Often after church, on long Sunday afternoons my grandfather would take me and my cousins to the open fields and wooded forests of Baltimore City’s version of New York’s Central Park. Druid Hill Park, referred to as “Dru Hill” by locals, opened officially as a city park in 1860, just a few years after construction began on Central Park. It features the Maryland Zoo (known as the Baltimore Zoo when I was a kid), reservoir, lake, conservatory, swimming pool, tennis courts, basketball courts, and much more. For most of its existence, the park was subject to the segregationist polices of Baltimore City, which ostensibly began to be reversed midway through the 20th century. Before the reversal in policy, recreation in the park was divided along racial lines. The black section of the park had its own picnic areas, tennis courts, and swimming pool.
The swimming pool for blacks was officially titled Pool No.2, which is odd because it was actually the first pool built on park grounds. From the onset it was designed specifically for blacks, even though a pool for whites did not exist in 1921 when Pool No.2 was dedicated. At that time, Baltimore had several other public pools at places like Patterson Park, Clifton Park, and Riverside. Affluent communities built their own pools and controlled membership. None of the pools were open to blacks. There was great deal of backlash to city planners who decided to build the Negro pool at Druid Hill Park before one was built for whites. In a 1925 article in the Afro American Newspaper, Park Board President, J. Cookman Boyd is quoted as saying:
“There was a lot of criticism directed toward us for building the Negro swimming pool in Druid Hill Park before the White swimming pool. But we were doing something for ourselves…Negroes do our washing, prepare our food, and take care of our children. The pool helped us get them out into the open, and added to their health, welfare, and cleanliness”
The pictures in this blog are the remains of Pool No. 2 which was renovated in 1950. In its heyday, it was the only public pool for near 300,000 Negro residents of the City of Baltimore. The original pool measured 100x105 feet with a maximum depth of 7.5 feet, which is kind of dangerous for executing reverse pikes with a twist. On a hot summer day, it has been reported that as many as 1,200 people would show up to swim. Swimmers had to be admitted in shifts. Douglass Bishop, a lifeguard that served there during the 1950’s says, “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”
Despite the Brown vs. Board of Education decision by the Supreme Court that brought desegregation to public schools, in 1954, a federal district court judge upheld segregation at the city’s public pools, and declared integrated swimming to be “more sensitive” than integrated schools. The National Association of Colored People appealed to the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals, which overturned the ruling and ordered the city to desegregate the pools. When the Supreme Court declined to review the case on appeal, the ruling held.
I never knew of Pool No.2 as a child, or that there was a section of the park designated for blacks. I spent hours at Pool No.1, which sits maybe just 300 yards away, and was built originally for whites only in its first incarnation in 1924. Pool No.1 is 280 feet long by 180 feet wide, and was the source of great fun on a hot day. I even had the ability as a child to swim at the once segregated private pools at Milford Mill and Roland Park. I imagine that my parents, aunts, and uncles took some pride in the ability to send their children to recreation spots where they were once unwelcomed. Yet, my own most tangible and memorable incident of racism came at Milford Mill Swimming Club sometime in the late 1970’s where the other kids referred to me as “Little Sambo”. I of course didn’t know who or what “Sambo” was, or that it was a racial epithet until my cousin Walter leaned over to me at the arcade section of the club and told me that he didn’t think Sambo was a nice word, and that it had to do with the fact that we were black. It has only occurred to me as an adult that the kids who used the epithet probably didn’t have much understanding either. This is the unfortunate consequence of legacy, and the American preoccupation with yesterday—a crowed attic of ideas with sometimes little curation or context that gets passed down and applied for seemingly posterity. I personally don’t care to eat at a chain of 1950’s themed diners, unless it’s the original one that existed in 1950—and one or two is enough for any community. And those NFL throwback jerseys…SMH.
Yet, many things should be kept around as a waypoint for those who wish to navigate our collective biography, but not every townhouse, civic building or monument to inconsequential military leaders needs to be saved in my opinion. Things like Pool No.2 should be kept around, not just as a reminder of how divided we once were, but as a check valve to make sure we can’t go back in the same direction. The City of Baltimore has done just that in preserving Pool No.2 with a creative design by artist Joyce Scott. The pictures here are from a recent visit to the pool, which has been filled with earth while preserving the lifeguard stands, diving platform, safety rails and men’s bathhouse. You can stand there and just imagine a scene in 1930 with kids running and playing in the summer sun. It serves as a reminder of the segregated days of Druid Hill Park, but hopefully also a warning of a time that we hope not to return. Poet Gil Scott-Heron described it in his musical piece B-Movie, as a time: “When movies were in black and white…and so was everything else”. But, the idea of the Pool No.2 memorial transcends the historical divide between whites and blacks, and is applicable to our ideas and treatment of immigrants, gays, lesbians, queers or any other affected group that only seeks to forge their American dream. In this sense, the Pool No.2 Memorial serves as a reminder, and perhaps a catalyst in our efforts to make America great. …Again??