“A Place in the Sun for Everyone”

Eugene McKinley Memorial Pool and the End of Jim Crow in Portsmouth, Ohio

Portsmouth, Ohio’s only city-owned, public pool was built to memorialize the drowning death of fourteen-year-old resident Eugene McKinley, the son of George and Ruth McKinley, who lived at 1212-E Farley Square.

On Friday, June 9th, 1961, McKinley and a group of other African American school boys went swimming in a flooded sand and gravel pit that had recently been dug in the bottoms of the Scioto River.  It was the last day of school and the students were ready to kickoff their summer with a swim. In their coverage, the Daily Times reported the drowning as follows:

"Arriving at the pit, the boys, who could swim, jumped in and told Eugene to stay near the bank, where the water was shallow. The boys discovered an underwater shelf leading out into the water. The companions said Eugene apparently wanting to show them he wasn’t afraid, started walking out on the shelf. The boys said Eugene, who was 6 feet tall, told them he was going to walk to the other side. About halfway out the shelf ended and Eugene stepped off into water over his head.

"As the first group started to swim, another group arrived and stood watching. As the McKinley boy first went under, two of these boys, Terry Woods, 14, of 1314 Findlay Street, and Ronnie Pritchard, 16, of Ironton, Ohio, shed their clothing and jumped in to give aid. The Woods boy swam to the victim. Eugene grabbed the smaller boy around the neck and pulled him under. The Woods boy said he managed to break the hold and swim away. The victim then grabbed the Pritchard youth and they went under the surface."

After Pritchard escaped, one last rescue attempt was made: "Other boys on the bank found a wire and tried to throw one end to the drowning boy. The attempt failed and Eugene disappeared below the surface. As he went under the group scattered in an attempt to summon aid. One of the boys ran south to an area where a bulldozer was operating while others ran over the levee to call firemen and police."

At the time of McKinley’s death — the summer of 1961 —  Jim Crow, the system of laws and regulations that segregated American communities along racial lines and protected white supremacy and the white power structure, was in the process of being dismantled thanks to the hard work and sacrifices of the men, women, and children of the Civil Rights Movement. Following the Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, Portsmouth’s schools were fully integrated. Prior to that decision, elementary age students had been segregated into what were said to be “separate, but equal,” elementary schools, while older white and black students attended an integrated Portsmouth High School. Portsmouth’s Jim Crow was never as harsh and all encompassing as in many southern communities, yet life in the city was certainly segregated and racial tensions did occasionally run high.

In 1923, Portsmouth made national news when its police shut down a KKK parade, arresting over 240 participants. By the early 1960s, Portsmouth was actually ahead of the curve in some areas of race relations, particularly when it came to law enforcement and public health. Ted Wilburn served as the city’s first African-American Police Chief and James Forrest Scott, MD, had the honor of being not only Scioto County’s, but also the nation’s first popularly elected African-American county coroner. In June of 1961, it was Dr. Scott who ruled Eugene McKinley’s cause of death to be “accidental drowning.” Yet, for all of the progress Chief Wilburn and Dr. Scott represented, white residents of Portsmouth, as in hundreds of other cities across the nation, North and South, still maintained Jim Crow at their swimming facilities.

The day Eugene McKinley drowned, the city’s only swimming pool blocked blacks from admission.  His white classmates swam at the Terrace Club’s pool in the East End, at what is now remembered more commonly, as “Dreamland Pool.” Eugene McKinley’s black classmates swam (if they swam at all) in rivers and other dangerous pools of water such as that which took McKinley’s life in the Summer of 1961. Residents, white and black, immediately recognized the hand of Jim Crow in McKinley's death. Yet, rather than integrate the Terrace Club, city residents of both races, joined together to build a new pool, one that would be "open to all.”  “A place in the sun for everyone” is how it was first promoted.  Portsmouth, it was hoped, had a large enough population to have two swimming pools and enlightened enough to support a new integrated one.

