Swimming in the City


1906 The city’s first public pool opens in Patterson Park. With its beach and sandy bottom, the pool looks more like a lake— there’s even ice skating atop it in winter. Operated by the Free Public Bath Commission, the pool bathhouse has separate wings for boys and girls, many of whom take their “weekly baths” there. Girls and women are only allowed to swim on Tuesdays and Fridays, and then only wearing dress-like garments that span neck to knee, as well as black stockings and slippers. Men’s chests must be covered, too. Bathing suits, along with towels and soap, are included in the price of admission, which is a few cents.

1921 A swimming pool for African-Americans, soon to be known as Pool No. 2, opens at Druid Hill Park. The pool is 105 feet long and 100 feet wide with a deep end of 7.5 feet— a dangerously shallow depth for diving. Between 600 and 1,200 people swim there each day during the summer, and some days the crowds are so massive, the pool is forced to close. The bathhouse has four showers and eight toilets.

1924 A swimming pool for whites— known as Pool No. 1— opens in Druid Hill Park. The pool is 280 feet long and 180 feet wide. The plan is to fill the pool with water from the Jones Falls supply— water that is known to be polluted but will be neither filtered nor chlorinated. But one day before the pool opens, it’s decided to use filtered water from Druid Lake.

1932 Lakewood pool— a semi-private swimming club— opens at 25th and Charles streets, quickly becoming beloved both by natives and visiting entertainers appearing at the Hippodrome Theatre such as Milton Berle and Leo Carillo. According to Baltimore scribe Gilbert Sandler, F. Scott Fitzgerald was a regular at Lakewood in 1933. “Considering his sad plight in those days, he had special reason for enjoying this improbably and idyllic aquamarine pool— surrounded by powder-white sand, nestled in soft shadows under tall trees,” Sandler wrote in a 1977 Evening Sun article. As a boy, Sandler witnessed Zelda Fitzgerald taking swim lessons at Lakewood, which closed in 1944.

Shortly before noon on Sunday, June 9, seven police officers descend on Meadowbrook Swim Club and take down the names of swimmers and employees who are in violation of the state’s “blue laws,” which prohibit swimming at semi-private clubs before 2 p.m. on Sundays. Less than three weeks later, a judge acquits Meadowbrook’s manager and the others, ruling that swimming is a “recreational sport”— not an “amusement operated for profit”— and thus legal before 2 p.m.

1941 For the first time, girls are hired as lifeguards at the city’s public pools. Three are in place when the season opens on June 2, and six more slots are available. The reason for the female lifeguards is that many of the usual male guards have found more lucrative work in the defense industries. But there’s an added perk, as a Parks Board member comments. “We’d like to have a girl at each of the pools,” he says. “They could be of protection to other girls in the pools, at least.”

1942 The city’s public pools do not open. Some blame a war-induced lack of qualified lifeguards. Others cite a shortage of chlorine. Mayor Howard W. Jackson says there is no money to open the pools, explaining that the funds are needed for civilian defense instead. “If the only thing we have to give up before the war is over is a little swimming now and then, we’ll be considerably luckier than I think,” he says.

More than 50 members of the city Fire Department are detached from their jobs to act as lifeguards at public swimming pools to relieve the wartime guard shortage. The firemen’s lifeguard salaries ($1.25/hour) far exceed their regular wages.

1950 The city’s six public park pools open to whites— Roosevelt, Clifton, Riverside, Patterson, Gwynns Falls and Druid Hill Pool No. 1— are renovated. African-Americans are allowed to use these parks for recreation but they’re not allowed to swim in the pools. The one pool for the city’s 250,000 African-Americans, located at Druid Hill Park, is also renovated but not enlarged. The pool is often so crowded that swimmers are admitted in shifts. “If you ever saw a picture of the Ganges River during Holy Week, then you know how it looked on a 90-degree day at Pool No. 2,” says Douglas Bishop, who served as a lifeguard there during the 1950s.

