Saturday, January 21, 2012

Integration at the Pool

(Continued from Thursday . . . )
In Thursday’s posting, a pregnant white woman and a young black boy on a Kansas City streetcar made me aware of racism. That happened when I was ten—in  1946. Today’s story took place when I was eighteen—in 1954. That’s the year the Swope Park swimming pool was integrated after two years of legal wrangling. 
           According to the City of Kansas City website, “At 1,805-acres, Swope Park is the crown jewel of the Kansas City, Mo., park system. As Kansas City's largest park, and one of the largest urban parks in the United States, Swope Park is home to many of Kansas City’s finest attractions.” One of these “finest attractions” is its large, free swimming pool.


A pool in London that is somewhat like, 
but bigger than, 
the 1954 Swope Park pool.

            In late spring of 1954, reporters for the two Kansas City newspapers began to write stories about what would happen on opening day at Swope Park. Many of those they interviewed vowed their children would never again swim in the spacious pool. The city’s residents hurled hateful epithets at the judges who’d handed down the ruling and threatened anyone who tried to integrate the pool. People placed bets on whether any “white” children would show up on opening day.
            I resolved to be there. Not to be there would betray the boy I’d sat next to on that streetcar eight years before. I’d never again seen him, but his face and his hunched, bony shoulders remained etched in my memory.
             The day before the pool opened, I stayed overnight at my grandmother’s in Kansas City. The next morning I donned my two-piece swimming suit. Over it, I wore shorts and a tee shirt. Sandals graced my feet.
            Downstairs in the living room. Grandma Ready sat on her throne. It was a Queen Anne chair from which she issued edicts and orders to the rest of the family. I announced I’d be back around five p.m.
            “And where do you think you’re going, Missy?” she asked.
            “To Swope Park.”
            “You’re not leaving this house. No grandchild of mine is swimming next to n-----s.”
            “This grandchild is.”
            “You’ll be swimming in n----- pee! Maybe swallowing it!”
            I laughed out loud. She glowered at me.
            “Do you think whites don’t pee in pools?” I asked, truly interested in what she’d reply.
            “Only lowdown white trash.”
            “Then that’s what I am ‘cause I’ve peed in that pool before when I couldn’t hold it in.”
            “I’m not letting you swim in n----- pee. It’ll stain your skin. You won’t be able to rub out the black.”
            “Grandma!” Her ignorance amazed me.
            Note that I’m not saying her racism amazed me. I’d been on my way to her house eight years before. She’d been the first family member to whom I’d told the story of the racism I’d encountered. Her response? “That n----- should have stood up and wiped off his germs. Then he should have let both you and that pregnant woman sit there. No manners. They just have no manners.”
            I’d seen the whole situation a different way but my grandmother remained convinced that the pregnant woman was right: being too close to that boy might have somehow contaminated the unborn child. I thought then. I think now. That it was the hatred within the mother that might cause contamination.
            On Thursday’s posting I left a comment about a song from South Pacific. Inger reminded me of who actually sang the song back in 1949 when the musical South Pacific premiered. How brave Oscar Hammerstein II was to have written these words in the midst of the racism of that time.

You've got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You've got to be taught
From year to year,
It's got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff'rent shade,
You've got to be carefully taught.

You've got to be taught before it's too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You've got to be carefully taught!

From the 1949 Broadway musical “South Pacific”
with lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II 
and music by Richard Rodgers.


On that summer day in 1954, I took the bus to Swope Park and spent the day in the pool meeting other young people whose skin was a different shade from mine. We swam and laughed despite the protest and picketing, the hateful faces and the epithets. We ate at the concession stand while policemen guarded the premises.


Another pool, this one in Texas, that is comparable to the 1954 Swope Park pool.

            Throughout the summer, the newspapers reported that attendance at the pool was at one-third its normal level. So children of every color were staying away. And why wouldn’t they when the threat of violence was always there? But I went back again and again. I liked the coolness of the water in the sweltering heat of a Missouri summer.
            My grandmother tried to teach me to hate. My mother simply showed me how to love. She won, hands down.
                                                           (Continued on Tuesday . . . )

Photographs from Wikipedia.

