Race and the Color Line at the Douglass Park Pool

by Jared Meunier

Visit Indy recently proposed to build beaches along the White River, an idea taken from the Parisian river Seine. The White River has been used in the past for recreational swimming. However, since the White River contains so much e. coli bacteria (often 100 more times than is safe for swimming), this would clearly be a cause of concern for most citizens looking for safe and clean places to swim such as public pools.

A 1937 aerial view of Douglass Park includes the swimming pool (left center, above the two baseball diamonds) as well as the segregated golf links.

A 1937 aerial view of Douglass Park includes the swimming pool (left center, above the two baseball diamonds) as well as the segregated golf links.

For much of the 20th century Indianapolis’ only public African-American swimming pool was Douglass Park. Built in 1921, Douglass Park was a center for many of the state’s segregated swim meets and swimming carnivals. The Douglass Park “swimming carnivals” (apparently first held in 1931) had various swimming and poolside social activities at events that were held during the middle of August. In 1938, for instance, events like diving and freestyle and backstroke swim races would draw a great crowd of people. The Indianapolis Recorder reported that the 1931 swimming carnival was highlighted by two “greasy watermelon contests” that ended the carnival’s main events (carnivals featuring pie-eating, sack races, and greased watermelon contests continued at local pools until at least the late 1970s).

Perhaps Douglass Park's first Swimming Carnival was in August, 1931.

Perhaps Douglass Park’s first Swimming Carnival was in August, 1931.

In 1937 Douglass Park Pool’s lifeguard Otis Watts became the first of the park’s lifeguards to receive the most outstanding lifeguard award in the city of Indianapolis. The lifeguarding selection was from over 50 lifeguards throughout the entire city and the Recorder perceived it as quite an honor. The hope from this award was for the city to patronize the Douglass Park Pool. However, in 1964 the Recorder called the Douglass Park Pool a “community eyesore,” providing graphic images of the deterioration of the pool’s showers and toilets and demanding it be renovated. Three years later the Douglass Park Pool was renovated and was said to be “one of the city’s finest.” Continue reading