Job Two - Civil Rights at the Junction Swimming Pool
After quitting my first job at age 11, I quickly found a second one requiring a similar skill set...picking up trash. This time at a public swimming pool just a hundred yards or so south of the frozen custard stand. It didn’t pay as well, but I got to swim for free which was my main angle anyway.
An older husband and wife managed the pool. He was by training a chemist, a skill that was well used managing water quality in a pool with several hundred visitors on warm Western Pennsylvania summer days.
During my second summer there, 1964, the Civil Rights Act was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Johnson. I had never seen any black people at the swimming pool, which was not something I noticed much, until that summer. The bill was signed on July 2, at the peak of the relatively short Pennsylvania swimming season.
Before that my older brother (my associate trash gatherer) and I had noticed a little army green index card box in the corner of the cage where people lined up to buy admission tickets to the pool. Being curious fellows, we tried to find out what was in the little box, especially after our first inquiries were rebuffed with a,”You don’t need to know.”
July 3 we got our question answered. A long line of people queued up to enjoy the pool for the holiday weekend. As we retrieved and emptied trash, preparing to open for the day, we noticed some abnormally tense activity from the boss and his wife running back and forth between the office (in a nearby house trailer) and the admissions cage. As we investigated further, we peered up the line of customers to see that there were five or six black people standing in line. The boss’s wife told my brother and I to go home because there might be some trouble. Equipped with that piece of intel, we of course decided to linger.
It turned out that the mysterious index card box contained the file of “members” who “belonged” to this private pool. Some of the whites in line, and all of the blacks, were turned away because they did not have a membership card in the green box. This was the first time we had ever seen this “membership” procedure invoked, and it was obvious to our junior high brains that this was somehow not right. This pool, which had been public to this day, was now suddenly a private club?
There was never any violence or threat of it. Most of the angst came from the white folks who were turned away in an attempt to legitimize the membership farce. Later that day, about five African-American men returned with a police escort. It might have been the sheriff and deputies, I can't remember. There was a meeting with the officers and the owners behind closed doors. We lurked at some distance to see what the outcome would be.
I'm not sure if they were presented with a court order, or simply had the new law explained to them, but in about 20 minutes they emerged from the trailer and, obviously agitated, instructed the people in the ticket cage to admit all paying customers. My brother and I scurried to secure a strategic reconaissance position outside the fence, near the deep end of the pool where we could observe the next phase of this developing drama. Some white customers left. A few demanded a refund. A few stood outside the chain link fence and offered their mindless insults. Most stayed.
But that July 3, the Junction Swimming Pool reluctantly joined the 20th century. One of the five black men who made local history that day was Elliott Wood. He was several years older than me, and we knew him and his mother from the church we attended. I don't know what has become of Elliott, but I remember his courage on that day. He did not simply slip softly into the crystal waters at the Junction, but instead marched out onto the low diving board. There he endured jeers from the fenceline idiots, before executing a passable dive that pierced the water with intention and finality.
The struggle was far from over, but another barrier had been broken. That Independence Day weekend was a marker of sorts for me. I began to question my own prejudices and the ideas from some family and friends I had formerly accepted. I learned a lot more than the backstroke at that job.
Thanks Elliott, wherever you are.