Wednesday, November 06, 2013

The Beautiful Cover-up: Black Fridays and Dreamland

“Needless to say the Wade-Ins are not depicted on the Floodwall, which excludes unflattering events in the city’s history as strictly as the whites once excluded blacks from Dreamland.”

I have already made the point in a previous posting on River Vices (click here) that one of the unspoken purposes of the beautiful Floodwall Murals is to cover up the blots on the image of the city of Portsmouth, especially the blot of racism, including the infamous “Black Friday” of January 21, 1830, which took place in the middle of the winter, when “all the colored people in Portsmouth were forcibly deported from the town,” as Nelson W. Evans wrote in The History of Scioto County (1903). Evans called the expulsion of blacks from Portsmouth a “relic of barbarism” (p. 612), but very few people in Portsmouth now know about Black Friday, including my colleague and friend Professor John Lorentz, the distinguished historian who grew up in Portsmouth, went on to earn a Ph.D. from Princeton, and whose documentary about the Floodwall Murals, Beyond These Walls, has just been released. 

Since Black Friday happened almost two hundred years ago, in the first half of the nineteenth century, it is not surprising that such a blot might have faded from Portsmouth’s collective memory, but it is surprising that another racist blot, which occurred in the second half of the twentieth century, in 1964, within living memory of many seniors in the city, is unknown to most young people. Within another generation or two that blot may be as forgotten as Black Friday. I refer to racial discrimination at the pool Dreamland. Incorporated in 1929 as a private for-profit swim club, Dreamland was a kind of dream land, but only for white kids. It included three acres of surrounding landscaped grounds, but it was surrounded by a sturdy chain link fence to keep out undesirables, which included African-Americans. If Dreamland had allowed blacks in to swim, many whites would have chosen not to be members, which would have been bad for business. Not just swimming in the same pool but drinking from the same water fountain was something racist whites found repugnant. 

But there was something even worse for business than blacks in the pool which was the stock market in the red. After the stock market crash of 1929 and the Depression that followed, Dreamland fell on hard times, and the owner offered to sell the pool to the city for much less than what it had cost to build. But strong opposition arose against the city acquiring the pool. The Portsmouth Daily Times in its typical cover-up fashion did not say much about the opposition, but it probably had something to do with the fear of racist whites that blacks could not legally be excluded from a publicly owned pool. So Dreamland remained in private hands and the discrimination continued until the 1960s.

The discrimination at Dreamland led to the so-called “Wade-Ins” that some of Portsmouth’s black citizens took part in during the summer of 1964, when sit-ins and other peaceful demonstrations were taking place throughout the country. One of the nostalgic Floodwall Murals, in the form of photograph album, includes a snapshot of Dreamland (shown above). That mural may bring back fond memories for older white folks but not for older black folks, who can remember when they were excluded from the pool because of the color of their skin. Needless to say the Wade-Ins are not depicted on the Floodwall, which excludes unflattering events in the city’s history as strictly as the whites once excluded blacks from Dreamland. That the Dreamland discrimination is not even hinted at in Beyond These Walls is ironic because Professor Lorentz and his son Nathan, the creators of the documentary, have a close personal, family connection to Dreamland. 

What precipitated the Wade-Ins, as Blaine S. Bierley pointed out in “Swimming Pool Integration in Portsmouth” in his book Charles Street Tales was the Civil Rights Act of July, 1964, which prohibited racial discrimination in places of public accommodation. (Bierley’s self-published book is in the Local History Room at the Portsmouth Public Library.) A graduate of Portsmouth High School (class of 1955), Bierley grew up in Portsmouth on Charles Street in the 1940s and 1950s, and fondly remembers swimming at the Terrace Club, as Dreamland was then called. He also remembers fondly two Portsmouth high school teachers who worked as lifeguards and directors at the pool. To white boys like Bierley, those lifeguards were like “bronze gods,” and one of them was Charles Lorentz, the father of John Lorentz. While no one who knew Charles Lorentz would ever have accused him of racism, he was nevertheless one of those otherwise decent whites of his generation who tolerated the policy of racial exclusion until demonstrating blacks pressured the Terrace Club with Wade-Ins to end its discrimination, which the club did the following summer of 1965, when it changed its name back to Dreamland. 

Today whites and blacks swim in the McKinley Pool on Findlay Street. The pool is named after a 14-year-old black boy Eugene McKinley who had drowned in June 1961 in the sand and gravel pit west of the Scioto River flood levee at 12th and Chillicothe Street, one of the few places black kids had to swim, since Dreamland was off bounds for them. But even if someone had written such a ballad it is unlikely his untimely death would have been depicted on the Floodwall mural because of his death’s racial overtones. 

Portsmouth’s Rick Ferrell has written a wonderful ballad “Dreamland Pool,” about the unforgettable experience it was for a white boy like himself swimming and socializing at the Dreamland pool. It is available on a YouTube video. (Click here.) If only someone had written a “Ballad for Eugene,” about a black boy drowning in a Portsmouth sand pit. The day of Eugene’s drowning was a Friday, another Black Friday, and Black Fridays are excluded from the Floodwall murals.

Posters in Portsmouth announcing runaway slaves,
 bore this familiar figure according to Evans