The pool’s location, however, was telling.  Located on the North End of Findley Street, the pool would be constructed in the city’s historic African American neighborhood. Within a month of McKinley’s death, blacks and whites had established a non-profit, the Community Recreational Society (CRS), and within a year, they had secured pledges of tens of thousands of dollars.  Orville Ferguson, Sr., led the efforts, securing the assistance of his employer, Roy McGovney. A new city water main was run to supply the facilities; the pool was dug and McGovney poured the concrete, but construction faltered in 1964, when the CRS’s board found their goal of three hundred family memberships had come up short and they could not collect all of the money that had been originally pledged.

By this point in the early 60s, the Civil Right’s Movement had picked up momentum and direct actions aimed at integrating white-only public accommodations and places of amusement, such as swimming pools, had spread across the nation.  In June of 1964, a "Dive-In" at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida, where protestors were pulled from the motel's swimming pool and beaten by police, captured the nation's attention. In response to the protests, turmoil, and media pressure Congress finally passed the Civil Rights Act and President Lyndon Johnson signed it into law on July 2nd, 1964.

Discrimination based on race, color, religion, sex, or national origin was now banned by federal law.  It specifically outlawed racial segregation in schools, employment, and public accommodations.  Private clubs, however, were exempted and it was unclear whether or not the federal law applied to the Terrace Club, which at the time was owned and operated as a private club.  Since the late nineteenth-century, a similar “private club” exemption had existed in the Ohio Revised Code.  Thus, despite the passage of the Civil Rights Act, segregation of many American swimming pools — including the Terrace Club — continued in the summer of 1964, just as it had before.

The fight to end Jim Crow in Portsmouth was not yet won. In hindsight, direct, non-violent actions — what had become known as wade-ins and sit-ins — was what was needed to compel Portsmouth's white leaders to once and for all end Jim Crow in the city.

Portsmouth's local chapter of the NAACP would play a key role in planning the demonstration.  At the time, Charles Stanley Smith, Jr., a 32-year old employee of the Empire Detroit Steel Mill in New Boston, led the organization.  Smith would tell the local press that the action was aimed at challenging the pool’s segregation under Ohio law, not the new federal law. “This is supposed to be a private club, but the word ‘private’ only means to bar Negroes,” explained Smith. The wade-in planning was extensive and involved coordinating with Portsmouth Police Chief Wilburn and County Coroner, Dr. Scott, who ended up playing a critical role in the successful resolution of the controversy.  In addition to the NAACP’s Smith, Eugene Collins, Curt Gentry, Roy Burns, Jesse Baggette, and other (not yet identified) community members, including two juvenile boys, decided on who would actually wade into the water.

Gentry, at the time, was home from Maryland State College on his summer break, having recently participated in demonstrations organized by a local chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).  The protests, in Cambridge, Maryland, had turned as violent as Birmingham under Bull Conor, with the police using firehoses and German shepherds to break-up public demonstrations by Civil Rights activists.  Gentry, who went on to a professional career in three sports (baseball, basketball, and football), was already well-known in both the white and black communities of Portsmouth. He had been a standout student and athlete at the integrated Portsmouth High School, serving in student government and starring in varsity sports. His former PHS basketball coach, Charles Lorentz, it turned out, also managed the segregated pool at the Terrace Club.

The wade-in planners coordinated with the Police Chief’s vacation schedule so that Wilburn would be at home and off-duty when the direct action began on July 17th, 1964.  Eugene Collins and Curt Gentry’s mother stationed themselves at the entrance to the Terrace Club, positioned so that they could testify in court as to how the pool staff, guests, protesters, and police handled the situation.  At 1pm, the appointed time, when the pool was packed and everyone was enjoying the sun and water, Smith, Gentry, Burns, Baggette, and two juvenile aged African American boys (who go unnamed in the newspaper accounts) approached the entrance.  They asked for admission and were denied.  As planned, they placed their 60-cent guest membership fee on the counter, hopped over the turn-styles, and made their way to the pool.

