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The Legacy of the St. Louis Municipal Pool Race Riots

In 1949, city officials desegregated a popular public swimming pool. The reactions of white citizens led to one of the largest race riots in the city’s history. The aftermath energized desegregation.

A man attacked by rioters in Fairground Park. Two detectives approach him, while rioters and onlookers surround him. It took over 12 hours for police to quell the violence at the park. (St. Louis Post-Dispatch Archives)
It's August and the summer's heat has everyone thinking of ways to keep cool, and for millions, that means taking a swim. While sandy beaches get the most attention, not everyone lives within driving distance of the ocean.

It explains why Americans love swimming pools. At last count there were 10.4 million residential swimming pools in the country and another 309,000 public pools, according to the Association of Pool and Spa Professionals. Backyard pools are a relatively new phenomenon, but city governments first established municipal pools back in the 19th century. Originally, these pools served as bathing houses, particularly for the working class. But by the early 20th century, municipal pools had become popular leisure spaces for citizens of all classes.

Many of these pools were ornate, grandiose facilities. In 1913, the city of St. Louis opened one such municipal pool. The Fairground Park pool, located within the city’s Fairground Park, boasted a sandy beach, diving board and limestone-and-brick bathhouses. With a diameter of 440 feet, the pool had the capacity to host 10,000 to 12,000 swimmers each day. At the time it was said to be the largest public swimming pool in the country, if not the world.

A 1913 article in the Rotary International’s magazine describes the Fairground Park pool as “the largest open-air natatorium in America.”
In the early decades of the 20th century, all swimmers at the Fairground Park pool were white. Black citizens fought to gain admittance to the Fairground Pool and other segregated pools throughout St. Louis but were consistently denied access.

On June 21, 1949, newly elected city officials desegregated all city pools and playgrounds. This desegregation came after years of protests by Black citizens, as well as a federal court ruling that stated excluding Black patrons from public golf courses violated the 14th amendment.

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Fairground Park pool in 1933. When it first opened in 1913, the Fairground Park pool was one of the largest public pools in the Midwest. (Image: University of St. Louis-Missouri)
When John O’Toole, director of the Department of Public Welfare, announced that pools and playgrounds would no longer be segregated, he failed to properly alert other public officials or coordinate with municipal offices to prepare for the shift in policy. In fact, Mayor Joseph Darst only learned about the announcement when questioned by reporters. Darst feared a backlash by white citizens and sought to limit press coverage of the announcement. However, local news outlets broadcast the desegregation story in front page headlines on the opening day of the pool season.

That day, approximately 30 Black children joined the hundreds of white youths swimming at Fairground Pool. A group of white citizens (primarily adolescents, but also some adults) surrounded the pool, shouting names and threats at the Black children. Police ultimately arrived to escort the Black children safely out of the pool area, but later that evening, violence escalated. Thousands more white locals arrived, many holding bats, clubs and bricks. They chased down Black people they found throughout the Fairground Park area.

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Black and white swimmers at the Fairground Park pool on the day the pool was first desegregated in 1949. (St. Louis Mercantile Library)
Ultimately, it took 12 hours and between 150 to 400 police officers (the number varies according to reports) to quell the violence. At least a dozen people were hospitalized with injuries (10 of those people were African American) and eight people (three white and five Black people) were arrested for inciting violence.

In an effort to prevent further violence and avoid the challenge of integration, Mayor Darst immediately reinstituted segregationist policies at all municipal pools, including the Fairground Pool.

Legacy from the Riots

In 1950, members of the local NAACP chapter filed a lawsuit against the city of St. Louis in an effort to desegregate the city’s municipal pools once and for all. They argued against the injustice of Black citizens paying taxes on recreation areas they could not use, and also criticized the concept of “separate but equal” facilities for Blacks and whites. The NAACP won the lawsuit, and the city integrated all its pools and parks in 1950. This lawsuit would serve in part as the basis for the Supreme Court ruling to desegregate schools in the 1954 Brown v. Board of Education decision.

The Fairground Park pool declined in popularity in the coming years. Attendance decreased by 80 percent within a year after integration, and the pool ultimately closed in 1954. According to historian Jeff Wiltse in his book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, many large municipal pools closed around this time as people began to turn to private swimming pools. This shift toward residential pools happened for a number of reasons, including white citizens’ reluctance to use desegregated public swimming spaces.

The Fairground Park pool riot forced citizens and government leaders to acknowledge the potent racial tensions within the city of St. Louis. Due in large part to the protests and legal action of Black leaders in the city, St. Louis was able to see permanent policy change, and successfully advocate for equal rights for Black citizens. Despite its role in striking down the concept of “separate but equal,” St. Louis has struggled with equality since the Fairground Pool riots and today is ranked as one of the most segregated cities in the country.
Emma Newcombe has a Ph.D. in American and New England Studies from Boston University.
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