For our June cover story, Dive In, city archivist John Slate provided us an oral history recorded in 1973, of director of the Parks and Recreation Department director from 1939-72, L.B. Houston, and it, along with a paper written by Slate and current director Willis Winters provides a fascinating look at desegregation in Dallas, especially as it relates to the public pool system. Slate also helped us get our hands on some incredible historical images.
We all know White Rock Lake provided a swimming hole for residents of (mostly just white ones, something most of us don’t recall when fondly reminiscing about the era) Dallas back in the day. And right around the time White Rock Lake closed, and public pools were becoming more popular and arguably essential to comfort and quality of life during Texas summers, desegregation was happening in Dallas and around the country. Below is the rest of the story, as published in our June print magazine …
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 in his oral history. “Sanitation was always questioned.”
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.
“Racist assumptions that black Americans were more likely to be infected with communicable illness” inflamed opposition to racial integration, Wiltse wrote.
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.
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.
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.”