1953 In August, a 13-year-old African-American boy drowns in the Patapsco River near the Hanover Street Bridge while swimming with another African-American friend and two white friends. The boy lives near Clifton Park pool, but can’t swim there because it’s open to whites only. In the wake of the drowning, the Baltimore Afro American and the local chapter of the NAACP press the Parks Board to open all city pools to all races. After the Parks Board refuses, the NAACP files suit against the city. In 1954, a federal district court judge upholds segregation at the city’s public pools, declaring integrated swimming to be “more sensitive” than integrated schools. The NAACP appeals to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturns the ruling and orders the city to desegregate the pools. When the Supreme Court declines to review the case, the ruling holds.

1956 On Saturday, June 23, the city’s public pools open for the season— and for the first time on a non-segregated basis. Despite the court ruling, African-American bathers apparently don’t feel safe or welcome at most city pools. On opening day only four enter the Patterson Park pool and none enter Riverside or Roosevelt park pools. About 100 African-Americans swim in Druid Hill Park’s Pool No. 1; only one white swimmer enters Pool No. 2, which closes during the summer. At the end of the season, statistics show a nearly 60 percent decline in white people’s attendance at the city’s public swimming pools.

1956 Construction begins on the Roland Park Swimming Pool, which is sponsored by the Roland Park Civic League and financed with funds collected from 450 families. Roland Park is just one of many neighborhoods throughout the city and county to construct their own pools at least partly out of a desire to control membership.

1962 On Labor Day, after three weeks of unrest at Riverside Park pool, a mob of 1,000 white people throws stones and bottles and hurls racial epithets at 35 African-American youths swimming there as part of a program sponsored by South Baltimore Recreation Center. More than 100 police officers and 22 K-9 dogs are dispatched to protect the swimmers. At one point, a group of white youths with a dark colored doll jumps into the pool and stamps on the doll repeatedly until ordered by police to stop. By the end of the day, 13 people are arrested. In a 2003 speech, Congressman Elijah E. Cummings recalls being cut by a bottle while swimming during the riot at Riverside pool.

A Baltimore woman complains to the city’s Community Relations Commission after her application to join Meadowbrook Swimming Club in Mount Washington is denied because she is Jewish. Two years later, the city solicitor rules that the commission has no jurisdiction because Meadowbrook is operated by a private club that is not subject to the city’s anti-discrimination ordinance.

1968 Baltimore’s public swimming pools charge no admission in order to “get youths off the street and avert racial tensions.” Police are stationed at each of the city’s public pools.

1971 “Members only, no guests,” reads the sign at Meadowbrook Swimming Club on August 10, following a weekend in which an African-American woman arouses “controversy” by taking her daughter to the pool along with the two children of the white family for whom she works. The city’s Community Relations Commission declines to pursue the matter, saying that a member’s right to invite guests is “an internal situation.” Also apparently barred from Meadowbrook are “long-haired youths” who, club manager Frederick Stieber alleges, look “un-American.”

After nearly a half-century of sitting empty, Druid Hill Park Pool Number Two is filled in with dirt and grass and becomes part of a memorial honoring “the memory of segregation and the struggle to overcome it,” as the plaque reads. The ladders and lifeguard chairs remain, as does the men’s bath house. The city commissions artist Joyce Scott to create artwork at the scene— among other things, she adds a meandering walkway and blue tiles to suggest water around the edges of the pool. “This memorial talks about a specific time in history when you have this enormous park in the heart of the city and yet it was segregated. This pool was a safe area and it was also important because there were people who rallied around it to make it happen, who turned dung into sugar, as my mother would say,” says Scott. “It’s not a dead place— it’s a place where memories exist.”

One hundred years after a pool first opened at Patterson Park, the current pool gets a new bath house, deck, mechanical system, fence and landscaping.

2008 City pools open June 21. Approximately one-third of Baltimore City’s residents will patronize the pools during the summer swim season.

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