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44 comments:

  1. You were a person of conscience from the beginning, it seems. I remember living in Albany, Georgia in the early 1960s and we had a maid. Daddy drove her home once and I went along for the ride. It was really scary to drive down the main street and see the looks we got from the people on their front steps. I didn't know anything back then, Dee. Thanks for being a brave person when I was so ignorant! :-)

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    1. Dear DJan,
      I didn't think of myself as brave. I just couldn't forget that boy on the streetcar. His face. His body. His shoulders. His hands clasped between his legs are indelibly printed in my mind. He taught me so much and said nothing. He just was the lesson.

      Peace.

      Delete
  2. What a wonderful beautiful and wise child you were! And also brave ... hatred is so dangerous and destructive. It is so appropriate that you should be writing these posts for us at this time when vestiges of prejudice are once again rearing their ugly heads.

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    1. Dear Broad,
      Those vestiges are ugly and they affect all of us. We are all part of the Holy Oneness of All Creation. One energy flows through us and when we deny that Oneness to others, we deny ourselves. And we betray ourselves.

      Peace.

      Delete
  3. Dee, this is another wonderful example of your profound humanity. I also very much admire your courage in doing what is right, despite the disapproval of someone close to you. Such a fine example to set, then and now.

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    1. Dear Perpetua,
      I don't know what Grandma Ready's upbringing was but she was filled with disappointment, disgruntlement, and dissatisfaction. For years I tried to win her love, but she doled it out only when someone followed her dictates. I'll be posting other stories in which she'll be featured. Last summer I posted one about how she told me my parents had deserted me. She was a lonely and bitter woman. As I've aged, I've felt compassion and pity for her. She missed out on so much. I've come to understand her a little, I think, and to accept that she was her own worse enemy.

      Peace.

      Peace.

      Delete
  4. Many good things have come to me, simply because I was born in Sweden. No one ever taught me to be racist, so racism is something beyond my brain somehow. Now that Sweden is full of immigrants and refugees of every color and religion, I'm sure the story is very different. You were so fortunate to have your mother. I must say I really admire those who were taught to be racist and were able to open their eyes and hearts to change to overcome their lessons.

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    1. Dear Inger,
      So much seems to depend on where and when to whom we were born. And yet there is a strange mystery, perhaps a grace, that brings forth wisdom in people and can as you say "open their eyes and hearts to change."

      Peace.

      Delete
  5. Hate is immune to outside reason, but on occasion I have seen love get through it. ~Mary

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    1. Dear Mary,
      It's so true that somehow--"on occasion"--love can get through to hate. The mystery, of course, is why that happens. Thank you for your wise observation.

      Peace.

      Delete
  6. Dee,
    You were ahead of your time, understanding on a much deeper level than many of us. I wasn't taught to be racist, but I also wasn't taught not to be. We had a few families that were other races, but not many.
    Thank you for a deeply moving post that reminded me to look deeper at the human being, not the outer shell.

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    1. Dear Sani,
      Yes, as I said on a comment recently, "What is important is invisible to the eye." That is what the fox said to the Little Prince in Antoine de Saint-Exupery'sclassic story.

      Peace.

      Delete
  7. Dear Dee-Re your response to PERPETUA: Your grandmother DID miss out on so much, as do all the people who refuse to see the beauty in another person--ANY OTHER PERSON! We have very dear friends who are in a long term mixed marriage. We love them both! Now that I think of it, aren't all marriages mixed? There are 2 people committed to each other--what difference does the color (or even sex) make? Some of the most strikingly beautiful people I've ever seen are Polynesians. Many of them have inherited the best features of their different-raced ancestors--the gorgeous black hair, olive skin, almond eyes..........

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    1. Dear Fishducky,
      Beauty is in the eye of the beholder. Mom used to say, "Dolores, you find what you look for. If you look for good, you'll find it. And if you look for bad, you're surely find that too."

      Peace.

      Delete
  8. Hi Dee,

    I'm constantly amazed at the depth of your spirit and the variety of experiences you've had in your life. I love the story of your mom and the wandering men, and the impact it continues to have on the caring woman you are. Your quiet courage is an inspiration, as is your writing, always.

