Across the country, black men were being beaten for trying to swim with white people. And, while Dallas was by no stretch of the imagination a stranger to racial unrest, our Park Department somehow managed to integrate pools with remarkably little ado.
For 23 years, families from across Dallas — to the tune of 100,000 per year — flocked to White Rock Lake to sun on its sandy beach, splash in dubious waters near the Bath House, wade along the spillway, water ski on makeshift platforms …
On the eastern edge, a cement slab extended a hundred feet into the lake with 500 feet along the shore, making it the largest swimming pool in the city, according to “A History of Dallas Parks,” a manuscript kept in the city archives. It was there for people of all socioeconomic rungs.
All white people, that is.
“Sanitation was always questioned.” —L.B. Houston
Though it is remembered fondly, White Rock Lake never was the ideal place to swim, according to 1939-72 Parks and Recreation Department director L.B. Houston, whose recorded oral history is provided by city archivist John Slate.
Years before it closed, “the popularity of White Rock Beach began to decline. It was not a very dependable swimming place. In fact, it was just a recreation center. You know, go see and be seen and play in the sand,” Houston said. “Sanitation was always questioned.”
When a severe drought hit Texas in summer 1953, the city needed the lake’s resources; regulators enforced a ban on swimming that has been in place ever since.
When White Rock beach closed, swimming’s modern era, which began in ’45, was just evolving in Dallas, progressing during a time of desegregation and accompanying unrest.
Swimming pools became a flashpoint for racial contention, notes professor Jeff Wiltse in his book, “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.”
“Racist assumptions that black Americans were more likely to be infected with communicable illness” inflamed opposition to racial integration, Wiltse wrote.
“In my book, I have pictures of black Americans who lie still on the ground with bloody heads from being pummeled, just for trying to access a swimming pool.” —Jeff Wiltse
Also, gender mixing at pools was relatively new, and white swimmers objected “to black men interacting with white women at such visually and physically intimate spaces,” he adds.
Across the country, stories emerged of young black men being beaten for attempting to swim at white pools.
“In my book, I have pictures of black Americans who lie still on the ground with bloody heads from being pummeled, just for trying to access a swimming pool,” Wiltse said in an NPR radio interview.
Houston and members of the Dallas park board understood the perils.
“We could see the time when racially mixed swimming would be with us,” Houston said. “We had the feeling that the very last thing that white people would tolerate would be mixed swimming. We thought it would be dangerous, you know, perhaps mob violence.”
In Dallas, no written rule of racial segregation at park property existed. Rather, segregation was socially enforced, according to the park department’s centennial history. “Black citizens risked harassment or worse for using white facilities.”
Aside from White Rock and other lakes, a couple of large municipal pools served Dallas swimmers in the early 1900s.
The nearest pool for black residents of Northeast and East Dallas was Griggs Park, the city’s second black pool after Exline, located south of Southern Methodist University, almost to Downtown Dallas. Prior to 1924 it was called Hall Street Negro Park and was renamed for Rev. Allen Griggs, a freed slave who became a minister and newspaper publisher.
“[Integration of pools became a] quiet revolution … a bright spot in an otherwise tumultuous time in the city’s relationship with its black citizens.” —Willis Winters and John Slate in “A Means to Peaceful Transition”
Imbalance in amenities grew increasingly evident over the years.
A 1944 Dallas Morning News article reported that the city offered 60 acres of park for its 60,000 black residents. In contrast, 5,000 acres were reserved for its 320,000 white citizens.
Compared to other Southern cities, Dallas managed to make a relatively peaceful transition to integrated pools, according to Slate, who co-wrote a paper with current park department director Willis Winters about the desegregation of Dallas parks.
In their essay, “A means to a peaceful transition,” Slate and Winters credit Houston with leading “a quiet revolution that was a bright spot in an otherwise tumultuous time in the city’s relationship with its black citizens.”
Park board members Ray Hubbard and Julius Schepps worked closely with Houston, according to Slate, “within the confines of institutionalized segregation to encourage the peaceful transition to an integrated park system.
Houston explained in his oral history how he and the board devised a new public swimming program while gradually integrating.
They developed a grid system of communities, both black and white, with a swimming pool at the middle of each. These smaller pools would progressively replace the existing large municipal swimming facilities.
The idea was directly tied to equal rights and desegregation.
“Houston surmised that providing more pools in more neighborhoods would distribute them more equitably throughout Dallas while reducing the chances of confrontation,” note Slate and Winters.
Houston began keeping close track of the racial makeup of Dallas neighborhoods relying on employees who lived in transforming neighborhoods for information. He plotted data about racial trends and attitudes on a map hung in his office, which he used to make desegregation decisions.
“I never will forget the day [Schepps] called me and said, ‘L.B. are we ready to mix?’ By that time I think we had six or maybe nine pools. I told him my opinion that some could and others, doubtful,” Houston said in his oral history.
When it became clear a neighborhood was nearing a black-majority population, the local park was closed for a month and reopened as a “black” park. “By that time, most whites had moved on, and the park had been peacefully transitioned,” according to Houston’s oral history.
“This method was used successfully for both Lagow and Exline parks, which served South Dallas neighborhoods that had seen some of the most violent responses to integrated housing in Dallas’ history,” according to Slate and Winters. It was employed around the city, arguably resulting ultimately in equal amenities for black citizens.
Years later Houston would have to defend the park department’s seeming silence on issues of integration.
“You were doing everything you could to prevent open rebellion. Because we were living on a powder keg.” —L.B. Houston
A trade magazine called Amusement Business noted in 1961 that Dallas desegregated parks, golf courses and other recreational facilities but explicitly left public pools out of their agreement with civil rights leaders.
Houston defended his board’s methods, which, he pointed out, were supported by the Negro Chamber of Commerce and other local black groups.
“You were doing everything you could to prevent open rebellion. Because we were living on a powder keg. And when and if a revolt had ever been precipitated well, gosh, no telling where you would have ended up.”
Was it right to perpetuate socially segregated facilities? “No,” write Slate and Winters in their paper. “However, as agents of change from the inside they realized that whatever they could do from their positions would benefit a larger movement, and that anything that could prevent violent confrontation was better than the alternative.”
A version of this article originally was published in East Dallas Advocate magazine.