Swimming pools may seem an unlikely source for history lessons regarding America’s racial tensions, but during the civil rights era pools were much more than recreational spots where people could cool off on a summer day-- they were sometimes at the center of heated racial confrontation. Swimming pools were contested sites for layered reasons, but primarily because of the intimacy associated with swimming.
According to Dr. Jeff Wiltse, historian and author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, “Basically it boils down to swimming pools being very intimate spaces… There were racist assumptions that black Americans were dirtier than whites, that they were more likely to be infected by communicable diseases. And so, in part, the push for racial segregation and racial exclusion was for white swimmers to avoid being infected by the supposed ‘dirtiness’ of black Americans.” Muncie’s Tuhey Pool was no exception, and it became a central point for racial confrontation in the 1950s.
During the 1950s in Muncie, racial segregation was not legislated, but it was customary and widely practiced. No ordinance required pool segregation, but during the 1930s and 1940s it was understood that Tuhey Pool was for white use only. There was a separate pool intended for use by black children in Jackson Park until the end of World War II, when health authorities condemned it. Following its closing, black citizens sometimes swam in a stone quarry or in the White River, but neither of these locations were safe for swimming. Following the drownings of several young children in these unsupervised swimming areas, community members began efforts to open a pool for use by black children and families.
In the summer of 1954, the City of Muncie bent to pressure from the local N.A.A.C.P. leaders and purchased a second facility for the black community, located at Phillips Lake and renamed Municipal Pool. While the existence of a second pool seemed to satisfy the needs of the community, the segregation of Tuhey Pool was a painful symbol of racism in the heart of Muncie. City leaders held months of meetings to deal with Muncie’s segregation, but no action was officially taken to integrate Tuhey Pool.
That all changed on June 9, 1956. Roy C. Buley and Levan Scott, accompanied by three young black children, went to Tuhey Pool, paid their admission fee, and swam for an hour. Eventually, a crowd of young white children gathered at the fence of the pool and started harassing the swimmers. The pool was shut down in order to avoid trouble, and one week later reopened for use by all citizens of Muncie. The bravery and direct action of these young leaders led way for further victories against Jim Crow laws and customary racism.
If you’d like to learn more about the history of Tuhey Pool’s desegregation and other stories about Muncie’s racial history, check out these resources:
A History of Negroes in Muncie. Hurley Goodall & J. Paul Mitchell
The Other Side of Middletown: Exploring Muncie’s African American Community. Luke E. Lassler