Once they had entered the water, the life guards blew their whistles and an unnamed pool employee went on the loudspeaker, calling on everyone to immediately clear the pool. According to Eugene Collins, when the demonstrators refused, the voice from the PA system announced:  “If you do not leave the pool you will be arrested.” They refused and the Portsmouth police were then called.  Detective William Combs and Captain Ray Thompson soon arrived.  When the demonstrators again refused to exit the pool, the officers phoned Chief Wilburn in hopes that he might be able to resolve the standoff.

While everyone waited for Wilburn to arrive, some of the younger white swimmers jumped back in the pool in a show of solidarity. A photographer with the Portsmouth Daily Times was there to catch the moment when one of the white youths reached out to shake hands with one of the protestors.  The younger generation of Portsmouth residents appear to have been ready to put aside the old Jim Crow. When Chief Wilburn arrived at the scene he too ordered the black swimmers out of the pool and upon their continued refusal to exit the water, the Chief ordered Combs and Thompson into swim trunks and sent the two officers into the water to arrest the protestors.  There was no further resistance and the six demonstrators were escorted out of the Terrace Club and placed in unmarked cruisers before being driven to the police station at the City Building. There, as previously arranged, Dr. Scott and Bud Hairston, another leader in the city’s black community, waited, ready to post bond, if necessary, to secure the release of the protestors.

It was at the Police Station in the City Building that the critical showdown occurred, when attorney Ormond Adams, representing the Terrace Club’s Board of Directors, pressed charges of trespassing on both the adults and juveniles who had entered the pool.  At this point, Dr. Scott intervened, explaining that the Portsmouth City Police would have to release the juveniles — they could not be arraigned in the municipal court; the city would have to release the juveniles to their parents or the sheriff would have to arrest the juveniles to process them through the county’s juvenile court system.

The decision of whether to arrest the children fell to Scioto County Sheriff C. Russell Burns. First elected in 1958 on the Democrat Party ticket, Burns would serve as Sheriff until 1969. With the pool’s attorney pressing for their prosecution in juvenile court, Sheriff Burns at first decided to take the children into his custody.  This dramatic turn in the controversy is an example of how fragmentary the historical record can become. Dr. Scott’s threat was never reported in the press and was first revealed in an oral history interview of Eugene Collins. Juvenile protestors played key roles in the fight to end segregation in Portsmouth, as elsewhere.

When Sheriff Burns moved to arrest the teenagers, Dr. Scott took his stand and the last remnant of Jim Crow in Portsmouth began to crumble.  The black county coroner reminded the white county sheriff that in Ohio the coroner is the only public official empowered to arrest the sheriff. If Sheriff Burns were to proceed with his plans to arrest the juveniles, explained Dr. Scott, he, as County Coroner, would place the Sheriff under arrest. To his credit, Sheriff Burns backed down. The juveniles were set free and never charged. Municipal Court Judge Charles E. Smith released the four adults on $25 bonds and the charges, after months of delays, were dismissed ultimately in July 1965.  

Once released from police custody, Charles Stanley Smith asked the Portsmouth Times reporter, "We all go to school together, live together, why not swim together?” The refusal of the Terrace Club management to integrate, along with Sheriff Burns’s decision not to arrest the juveniles may have emboldened the local movement, especially its younger supporters.  A second direct action was soon planned.

Although the local leadership of the NAACP would deny any role in its planning, clearly its rank and file membership were involved. On July 21st, four days after the wade-in, forty Portsmouth youths staged a massive sit-in to block the entrance of the Terrace Club. According to the Portsmouth Daily Times, “Police Chief Ted Wilburn was summoned to the scene and gave the order to move the youngsters to the police station. The action was taken after repeated requests from pool employees to clear the gate.”  The demonstrators were first taken to the Municipal Courtroom, "the only available room at City Hall large enough to hold the group.” The Daily Times noted that “Juvenile Court officials later notified police to transfer the youngsters to the courthouse, so they could be handled by juvenile officials.” The children had once again forced the issue of whether county officials would intervene to defend Jim Crow.

The children, many of them now joined by their parents, were moved to the Scioto County Court House, where they were told to wait for the entrance of Judge Paul E. Fowler.  The Civil Rights Movement in Portsmouth had reached a critical impasse.  Chief Wilburn and the municipal and juvenile courts were clearly not going to tolerate wade-ins and sit-ins at the Terrace Club and the Movement had shown local law enforcement and the courts that they were no longer going to simply accept Jim Crow. While the children and their parents waited, a behind the scenes “conference session” played out in the Judge’s chambers.

