About swimming and black people
James Edward Bates for The New York Times
A swimming pool in Stonewall, Miss., was filled
in with truckloads of red dirt in the 1970’s. It
is now being revived by Tom Sebring, left,
and Gilbert Carmichael.
Unearthing a Town Pool, and Not for Whites Only
By ADAM NOSSITER
Published: September 18, 2006
STONEWALL, Miss., Sept. 11 — In the fearful cosmos of the segregationist South, the integrated swimming pool occupied a special place: race-mixing carried to an intimate level.
So it was that when integration came to this old mill town in the 1970’s, its magnificent pool, 100 feet long and 30 feet wide, the summer delight of generations of white children, had to close, people here thought. It was filled in with truckloads of red southern Mississippi dirt, covered over and forgotten for more than 30 years.
But last summer, an edge of something was sticking out when a local real estate developer, his own past entwined with the state’s racial traumas, was poking around in the ground, trying to spark a renaissance among the old buildings here. Spadework revealed fancy blue tile, underwater light fixtures and smooth white walls.
The businessman, a former political candidate named Gilbert Carmichael, decided to spend $25,000 of his company’s money to excavate the pool and rededicate it to all, blacks and whites, in this struggling town of 1,100 just south of the highway hub of Meridian. The pool, which should be open next summer, may charge a minimal fee for upkeep but will be open to the public.
With the mounds of freshly dug dirt now lining the sides of the partly unearthed pool, memories of a town’s lost summers have also emerged, along with painful recollections: a bygone era’s racism and children — white children — bewildered by the closing.
“It just hurt their feelings awful, because they couldn’t understand why they didn’t have a place to swim anymore,” said Ardell Covington, 87, a former mayor. Pools all over the South closed in that period; many, if not most, stayed that way.
Mr. Covington’s children learned to swim at the Stonewall pool, which was owned, operated and closed, like almost everything else in town, by the textile mill, itself shut down by Burlington Industries in 2002 after more than a century of operation.
This town was named after the Confederate general Stonewall Jackson. In late 1868, its northern Mississippi founders opened what would go on to be one of the region’s longest-lived cotton mills. For years, it was a great success — during World War II it was a prime supplier of khaki to the United States Army — but its closing devastated Stonewall.
On the main street today, empty storefronts sit in the shadow of the giant mill, and all around are the boxy houses of former millworkers. The population is just under a quarter black.
Black children had never been allowed to use the pool. They might have aspired to — and one 65-year-old black woman here, who never learned to swim, remembers just that — but they were forced to go elsewhere during the hot summers.
“These black boys around here, they wanted to — they wanted to use that pool,” said the woman, Lindy Goodwin, who once worked at the mill. Instead, “the boys, they used to go to the branches,” Ms. Goodwin said, meaning to the local creeks. “Anywhere where there was water.”
The pool’s excavation offers a window into the sharp intrusiveness of segregation’s mandates, written and otherwise.
In the memories of whites here, the Stonewall swimming pool is recalled as both the joyful center of town life — “That was the main thing we did, every summer, we swam,” remembered Carol Long Ford, an alderwoman — and the place that closed when that old life was curtailed.
A newspaper photograph from 1969, headlined “Fun at the Pool,” shows it filled with splashing children, all white. “Our summer life centered around the swimming pool,” Ms. Ford said.
Yet there was no protest when the pool was filled with dirt several years later. “Nobody stood up,” said Oree Davis, secretary of the local historical society, her voice edging into bitterness. “They just took what came their way.”
“It was the worst thing that could have happened,” Ms. Davis added.
So unacceptable through almost all of the South was the idea of blacks and whites swimming together that even the Gulf of Mexico was off-limits to blacks in some areas. In April 1960, whites in Biloxi rioted after a group of blacks waded into the gulf from an all-white beach as part of an early civil rights protest, and several blacks were beaten and shot.
“Black folk and white people swimming together was just absolutely part of this ‘black men getting close to white women’ idea,” said Leslie B. McLemore, a political scientist at Jackson State University, in the state capital.
The swimming pool, in particular, “aroused all these racist fears,” said John Dittmer, a historian who wrote what many people consider the definitive chronicle of the Mississippi civil rights movement. In Jackson, the pools were closed in 1962; the huge pool at Audubon Park in New Orleans closed the same year, not reopening until 1969. In the Mississippi capital the pools stayed closed until the mid-1970’s
posted by Steve @ 1:30:00 AM