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    1. Dear Deb,
      So exciting to get a comment from you when your life is so busy. Thank you. And thank you for your kind words. My mom blessed my spirit.

      Peace.

      Delete
  9. Thank you. This is truly beautiful and I am so privileged to be learning from someone who learnt her mother's lesson and discarded her grandmother's teachings.
    I am also pleased that you simply had fun that summer in the pool.
    Another wonderful post and I am looking forward to the next installment.

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  10. Dear Pam,
    Thank you for stopping by and commenting again. Your perspective always enlightens me. I'm thinking about that next installment. I hope I can do it justice.

    Peace.

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    1. Dee,
      Thsnk you for your kind response. I am not Pam though. I suspect she is another of your fans.

      Delete
  11. Hello Elephant's Child,
    I do apologize for calling you by a name not your own. I've done this here and on your blog. As I said in a comment there, sometimes I'm a real Dunderhead!

    Peace.

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  12. And as I said here and there, not a dunderhead. A mistake. Don't we all make them? If my blog name is a mouthful, I happily respond to TEC, EC, Ellie C and Child.

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  13. As always I love your honesty and your willingness to stand up for what is right.

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    1. Dear Elisa,
      It seems to me that this past week you truly stood up for what was right in the way the school handled a truly difficult situation for the Scribe. You, too, try always to do what is right.

      Peace.

      Delete
  14. The hatred of times gone by is still here today; it is just masked. In this era of being PC, it might seem that the prejudices of before are gone. If you listen carefully to the rhetoric of this political campaign, you can hear the innuendos that are being made to appeal to those who hide under the cloak of "being a good Christian", but in reality, still bare the roots of prejudice. The economic climate has also added to it, with blame being put on the shoulders of the poor and disadvantaged instead of where it should be.

    You were truly a hero of your times, Dee. It is never easy to speak up when the world is accepting of hate.

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    1. Dear Arleen,
      Your comment is so perceptive and so well written. During the past six weeks or so, I haven't paid much attention to the news or the newspapers or television or the Republican debates. Mostly I've been resting and recuperating from that infection. So I've missed the innuendoes. I'm glad that you and Inger are helping me wake up to what's going on. Thank you.

      Peace.

      Delete
  15. Your sense of justice was instilled so early! How difficult it must have been to have such a harsh charge from your own grandmother, but given the timeframe I'm sure you were not alone. I just admire your spirit, Dee. You seem someone who always swam upstream! So unique in a time of conformity! I'm a fan:-) Debra

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    1. Dear Debra,
      That sense of justice was instilled by my mom. She was a woman before her times. I remember her talking about the Catholic Church and saying that it wasn't a group of hierarchy or old men. It was all the people. This was in the '40s and '50s, way before Vatican II in the mid-sixties began to use the term "People of God."

      The Church mostly said that Catholics would be saved; Mom said everyone who practiced kindness would be. Fortunately I believed Mom before I believed the Church. She was and remains a powerful force and influence in my life even though she died in 1968.

      Peace.

      Delete
  16. I admire that you stood up to your grandmother! Where I grew up in a suburb of Minneapolis, Minnesota we didn't have any contact with anything but white European Americans. I remember we had a Spanish foreign exchange student one year and she was the only non-white in the entire school. I simply had no knowledge except for when we drove down south to Florida...and crossed through Tennessee, Alabama, Georgia, etc, during the Civil Rights years. It was quite the eye-opener. But the south was like visiting a foreign land. You are so brave and followed your heart from such a young age. I am proud to know you, Dee. :):)

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    1. Dear Rita,
      Just as I am proud to know you. I had one of bravery. The bravery with which you live with fibromyalgia is another kind. And that is a daily bravery that all of us have come to admire in you.

      Peace.

      Delete
  17. Your Mother taught you well, Dee. It was unfortunate that your Grandmother never learned to be kind and compassionate.
    Hate is a dirty 4 letter word.
    :)

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    1. Dear Pam,
      My grandmother finally had dementia and died seeing monsters in her bedroom. I think monsters had inhabited her thinking for long years and they frightened her into being a woman who protected herself by despising others.

      Peace.

