Beginning in the 1920s, public swimming pools became popular in the United States. This coincided with an expansion of segregation in northern cities after the Great Black Migration. White males and females were beginning to swim together in public pools, but Black citizens were excluded from participation. This was the beginning of a long, targeted struggle for Black inclusion at recreational spaces in America.
The City of Noblesville joined the trend in 1931, with the construction of the first outdoor public swimming pool with a cement bottom at Forest Park. At this time, it was common for cities to follow exclusionary practices that barred Blacks from entry to facilities intended for White patrons. Public swimming pools were no different. Sometimes separate public spaces were built for Blacks to use, but one city pool was erected in Noblesville. Locally, Blacks continued to swim in White River, Cicero Creek and other bodies of water in the area, despite the risk of contaminated water and other dangers. Although Noblesville was predominantly populated by White residents at the time, many Black citizens were well-established in the city.
The migration of Black families to Hamilton County began in 1835, nearly seventy-five years before the great migration. The Roberts Settlement in northern Hamilton County, established in 1835, was home to a sizeable community of Black pioneers. By the late 1800s many descendants of the Settlement moved to Noblesville where they were soon joined by other Blacks, who had been emancipated by the Civil War. Like many other cities throughout the country, Noblesville was racially segregated from the time Blacks arrived through the 1960s. According to Bryan Glover, a descendant of Roberts Settlement, “Blacks in Hamilton County have been demanding their constitutional rights from the earliest days of their arrival in the area.” He went on to say, “The institutions that held the power just did not want to share power with people of color.”
The calls for Black civil rights became louder when Black WWII veterans returned home to find conditions had not changed. The GI Bill, for example, was written to exclude most of the 1.2 million Black veterans who bravely fought in the war. The experience of serving their country overseas gave many veterans of color motivation to push for more rights for themselves and their families. In the 1950s, Blacks began exerting pressure in northern and southern cities to integrate public spaces, including swimming pools. Change came very slowly. The NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) filed suit to demand pool access, on behalf of Black citizens, in cities like Marion, and threatened a similar lawsuit in Noblesville. Plessy v. Ferguson, the landmark 1896 US Supreme Court decision that upheld the constitutionality of racial segregation under the “separate but equal” doctrine, was used to keep segregation in place for many public institutions. However, for recreational facilities, like large municipal swimming pools it was too expensive to build more than one pool, especially for a small city like Noblesville. Needless to say, tensions ran high on both sides of the integration issue.
In 1953, Wilma Battey chaperoned a group of young Black boys to swim at the Forest Park pool, but they were refused admittance. This was the spark that ignited a flame. Black mothers and fathers decided enough was enough. A committee comprised of Rev. Ernest Butler, Amos Howard, William E. Howard, Elijah Glover, William Bush, Clifford Bryant, and Murphy White took their demand for full access to the swimming pool to city leadership. Mayor Herman E. Lawson and the Park Board met with the delegation to discuss the request. Bill Howard presented their demands. One member of the delegation stated that he had been admitted to swimming pools in other state localities. The committee’s demand was denied. Instead, the city offered its Black citizens continued access to the other park facilities, such as the picnic areas, but not the swimming pool. The representative refused to accept the limited offer saying that anything less than full access to the pool was not democracy for the Black taxpaying citizens they represented. The Indianapolis Recorder, the prominent newspaper serving the Black community, reported on the swimming pool controversy saying the city’s offer of Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays amounted to “part-time democracy.” Mayor Lawson took the position that it was three days a week or nothing. He was quoted saying, “We will go to court against it.” The summer of 1953 ended without a resolution. In 1954, the Black community reasserted their demands, but once again the City of Noblesville clung to its part-time proposal. By the close of the 1954 summer, Black citizens did not have their full-time democracy and for whatever reason, no civil rights lawsuit was brought forth on behalf of Noblesville’s Black citizens.
After 1954, newspaper coverage of the effort to integrate the pool at Forest Park is nonexistent. Murphy White, a 1941 Noblesville High School graduate and member of the delegation, recalled in a 1999 Noblesville Ledger article, they started taking their kids to the pool anytime they wanted. He said, “No one raised a ruckus. It was done”. By the early 1960s, Black residents in Noblesville recall they were sharing the swimming pool at Forest Park with White families without incident. Bryan Glover remembers learning to swim with his sisters with White kids at the pool in the mid-1960s. There is no known record of the city ever making a formal declaration that the Forest Park swimming pool was available for use by all residents. The exclusionary policy seems to have ended in the late 1950s or early 1960s. In 1956, the Indiana State Park system eliminated segregated swimming and mixed swimming was allowed. In 1963, the state of Indiana passed civil rights laws against discrimination at municipal facilities.
The degree of confrontation in the process of integrating municipally owned recreation facilities varied across the country. In northern cities, local police were often involved in both efforts to integrate pools and to maintain existing segregation norms. In Noblesville, valiant community efforts and changing nationwide attitudes toward integration ultimately resulted in justice for our Black community. On the heels of the fight for swimming pool integration, Mayor Lawson appointed Murphy White as the first Black to serve on the Noblesville Plan Commission and the Board of Zoning Appeals. Murphy is also the only Black ever elected to the Noblesville City Council, serving for twenty-four years.
At the national level, the fight to use recreational facilities continued through persistence and the courts. In Draper v St. Louis (1950) a federal judge ordered integration of municipal pools. In a 1955 US Supreme Court case, Holmes v Atlanta, the court ruled that municipal golf courses must be open to Blacks stating that segregation of public recreational facilities was illegal. In 1954 in Brown v Board of Education of Topeka, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregation of schools and the decision affected pool litigation. This ruling led to the civil rights movement and eventually to the 1964 Civil Rights Act. In response to the decisions of the courts, some city leaders closed their public pools or leased the pools to private groups to avoid integration. In 1971 in Palmer v Thompson, the right to close public swimming pools was upheld citing the Plessy “separate but equal” doctrine. After the Court of Appeals affirmed a judgment that enforced desegregation on equal protection grounds, the city council of Jackson, Mississippi was forced to desegregate its public recreational facilities. In the 1950s and 1960s thousands of private club pools were opened, and Blacks were almost always denied membership. Many public pools were closed, and as a result, generations of Black Americans lacked access to any swimming pools. Today, Blacks are half as likely to know how to swim as Whites, and Black children are about three times more likely to drown than White children.
As in the 1920s, public pools like the Forest Park Aquatic Center provide a safe place to learn to swim. Fortunately for thousands of Noblesville residents, the local public pool has opened every summer for the past eighty-nine years. That is an accomplishment worth celebrating. Sadly, we must acknowledge that our Black brothers and sisters in Noblesville were excluded from the joy of swimming at Forest Park for the first thirty years of operation. In our 90th year much has changed in society. Noblesville residents can be certain that every child, regardless of race, ethnicity, nationality, gender, religion or identity is welcome this summer at the Forest Park swimming pools.
Source: Jeff Wiltse, Professor of History at the University of Montana and author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America
Writer: Molli Elliott Cameron
Contributor: Bryan Glover, former local business owner