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 would eventually become fully integrated. Following the Supreme Court decision, African-American students would be enrolled in Lincoln Elementary and in 1965, the formerly segregated Washington Elementary would be closed and its students integrated into the city's other schools. 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 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.
In Portsmouth, like with the rest of the nation, the year 1964 was a turning point in the history of racial segregation. 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 branch of the NAACP would play a key role in planning the demonstration that would ultimately force the management of the Terrace Club to integrate their facilities. On 17 July 1964, a group of protestors, including the local NAACP President, Charles Stanley Smith, Jr., Curt Gentry, Roy Burns, Jesse Baggette, and two juveniles, whose names were withheld from the press, carried out a "wade-in," hoping over the entrance turnstiles and jumping into the pool. Pool management called in the police and pressed trespassing charges, refusing the NAACP's demands that they immediately integrate their facilities. Ultimately, the Terrace Club would withdraw their demand for prosecution of the protestors and would re-open the pool the following summer, in 1965, as an integrated facility, re-christening it, Dreamland Pool.
The integration of the Terrace Club 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 open on 17 June 1967. The Portsmouth Daily Times reported that Mayor Merle Odle "cut the ribbon on the facility ... with the temperature standing at 90 shadeless degrees." A crowd of 150 people participated in the "poolside ceremonies." Orville Ferguson spoke, explaining that the Community Recreation Society, Inc., "which planned the pool as a memorial to Eugene McKinley, who drowned while swimming in an excavation pit along the Scioto River." He "recognized individuals who played a role in making the facility a reality. Ferguson pointed to Amos White, secretary of the group, Chief of Police Ted Wilburn, Robert Newman, Eunice Sanders, and Roy McGovney."
When City Manager Huxley Kennedy addressed the crowd, he said the pool "is a good example of what can be accomplished if the community and the city are willing to work together." In the end, the pool cost $35,000 to complete. And, City Council would approve an additional $19,000 that was used to "finance the purchase, renovation, and sodding of an adjoining .29 acres to be used for a lounging area."
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.
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 and Labor: Oral Histories from Portsmouth, Ohio (17 July 2017), Center for Public History Archives, Clark Memorial Library, Shawnee State University, Portsmouth, Ohio.
"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).
“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).
"Mayor First 'Swimmer' at New Municipal Pool," Portsmouth Daily Times (19 June 1967): 1 and 12.
Jeff Wiltse, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007).