Fowler first met in private with Charles Stanley Smith, Jr., and then, as a group, with Ormond S. Adams, president of the Terrace Club; Charles Fugitt, court probation officer; and two additional representatives from the local NAACP chapter (who go un-named in the Times reporting, but, a good case can be made it was, once again, Dr. Scott and Bud Hairston). According to Judge Fowler’s statement to the press, law enforcement and the representatives of the NAACP had “arrived at a good understanding,” following their discussion of “individual adult responsibility as it affects youngsters of the community.” Explaining that there are legal and illegal ways of demonstrating, Fowler proclaimed that “demonstrations must be kept within the lawful realm of activity.” And Chief Wilburn indicated that “action against the parents probably would be sought if children are used in future illegal demonstrations.” Charges of “contributing to the delinquency of minors could be filed against the parents.”

With a clear threat of arrest for any further protests, Fowler ordered that the children be released and no charges be filed. The summer of 1964 would unwind, the court hearings for the adult wade-in demonstrators would be repeatedly postponed, and no further demonstrations were held.  The local chapter of the NAACP supported their legal defense and, according to Eugene Collins’ account, their investigations turned up records that proved the Terrace Club had been receiving city water at a discounted rate.  In other words, this supposedly “private,” white-only club, it was claimed, was receiving a form of public subsidy, which implied that the pool was in fact operating as a public accommodation.

While the legal drama unfolded behind the scenes, the Terrace Club continued to enforce its Jim Crow membership rules for the remainder of the summer of 1964.  The silence in the public square unnerved some residents.  As the summer came to end in early September, the Times published a letter that chided city leaders for remaining quiet:  “Perhaps I thought some of our white citizens would speak up on the injustices of the Terrace Club swimming pool. …. I feel we live in a very unhealthy atmosphere when no one wants to become involved. Religious and civic leaders are quiet on anything so controversial.” The writer, Oline Melvin of 1154 Ninth Street, recalled the paper’s original coverage of the wade-in, which captured the support for integration that could be found in the community.  “I must say,” concluded Melvin, “I admired the young man who shook hands with one of the swimmers. Thank you, young man, for showing Portsmouth there is some good when all looked so bad.”

The Terrace Club board of directors would ultimately decide to integrate their facilities, but they did so only upon reopening the following summer in 1965.  They dropped the name “Terrace Club” and relaunched their now-integrated pool as it had been originally named when first built in the 1920s — Dreamland. The impact integration had on the attendance and finances of Dreamland is debatable. After the pool was opened to African-Americans in 1965, but before the opening of McKinley pool in 1966, attendance at Dreamland appears to have declined, as some residents chose not to swim in the newly integrated waters. In June of 1965, Rose Ticatch, a resident of New Boston, lamented the drop in attendance in a letter to the Daily Times wherein she called on area whites to embrace an integrated facility: “Dreamland swimming pool is the heart of the city in summertime. Don’t let it die. History tells us that it took all kinds of people to make this great country of ours what it is today. Let us go to work like our fore fathers did and build, not destroy, this wonderful opportunity that we have and follow the law of the land. It is a great place and big enough for everyone that has an open mind.” Dreamland did not die with integration. With the opening of McKinley Pool in 1966, the two pools allowed for the continuance of a form of de facto segregation in Portsmouth, now no longer enforced by law, but rather supported by continued racism and the legacies of red-lined residential neighborhoods.

Whites, of course, could be found swimming at McKinley and occasionally blacks did swim at Dreamland, but it was clear that each community had its own un-officially designated swimming pool. Dreamland would thrive through the 1960s and into the early 1970s, experiencing what some would consider its heyday and much of the community’s current nostalgia for the pool focuses on these formative years of the Baby-boomer generation.

