. The park’s owners knew “even if Peony won in court, it was sure to face future legal challenges. Though the bill hadn’t yet taken effect, the state Unicameral had recently added the words “and recreation” to the “other places of amusement” clause in the public access law” (Bristow). On Thursday, July 18, Peony Park reopened as a private club. This was a popular Southern strategy for avoiding court-ordered integration of public places. Anyone who wished to enter the park needed to fill out an application and pay a nominal fee to receive a membership card. But the park operators still refused entrance to the African-American youths: “On Sunday the 22nd, a group of black youths asked to join the club. They filled out membership applications, but were told that they needed sponsors. Several white youths pointed out that they hadn’t needed sponsors when they joined, and offered to sponsor the black youths. The black youths were then informed that their applications would require the approval of the park’s membership committee—even as new white members were being practically waved through the gate. Charles Malec told reporters that he didn’t know how soon the applications would be reviewed, because so many had come in already. Apparently the committee was swamped.” Peony Park continued to lose money. A teenage employee of park told his mother that the Malecs told some employees to start a fight with the protestors to try to violently end the protest. The employee’s mother told the Catholic clergy in Omaha, who went public with the story (Bristow).
The Malecs finally relented. Without violence, the park opened its pool to all paying visitors on Saturday, July 26. A group of black youths took a swim that day. The hysteria and economic ruin that the Malecs had predicted didn’t happen. The park stayed open until 1993.
Peony Park pool in Omaha.
Works Cited Bristow, David. “We Just Wanted to Swim, Sir.” The Reader. 5 February 2009. Web. Date accessed 2 September 2016. http://www.davidbristow.com/peony.html Johnson, George. “Swimming’s Racist Past Makes Simone Manuel’s Win an Even Bigger Deal.” Ebony. Web. Date accessed 2 Sept. 2016. http://www.ebony.com/entertainment-culture/simone-manuel-racism#axzz4HhbMJcqr
LaCapria, Kim. “Definitely Not Friends of Dorothy.” Snopes.com Web. Date accessed 2 Sept. 2016. http://www.snopes.com/dandridge-drained-pool/
NPR Staff. “Remembering a Civil Rights Swim-In: ‘It Was a Milestone.’ NPR.com 13 June 2014. Web. Date accessed 2 September 2016. http://www.npr.org/2014/06/13/321380585/remembering-a-civil-rights-swim-in-it-was-a-milestone
“Separate But Not Equal.” We the People Exhibit. Nebraska State Historical Society. Web. Date accessed 2 September 2016.
Witse, Jeff. “America’s swimming pools have a long, sad, racist history.” The Washington Post. 10 June 2015. Web. Date accessed 2 Sept. 2016. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/06/10/americas-swimming-pools-have-a-long-sad-racist-history/?utm_term=.52d5425b9c0c