On August 2, 1951, Kansas City’s municipal government learned that the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) was filing a suit to force the city to end racial segregation at the Swope Park swimming pool. While not a violent event, the court case soon developed into Kansas City's earliest prominent confrontation over public segregation in the postwar years.
When the $525,000 swimming pool at Swope Park opened in 1941, it was the finest in the city. As many as 3,000 swimmers could use it simultaneously. It had modern dressing rooms and refreshment stands. If tired from swimming, visitors could visit other Swope Park attractions, such as the nearby zoo. Unlike many other public facilities in Kansas City, however, the Swope Park pool still officially barred entrance to African Americans. In June 1951, three black Kansas Citians, Esther Williams, Lena Rivers, and Joseph Moore, were denied access to the pool. Countless others had, of course, experienced the same discrimination, but this time, on August 2, 1951, the local branch of the NAACP filed a lawsuit on their behalf.
Kansas City officials defended their position, arguing that other swimming pools were available for blacks to use. This, they believed, satisfied the Supreme Court's rulings dating back to Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that segregation was legal as long as equal facilities were maintained for each race. In a courtroom statement, the city representatives further argued that pools in particular required segregation because of "the natural aversion to physical intimacy inherent in the use of swimming pools by races that do not mingle socially."
Judge Albert Ridge, of the U.S. District Court, ruled against Kansas City, declaring that segregation at Swope Park violated the Fourteenth Amendment because the Swope pool was superior in amenities and location to the pools designated for use by blacks. The city appealed and closed the pool rather than desegregating it during the court proceedings.
The park board also had an additional motivation for closing the pool. In 1949 - just two years earlier - riots broke out in St. Louis when its public pools were desegregated. In those riots, as many as 5,000 whites partook in physical assaults and intimidation of the black youths who came to swim. Between 10 and 20 people were injured and it took 400 police officers to restore order. Kansas City's park board accordingly argued that the Swope Park swimming pool had to remain segregated (or closed) to avoid a similar outcome.
In the city's two appeals, the U.S. Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court upheld the initial ruling. These rulings still maintained that segregation was legal, but only if equal facilities for blacks were constructed at Swope Park. Without any funding for such a large project, the city acquiesced and reopened the Swope Park pool on June 12, 1954. This time, blacks and whites were admitted equally.
The city government anticipated violence on the day of the reopening and accordingly made elaborate preparations. A public education campaign explained the legal necessity of the desegregation. Riot control police were placed on site. When the pool finally opened on June 12, swimmers peacefully streamed into the pool without protest. It was a small, but tangible step toward racially integrating Kansas City.
Kansas City's racial troubles did not end in 1954, however. The pool's attendance levels dropped by more than 60% due to whites who refused to swim with blacks and simply stayed away. The local branch of the NAACP and other civil rights organizations turned their focus on privately-owned businesses that denied service to African Americans. In 1968, following the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Kansas City experienced a race riot that left five dead and hundreds in jail. Even in the early 21st century, Kansas City's housing and schools remained divided by race. In retrospect, the desegregation of the Swope Park swimming pool was one of the more peaceful chapters of this long history of division.
View images of the Swope Park swimming pool that are a part of the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
- Aerial view of Thomas H. Swope Swimming Pool, 1945
- Swope Swimming Pool Entrance, 1945
- Postcard of Swimming Pool at Swope Park; with attached historical article
- Swimming Meet at Swope Park Pool, 1944
- Women's National AAU Swimming Meet at Swope Park Pool, 1944
Check out the following books and articles about segregation in Kansas City, held by the Kansas City Public Library:
- A City Divided: The Racial Landscape of Kansas City, 1900-1960, by Sherry Lamb Schirmer; discusses the Swope Park pool, pp. 214-217.
- Constructing the Segregated City: Housing, Neighborhoods, and Racial Division in Kansas City, 1880-Present, by Kevin Fox Gotham.
- Race, Real Estate, and Uneven Development: The Kansas City Experience, 1900-2000, by Kevin Fox Gotham.
- "Pool Segregation Put KC in Spotlight," in the Kansas City Star, January 15, 2002.
Continue researching the Swope Park swimming pool and racial segregation using archival material held by the Missouri Valley Special Collections:
Watch video of the 2016 public program Desegregating the Swope Park Swimming Pool, hosted by the Kansas City Public Library, KCUR-FM, and the Federal Court Historical Society of Western Missouri.
A. Theodore Brown & Lyle W. Dorsett, K.C.: A History of Kansas City, Missouri (Boulder, CO: Pruett Publishing Company, 1978), 258.
Sherry Lamb Schirmer, A City Divided: The Racial Landscape of Kansas City, 1900-1960 (Columbia, MO: University of Missouri Press, 2002), 214-217.
Sam Mildred Ray, Kansas City Times (May 18, 1979), Missouri Valley Special Collections Website.
Robert B. McKay, "Segregation and Public Recreation," Virginia Law Review 40, no. 6 (Oct. 1954), 717-718.