In Portsmouth, the integration of Dreamland appears to have negatively impacted the private fundraising efforts for the construction of the Eugene McKinley Memorial Pool. In 1966, a year after Dreamland’s desegregation, Orville Ferguson, Sr., the President of the Community Recreation Society, told Portsmouth City Council, “We’d been promised the total amount to complete the swimming pool, but the pledges didn’t come in.”  The Society had already spent $36,000 on its construction, and Ferguson estimated that $25,000 was needed to “complete the facility.”  Ferguson proposed that the City take over the project and complete the construction. City Manager Franklin T. Gerlach supported the acquisition.  When done, the total cost of construction would come to $61,000.

The Portsmouth Daily Times ran an editorial in support of the city takeover:  “The plan to put it in condition for swimming appears worthy of consideration.  ….  All heads were in agreement at the beginning that the pool should be built.  That it was abandoned before completion was unfortunate. But there is no reason why it should remain abandoned. It would behoove all persons concerned to lend every assistance to any workable plan to complete the swimming pool so it can be used.” City Council agreed and approved the acquisition, funding the completion through the sale of bonds.

With public funding and management secured, the Eugene McKinley Memorial Pool would thus open in the summer of 1966.  By the time Dreamland closed in the 1990s, hundreds of backyard pools had been built in and around Portsmouth. This was a national trend. In 1950, only 2,500 American families owned in-ground pools as compared to 4 million by 1999.

Today, McKinley Pool continues to be operated by the City of Portsmouth, as a “place in the sun for everyone” and as a memorial to a fourteen year old boy who lost his life due to Jim Crow. The pool serves today as a tribute to those members of the community who stood up for justice and equality, those residents, white and black, who helped bring segregation to its end in the city.

Sources

Tiana Adeniyi, “Interview with Eugene Collins,” Stories of Life & Labor: Oral Histories from Portsmouth, Ohio, Shawnee State Digital History Lab, Clark Memorial Library. A portion of this interview is available via https://soundcloud.com/tiana-adeniyi/2-collins-eugene-interview.

Blaine Bierly, “Swimming Pool Integration in Portsmouth,” PHS Trojan Alumni Prints (August 2011).

“Cambridge, Maryland,” SNCC Digital Gateway, SNCC Legacy Project and Duke University, https://snccdigital.org/location/cambridge-md/.

Niraj Chokshi, "Racism at American Pools Isn’t New: A Look at a Long History," New York Times (1 August 2018).

Andrew Feight, “Interview with Orville “Butch” Ferguson,” Stories of Life & Labor: Oral Histories from Portsmouth, Ohio (17 July 2017), Shawnee State Digital History Lab, Clark Memorial Library.

"16 Rabbis Arrested as Pool Dive‐In Sets Off St. Augustine Rights Clash," New York Times (19 June 1964).

“Deep Pool Takes Life of Student.  Companions Fail In Effort to Rescue Eugene McKinley,” Portsmouth Daily Times (10 June 1961).

“New Swimming Pool Proposed.. $70,000 Drive Launched,” Portsmouth Daily Times (26 February 1962).

“Four Freed on Bond after Pool Entry. Negroes Charged with Trespassing at Terrace Club,” Portsmouth Daily Times (18 July 1964).

“Trespassing Charged After Pool Wade-in,” Coshocton Times (18 July 1964).

“40 Negroes Stage Sit-In at Local Pool.  Police Remove, Arrest Young Demonstrators,” Portsmouth Daily Times (21 July 1964).

“In Pool Demonstration Officers Warn Against Children in Protests,” Portsmouth Daily Times (22 July 1964).

“Cites ‘Injustice’ of Pool Operation,” Portsmouth Daily Times (2 September 1964).

“Wants Dreamland Pool Kept Operating,” Portsmouth Daily Times (5 June 1965).

“Charges in Pool Incident Killed,” Portsmouth Daily Times (28 July 1965).

“Trustees Approach Council. Municipal Pool Plan Considered,” Portsmouth Daily Times (17 July 1966).

“City Urged to Purchase Pool,” Portsmouth Daily Times (16 June 1966).

“Pool Should be Completed” Portsmouth Daily Times (18 July 1966).

Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).

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