      Delete
    2. Dee, Wow. Your comment/response about your grandmothers monsters is so telling and insightful. Your ability to See amazes and encourages me. And I thank you.

      Delete
  18. This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

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    1. Hello All,
      I deleted this comment simply because it was about my ordering a book from the commenter.

      Peace.

      Delete
  19. Brave girl. I expect that sort of moral rectitude is never easy in the face of prejudice.

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    1. Dear Friko,
      To study the Civil Rights movement of the '50s and '60s here in the United States is to see the face of determination and bravery and fortitude among those who fought for these rights and the face of hatred and fear among those who fought against them. The moral rectitude of the "freedom riders" inspired many of us.

      Peace.

      Delete
  20. Thank you Dee for mentioning that post! It, I think , reflects your posting. Ignorance made that doctor decide to condemn that child to death because she is not mentally on the same level, and ignorance teaches racist hate.

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    1. Dear Melynda,
      I'll mention that post again on Tuesday. I think you are right. Ignorance did make that doctor condemn that child to death because he saw mental differences that he couldn't surmount in his own mind. Ignorance does teach racial hate. It continues to do so.

      Peace.

      Delete
  21. Dee, do you remember the prejudice we witnessed even during college? A student at the men’s college was asked to leave the pool hall because of his color. Several other students had coaxed him to come with them. He said he "didn't want to cause any trouble." The guys were so mad at the manager that they stayed away for a few days and then went and told him that if he wanted their business, their friend had to be included.
    That took care of that problem there, but do you remember that blacks had to sit in the balcony at the movies? This all struck me as terrible, probably because in my small town, everyone was white and I just couldn’t understand the prejudice.
    The first time I encountered such prejudice was also on a public bus in Omaha. I was probably about eight. I was with my aunt and cousins. The bus was crowded and I found a place by a little girl about my age. My aunt came and grabbed my arm and jerked me up off the seat. I am certain that I looked as surprised and perplexed as I felt. I just said, "Its okay, there’s enough room for me here."
    My aunt, with firmly pressed lips, said nothing but kept a tight grip on my arm. We rarely went to the city, and I had no idea of such cruelty.
    I remember at college I was walking with a fellow student and noticed that the campus seemed deserted. “Where’s everyone gone?” I wondered.
    She thought they’d gone to the corner store for treats. I suggested we join them. She also said she “didn't want to cause any trouble,” but I managed to convince her that it would be okay to go. She came with me but was very ill at ease, and I don't remember if she ever went back again.
    My husband was in a small group of college guys that went around to different towns singing, and on one trip a monk who was black went with them. He was told to leave a restaurant.
    I worked at a Topeka pool the summer of ‘57, and I can remember the remark, "I wouldn’t get in a pool with a n-----!" I was so disgusted with the racism, that I shot back, "What’s the matter? Are you afraid the color will wash off?" Your grandmother's comments make me wonder if maybe the customer really was afraid of that!
    The big clincher in a discussion about race was "How would you like to have your daughter marry "one of them?” I answered that I would be more concerned about character then color. It’s difficult for me to imagine how the constant “you're not good enough " must have been to live with!
    How wonderful that things have changed for the better. I now have four biracial great nieces and nephews. Thank God so much of that is behind us, even though we still have a ways to go! ME

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    1. Dear ME,
      So good to hear from you. I have to admit that I don't remember these incidents from college. I must have had blinders on.

      Peace.

      Delete
  22. I love that you remembered the streetcar incident and decided to go to the pool. I am certain that your presence there meant a lot to many people. Your courage in the face of your family's fears and threats is admirable, but not surprising given the little I know about you from your writing. I suspect your mother knew her love could conquer the fear and hatred in the world and I praise her for sticking to her guns.

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  23. When I came to Toronto in the mid '50's my dad made me aware of the racial problems in the US. It made me very sad. Luckily my family chose to be inclusive. Still I suffered the horror of being nick named Nazi girl because of my immigration. Hate for others is definitely taught. Sadly the scriptures point us in that direction too.

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  24. What a brave, determined young woman you were. I am so grateful for your willingness to defy your grandmother and swim with the other children who were brave enough to go too. Thank you.

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