NASHVILLE'S SWIMMING POOLS DURING JIM CROW
Daddy took me fishing a lot when I was a kid and one day I was too close to the edge of the water and fell in. Another day daddy caught a huge fish and in my excitement I accidentally jumped into the water. Both times he had to jump into the water and pull me out because I couldn't swim. My brother Mark was like a fish and learned to swim on his own but I was scared of the water. After my brushes with death daddy decided to enroll me in swimming classes given by the Red Cross at Centennial Park swimming pool. Most public and private pools were segregated in those days. Centennial and Shelby Park were for whites and Hadley Park in North Nashville was for blacks. Of the twenty two public swimming pools in Nashville seven were for Black people. I learned to swim around 1956 or 57.
On July 18, 1961 two Black college students Leo Lillard and Matthew Walker tried to swim in Centennial Park's pool. They were civil rights activists who had been involved in the Freedom rides that year. Walker had spent time in Mississippi's notorious Parchman state prison for trying to desegregate interstate bus lines. When Lillard and Walker approached the pool the cashier thought that they were gardeners. The cashier was a petite blond of about thirty. When Lillard and Walker told her that they were there to swim she replied "You know you can't swim in here. There are no niggers in here". They replied "The water isn't going to change". She responded again "There are no niggers in here". Lillard and Walker patiently waited while the lady contacted her supervisor. The supervisor contacted City Hall trying to find out what to do. Two days later the parks board decided to close all of the White city pools rather than see them desegregated. They never reopened. My sister Donna was swimming at Shelby Parks public pool when the order came down to close the pools. Everyone was ordered to leave the pool. I loved to swim at Centennial Park and it infuriated me that the city closed perfectly good pools for such a frivolous reason. This was the insanity of segregation.
Mayor Ben West tried to convince them to reverse their decision but he had no power over the City Parks Board. The only places we had to swim after this was at the lakes or private swimming pools. My favorite place to swim was Cascade Plunge at the State Fairgrounds across from Fair Park. It was a 200 ft. by 80 ft. pool with two giant water slides. One slide was straight while the other had bumps. Cascade had a 60 ft. tall diving platform along with two one ton Spanish anchors, fountains and a restaurant. Exhibitions included a fire diving water clown soaked in kerosene. Cascade would have a ten ton ice pyramid and a Miss Iceburg contest.There were also local music combo's that would entertain. A combo was the contemporary name for a band. There was the ubiquitous urban legend that someone put razor blades on one of the slides and a girl was badly cut up. Daddy was an expert diver and he would show off by diving off of the tower. One of his dreams was to dive off of a bridge like the Shelby Street or Woodland Street bridge. The only reason he wouldn't was because he didn't know what obstructions were in the water under the bridges. Daddy excelled at the Swan and Jack-Knife. He would literally draw crowds to watch him while he dived. One day he hit his head on the bottom of the pool and he nearly knocked himself out. He was woozy for a long time and it was a while before he was able to get out of the pool. This was one of the places that I would take Debbie after we started dating. Cascade was finally desegregated in 1968 but was closed for good in 1974. The pool was filled in and all the buildings were demolished in 1975.
|My mother Donie Belle Brown Segroves|
|Centennial Park Pool after it was closed|
|Leo Lillard being attacked during the sit-ins|
|Leo Lillard today|
|Matthew Walker during the sit-ins|
|Matthew Walker today|