Today’s post was written by Joshua Schroeder, archives technician at the National Archives at College Park.
On September 6th, 1950, Secretary of the Interior Oscar Chapman triumphantly reported to President Harry Truman that Washington, D.C.’s public pools had been successfully and peacefully integrated. A body of digitized records from the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library opens a window into one of the more obscure chapters in the civil rights movement. In particular, these messages between President Truman, his administration, and various civil rights leaders reveal just how long and difficult every step was in dismantling Jim Crow in America.
To most Americans, the civil rights movement had begun in earnest in the mid-1950s, with Brown v. Board of Education and Martin Luther King’s ascendency via the Montgomery Bus Boycott. However, during and immediately after World War II, civil rights organizations increased their efforts to dismantle segregation in the United States. New groups, such as C.O.R.E. (Congress of Racial Equality), adopted more assertive tactics of peaceful confrontation, staging mass sit-ins, demonstrations, and protests to force integration of facilities. The influence of wartime rhetoric and the wartime service of several hundred-thousand black Americans while America was segregated provided fresh momentum in the push for civil rights. President Harry S. Truman won the 1948 presidential election on one of the stronger civil rights platforms since Reconstruction.
Despite this newfound momentum, resistance to desegregation was strong. Far reaching civil rights legislation was nearly impossible (Strom Thurmond had led a rebellion of Southern Democrats in his third-party presidential campaign against Truman in 1948), leaving the Truman administration to focus efforts where the president himself had more discretion. Since Washington, D.C. was under direct federal jurisdiction, integrating the District’s pools was an opportunity to achieve both meaningful and symbolic integration.
Urban recreational spaces had become one of the flashpoints in the push for integration, as the second wave of the Great Migration had seen thousands more Black Americans move to northern and western cities throughout the country. Many white Americans continued to actively resist integration. In the summer of 1949, Secretary of the Interior Julius Albert Krug announced that Washington, D.C.’s pools would not be segregated. In June, 1949 white residents and patrons harassed groups of Black residents who sought to use the Anacostia Park pool. Over the course of a week, tensions increased to the point where violence broke out among crowds that numbered in the hundreds. The staff claimed they were unwilling to deal with the violence, the police did not enforce the integration policy when called, and the pool was shut down for the remainder of the summer.
As the Anacostia Pool Riot threatened the integration efforts of the Truman administration, civil rights leaders demanded that Truman continue the policy. Opponents of integration often used the prospect of violence to delay or stop changes. However, civil rights leaders demanded that the administration refuse to give in. They cited both the symbolic necessity of desegregating the capital while pointing out that it was white residents who had caused violence and the authorities who had not prevented it. Roy Wilkins of the NAACP wrote to Truman that the “surrender by the Federal Government to the forces of disorder and bigotry will have the demoralizing effect in many cities over the nation.”
In response, the Interior Department embarked on an ambitious effort to ensure a peaceful integration. To prepare for the 1950 pool season, the Interior Department gave special training to pool staff and the National Parks Police on how to handle possible tensions once the pools were open. The Interior Department also enlisted the aid of various D.C. community, civic, and municipal organizations to help ensure that residents were “fully aware” that the pools would not be segregated and that “those citizens who chose to use the pools would be protected” (NAID: 169048392).
This policy paid off. Secretary of the Interior Oscar Chapman reported to President Truman that the 1950 pool season opened and closed without any instances of violence or disruption to service. Despite the congratulatory nature of the correspondence with President Truman over the success of the 1950 pool season, there was a major drop-off in attendance. In fact, while officially desegregated, D.C.’s pools would in effect be self-segregated. White and black residents would voluntarily go to separate pools, with white patronage generally declining.
The desegregation of Washington, D.C.’s public swimming pools in many ways foreshadowed the difficulties that awaited the nation in dismantling Jim Crow segregation. Aside from the federal government’s ability to intervene, D.C.’s experience in enforcing integration in its pools was not unique. Local white resistance, violence (or the threat thereof), and official indifference or refusal to enforce desegregation would make integration a slow, turbulent, and often grinding challenge in the United States for decades.
- Fletcher, Patsy Mose. Historically African American Leisure Destinations around Washington, D.C. Charleston, S.C: The History Press, 2015.
- Wolcott, Victoria W. Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012.
- DC Parks & Pools Integration, a Flickr album by Washington Area Spark
The header image is of children playing at a public playground on the Charles River, near Soldiers Field Road in Chicago, IL, 1973 (NAID 550002)