The Baton Rouge Swim-in

An effort by local African American activists to desegregate Baton Rouge's public pools.


Free Ride Hub (1953) by A. E. WoolleyEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

Baton Rouge has a rich history of African American activism, particularly during the Civil Rights Movement. One of the first organized events, the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott, took place June 19, 1953 through June 24, 1953. The Baton Rouge Bus Boycott influenced bus boycott movements all over the South.

Louisiana's First Sit-In Students (1960)East Baton Rouge Parish Library

The Baton Rouge sit-ins were orchestrated by Southern University students involved with Congress on Racial Equality (CORE) and the student body government. Religious leaders such as Rev. T.J. Jemison also participated in the event. These students staged sit-ins at the Kress lunch counter in downtown Baton Rouge on March 28, 1960 and also at the Greyhound station and Sitman's Lunch Counter on March 29, 1960. The students were all arrested for disturbing the peace and bail was set at $1,500 dollars each.

Civil Rights ProtestEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

On March 31, 1960, approximately 2000 Southern University students left their classrooms and marched to the State Capitol building to protest the arrest of the 23 Southern University students for the lunch counter sit-ins.

Integration Attempt (1962)East Baton Rouge Parish Library

1962 shepherded the beginning of the end of lawful segregation. Integration was attempted at public schools and also at public pools and facilities in Baton Rouge.

People swimming at City Park Public Pool (1950)East Baton Rouge Parish Library

The only public swimming pool in Baton Rouge during the 1940s was the City Park pool, and like most public facilities at that time, White only. African Americans had to find somewhere else to swim.

"Negro Youth Drowned Near LSU" (1937-09-07) by Capital City PressEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

With no other options, African American children often swam in the Mississippi River, creeks, and drainage ditches. One such ditch earned the name "Graveyard Creek" due to it's close proximity to a graveyard. This proved to be dangerous as these waterways attracted snakes and strong currents. Many of the children drowned.

Constitution and By-laws of the United Negro Recreation Association of East Baton Rouge Parish Constitution and By-laws of the United Negro Recreation Association of East Baton Rouge Parish (1945-08-31) by United Negro Recreation Association of East Baton Rouge ParishEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

The United Negro Recreation Association was established by Rev. Willie K. Brooks who advocated for a safe place for African American children to swim and meet. The UNRA was established in 1945 and by 1947, the organization had gained enough funds from donors and the city to build a community pool for African Americans.

Kids Swimming in Brooks Park Pool (1953)East Baton Rouge Parish Library

There was a great deal of excitement in the community surrounding the opening of the pool. So much so that for the first couple of weeks time limits were set for how long individuals could be in the pool.

Kids in Pool (1953)East Baton Rouge Parish Library

Both Whites and African Americans in the community agreed that there was a need for a community pool that provided a safe environment for the African American children in the community.

However, African American activists argued that because African Americans pay taxes they should be permitted use of the facilities created and maintained by those taxes.

Act of Dedication Brooks Park Act of Dedication Brooks Park (1953-12-02) by City Council of Baton RougeEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

In 1953, the UNRA donated the Brooks Park Pool to the Baton Rouge Recreation and Parks Commission. the agreement stipulated that the land must be used as a park to serve the surrounding population else it would be returned the UNRA.

Reverend Arthur Jelks (1963-05) by Capital City PressEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

Rev. Arthur Jelks came to Baton Rouge in the early 1960s to serve as the President of the newly formed Baton Rouge NAACP chapter. Jelks, along with other community leaders, helped to organize demonstrations to integrate public schools in Baton Rouge and the City Park pool.

Bi-Racial Committee (1960) by Capital City PressEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

The Bi-racial Committee was formed in 1963 by Mayor-President Jack Christian. Rev. Arthur Jelks and the NAACP advocated for a committee comprised of working-class activists and White leaders in order to work towards the elimination of segregation. Instead, the committee comprised of the city's "racial diplomats," or those who would not disturb the status quo, and the city's White elite. The NAACP is quoted as calling the African American committee members as "Uncle Toms."

City Council Woman Pearl George, Capital City Press, 1977-01-19, From the collection of: East Baton Rouge Parish Library
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It became clear that ending segregation was not going to be addressed by the Bi-racial Committee. Activists like Pearl George, Rev. Arthur Jelks, and others began a series of sit-ins and and demonstrations that led to the July 23 Swim-in at City Park Pool. The video is an oral history interview with Pearl George. She describes her experience during the attempted Swim-in at City Park Pool.

