Indianapolis' Swimming History: What You Need to Know and What You Can Do About It

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You’ve seen the pictures of segregated water fountains, bathrooms, public transportation, and restaurants from the not-so-distant past. You know about the work of many Americans to protest segregation through sit-ins, rallies, demonstrations and marches in the ‘50s and ‘60s.

But do you know about the history of segregated swimming pools? Indianapolis was not immune to racial issues, and starting in the 1920s the city took big steps to divide its recreational areas.

One of the most apparent examples of segregation in our city is its swimming pools.

Douglass Park, the city’s only public black pool.

In 1924, Superintendent of Public Parks Walter Jarvis wrote about a newly opened recreational area for Indianapolis’ black citizens:

This known as Douglass Park was opened in 1921, and since the date of its opening it has demonstrated conclusively how eagerly the colored population of our city welcome opportunities for recreation. (The Playground, Vol. 16)

Jarvis further wrote “One of the finest and largest pools of the Middle West has been placed in the park,” and that the colored YMCA would offer swim lessons free of charge to its guests.

While this was a fine swimming pool, it was the only public swimming pool in the city available for African Americans to use. Douglass Park remained Indianapolis’ only public pool for the city’s 70,000 African Americans until the late 1950s, and was not within walking distance and accessible for the majority of black families living in the city. Many families complained that the pool was so crowded that it wasn’t worth their tax dollars, because they couldn’t even enjoy the water!

Racial Tension, Entrepreneurship, and Unsafe Waters

The city was rampant with racial tension, and the lack of accessibility to a public pool for many African-Americans led to several different outcomes in the community over time:

  • The Douglass Park Swim Team was excluded from swim meets. In the 1940s the City Parks Swimming Championship was cancelled because the pool at Broad Ripple High School could not be closed to the public while the Douglass Park team was practicing.

    One administrative leader wrote “I’ve been out to Douglass and watched the boys out there swim, and I didn’t see any exceptionally good swimmers. I don’t know why they would want to enter a team (in the meet) that didn’t stand much chance” (Staggering Black swim stats rooted in segregation).

    In other words, even though Douglass Park students had access to a pool and coaches to build their swimming skills, they were not always allowed to test their abilities by competing and were not given the same opportunities as their white peers.

  • A group of black entrepreneurs planned, and were denied, to develop a beachfront along White River. Henry Fleming and his team of black entrepreneurs proposed to “purchase the former Casino Gardens along White River (today known as the Municipal Gardens)…but the Parks Board threatened to condemn the property if it was sold to African Americans” (Race and the River: Swimming, Sewers, and Segregation).

Although there was interest and the ability to develop an area of Indianapolis into a thriving beachfront for all of its citizens, this was denied - and so citizens who wanted to swim and enjoy taking a dip on a hot day started to take matters into their own hands.

  • African-American community members started swimming in the unsafe and polluted White River and Fall Creek. Many news articles indicate that Indianapolis citizens were using White River and Fall Creek as recreational swimming areas, despite the fact that “the beach was poorly maintained and dead fish were floating alongside swimmers” (Race and the River).

The water was so dangerous that reporters called summer “the drowning season” due to the large number of children who died in the water every year. Oftentimes, these bodies of water were the only option for African-American families to enjoy without fear of repercussion or pushback.

Due to combined sewage overflow, lack of resources about water safety, and lack of access to swimming opportunities, the water became a hazardous, dangerous place for families. You could see how this environment would cause a fear of swimming for many African American children and parents who may have lost friends or family members to drowning.

Racial Exclusion Continues

Even after the rise of the civil rights movement and the desegregation of public spaces, private Indianapolis pools continued to segregate. The Riviera Club, a distinguished private pool in the city, claimed their “right to interview prospective members” by requiring an in-person admissions meeting all the way into the 1970s (Race and the Color Line at the Douglass Park Pool).

This meant that the club could exclude African-American and Jewish applicants, and this continued until a lawsuit was settled under Title II of the Civil Rights Act. Many families still living in Indianapolis remember how unwelcome they felt at private pools for years after desegregation, and know just how important it is that their grandsons and granddaughters can now swim without fear at private Indianapolis pools.

Where To Go From Here

For decades, African Americans in Indianapolis and around the country fought hard to swim in safe and clean areas. Now that you understand our city’s general history of swimming segregation, here’s what you can do to continue to fight for swimming access and education:

  1. Follow Horizons on Facebook. Over the next two months, we will be sharing stories from people in our community about their experiences with swimming in Indianapolis. Stay tuned to hear from many different voices.

  2. Share This Story. The more that our community understands the history of racial segregation in Indianapolis swimming pools, the more we can work to ensure that all of our citizens have equal access to pools, swim lessons, and safe swimming areas.

  3. Support Swimming Organizations. Some of our favorites are the JCC Indianapolis (where our students take lessons every summer!), Black Kids Swim, USA Swimming, and the Michael Phelps Foundation.