Incident at City Park Pool Incident at City Park Pool (1963-07-24) by Capital City PressEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

On July 23, 1963, approximately 30-50 African Americans attempted to enter the City Park Pool to execute a Swim-in. The incident escalated after a lifeguard and police officers were injured. Five activists were arrested included Pearl George and her sister Betty Claiborne.

According to newspaper articles and the oral history with Pearl George, the police had been tipped off and were present at the pool before the activists arrived. The FBI was also present and seen taking photographs of the incident.

Picket at City Pool Park (1963-07-25) by Capital City PressEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

The day after the Swim-in, the Bi-racial Committee met but did not address the incident at City Park. This led to a demonstration led by Rev. Arthur Jelks at the City Park pool the next day. Jelks led 8 individuals, all caring signs, some that read, "The Biracial committee is sleeping on our rights." The demonstration was small, non-violent, and lasted only a few minutes.

In 1953, six African American men attempted to play golf at the white-only City Park Golf Course but were denied admittance. Malcom Legard, Alvin Scott, Willie Mayor, Wesley Nichols, Roosevelt Spencer, and Allen White filed a desegregation suit against the Baton Rouge Commission for Recreation and Parks to allow African Americans to utilize tax-funded recreational facilities in East Baton Rouge Parish.

After the City Park pool Swim-in attempt there was renewed interest in the desegregation suit as it directly addressed desegregation of public recreational facilities like the City Park pool. Furthermore, a week before the Swim-in, a federal court ruled in favor of desegregating New Orleans public parks. This ruling set a precedent for the rest of the state.

Johnnie Jones (1972-04-20) by Capital City PressEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

Renowned civil rights lawyer, Johnnie Jones was the lead lawyer on the desegregation suit of 1953. After the Swim-in, Jones requested a hearing on the 1953 desegregation suit from U.S. District Judge E. Gordon West. In February of 1964, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the Louisiana law that required segregation of of public park facilities. Judge West was a segregationist that did not agree with desegregation of public park facilities in the state; however, the Supreme Court ruling meant that he would have no other choice but to rule in favor of desegregation.

Knowing that West would rule in favor of desegregation, the Recreation and Parks Commission closed all public pools indefinitely two days before the ruling came down in May of 1964.

Old City Market BuildingEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

The Recreation and Park Commission denied the closures were the result of the desegregation ruling. Rather, they argued the cost of keeping the pools open was too expensive.

Two years later the Recreation and Park Commission reopened five of the public pools--Anna T. Jordan, Gus Young, Brooks, Howell, and Webb. White segregationist groups like the Citizen's Council and the Southern Gentlemen and Citizens Council opposed the integration of previously White only pools. Opposition was so great in fact, both Howell and Webb Park pools (previously White only) were bombed a few weeks before opening. The Commission was able to repair the damage and reopen the pools.

City Park Pool (1980-07-10) by Capital City PressEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

The City Park pool never opened its gates again. The City left the pool vacant, still full of water. Many saw the pool as an eye sore as the stagnant water grew murky, attracted snakes, and caused a mosquito problem in the park.

Filling in the City Park Pool (1990-02-01) by Capital City PressEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

It wasn't until 1990 that the pool was filled in with dirt and the old club house was renovated by its newest tenet, the Baton Rouge Gallery.

Governor Blanco Pardons Claiborne (2005-01-05) by Capital City PressEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

In 2005, Governor Kathleen Blanco issued pardons to Rev. Betty Claiborne and her late sister, Pearl George who had been arrested for attempting the Swim-in at City Park pool 1963.

Pearl George, who passed in 1997 went on to become a Metro Council member in the 1970s and 1980s. Rev. Betty Claiborne continues to advocate for African American civil rights and serves as Pastor at the Heard Chapel AME Church in Baton Rouge.

Brooks Swimming Pool Retrospective Article (2008-02-17) by Capital City PressEast Baton Rouge Parish Library

The smaller Brooks Park pool is one of the few public pools open today in Baton Rouge.

In 2008, City Park was formally re-dedicated as City-Brooks Community Park in honor of the history between the two parks.

Credits: Story

Exhibit created by the Special Collections Department of East Baton Rouge Parish Library in honor of Black History Month 2019.

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