In the summer of 1961, two young African-American men decided to go swimming at one of Nashville’s municipal pools — one that was reserved by Jim Crow for whites only. Days later, the city closed all its public pools — and left them shut for three years. Today, come with us to meet the men who first tried to integrate Nashville’s public pools — and explore the legacy of Jim Crow that still lingers over every public pool in the South 50 years later. 

Story by Erin E. Tocknell | Photographs by David Andrews


 
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“Oh ... Lord,” Kwame Lillard says when he recalls how hot that day was back in 1961.

Nashville, Tennessee, sits in the bottom of a geological basin encircled by hills, so while it might go without saying that any Southern day in July is “hot,” Nashville can be a stew of misery. Heat rises in waves from the concrete, but no breeze stirs the bowl. The air feels wet and immobile; the city languishes to a crawl beneath it.

July 18, 1961, was exactly that kind of standstill day in the “Athens of the South.” Lillard and his friend, Matthew Walker, didn’t know what to do with themselves. Since graduating that May from the state-funded, historically black Tennessee State University, Kwame Lillard, known then as “Leo,” had lived and worked in the nondescript wood-frame house on Jefferson Street that served as headquarters for the Nashville Student Movement and a logistical center for the Civil Rights Movement’s Freedom Rides. It was Lillard’s job to train and prepare would-be Freedom Riders before they continued on to the perils of Jackson, Mississippi.  

“It was like getting a passport to go to prison, that’s what it was, and we (Lillard and activist Diane Nash) were the processing department,” he remembers.

Walker, just out of prison after his attempt to ride a Trailways bus to Jackson, was helping out for a few days. But there was nothing to do that Tuesday. No young people from northern states were in the midst of the standard three-day orientation on racism and behavior in the South. No one needed to have their belongings and medications shipped back home so they wouldn’t be confiscated in the state penitentiary at Parchman Farm, where hundreds of Freedom Riders were jailed. The phone was silent.  

The young men sat in the front room while rhythm and blues crackled from WSOK (now WVOL) on the radio and a whirring fan made a show of pushing hot air around.    

“I know,” Lillard said. “Matthew, let’s go swimming.”

Understanding exactly what his friend was implying they do with this rare day off, Walker responded, “Leo, you’re a damn fool.”

 
 
 

Of the 22 municipal swimming pools Nashville operated at the time, seven were designated for blacks. One of those was in Hadley Park, barely a mile from the Freedom Rides office. Built in 1947, Hadley’s pool had three diving boards, ample space for free swimming and laps, a pool deck for lounging, a veranda for shade, and a grill that served burgers and hot dogs. It was the place to be on summer days. Lillard and Walker gathered their towels, their swimming trunks, and some change for the admission fee.

As they walked to the corner of Jefferson and 21st Avenue, they passed famed Civil Rights attorney Alexander Looby’s house, which had been bombed in the midst of sit-ins the previous spring. Hadley Park was west of Jefferson Street, but Lillard and Walker turned south instead. If they were going to swim that day, they were going to do it at Centennial Park — Nashville’s premiere public space —  a park with a full-scale replica of the Parthenon right in the middle.

Hadley was lovely, too. Like Centennial, it had a bandshell, playing fields, shade trees, and ample space for picnics. But, as Lillard explained, the intent of the Civil Rights Movement was not to abandon what was good in black neighborhoods.

“The goal was to have dignity.”


 
 

We’re going to pause these activists in their stride, because if you have even a casual understanding of the South and its history, you know they are not heading toward a refreshing swim or any extrinsic confirmation of their humanity.

Leave Lillard and Walker in the shade between the gothic brick of Fisk University and Meharry Medical College and fast forward through years and space. I was born less than a mile from Centennial Park about 20 years later, on a day my mother swears the mercury topped out at 110 degrees.  Baptist Hospital, where it all began for me, is directly across the street from a Krystal that was also the focus of some protests in ’61.

I grew up going to Centennial. There are family photographs of me taking early steps on the playground. My high school classmates and I spent our Senior Skip Day playing volleyball on the lawn in front of the Parthenon. As a child, I fed ducks and rode paddleboats in the pond. As teenagers, my friends and I would go there to throw Aerobies, join small-side soccer games and enjoy the eccentric musical talents of various buskers who’d commandeer the bandshell. My father often made a point of checking out a Dixie Locomotive displayed on the west side of the park, my mother enjoyed the annual crafts fair, and my sister took ballet in the community center. Centennial was a happening spot for the Tocknells.

 
 

There are two things worth noting here. First, with the exception of the public magnet schools I attended from seventh grade on, Centennial was the only naturally integrated institution I encountered while I lived in Nashville. Whites outnumbered blacks, with many black families opting for Hadley, but black and white families stood together to toss Colonial Bread to squawking mallards. Second, as much as my family and friends gravitated to Centennial, we only did so in the mornings and evenings during the summer. No one really hangs out there in the middle of the day in July; it’s too hot, and there is no swimming pool — not anymore. Had its original resort-style pool still been at Centennial during the ’80s and ’90s, I have no doubt my sister and I would have put in some serious hours there. But I spent the summer days of my childhood swimming at one of the many private clubs on Nashville’s southern perimeter.

Centennial Park has not had a place for public swimming since 1961, because of Nashville’s reaction to Lillard and Walker’s quest for a cool dip and a little dignity.


 
 

Back on that day in 1961, the two young men — both veterans of sit-ins, one with a degree in engineering and the other wrapping up his studies in pre-med — tucked their towels under their arms and walked about two miles through the stultifying afternoon air.

Most of the trip would have been familiar to them. Walker had a year left at Fisk and would be attending Meharry, following in the footsteps of his surgeon father. Immediately adjacent to Fisk was Pearl High School, Lillard’s alma mater, considered the best black high school in the South during Jim Crow. Father Ryan High, the all-boys’ Catholic school where Walker had been a member of only the second integrated class, was not far from Centennial Park. After another mile, they followed Charlotte Pike, which (especially then and, to a great extent, now) serves as a dividing line between white and black Nashville. The men approached the pool from the Charlotte side, passing rose gardens and walking beneath large shade trees. As they walked up the pathway to the Doric-style pool house, the gate attendant assumed they were gardeners.

“The cashier saw us, and she thought we were coming in to do some work on the grass,” Lillard remembered while we sat alongside that very path on a recent summer evening. As he told me his story, couples strode past in summer finery, heading to a wedding where the pool used to be — in what is now a garden and courtyard behind the building. Checking their watches and looking for the correct door, they barely noticed the grey-bearded man in the batik tunic telling his story. Lillard gestured toward the entrance and continued, “We said, ‘No. We have our swimming trunks, and we have our towels, and we have our admission to swim.’  And she turned red as a beet and she said, ‘You know you can’t swim in here. There are no niggers in here.’

“We said, ‘The water isn’t going to change,’ and she said, ‘There are no niggers in here.’”

The cashier — petite, blonde, and about 30, as Lillard remembers — called for her manager, who eventually telephoned City Hall. Lillard and Walker waited outside the pool while the staff tried to figure out what to do. Lillard gestured again toward the spot where the cashier had stood. The building is an art gallery today, but 55 years ago, they no doubt would have heard water splashing and smelled the pungent trough where swimmers walked through highly chlorinated water before entering the pool. The cashier kept repeating her line.

 
 

“She said, ‘You know this place isn’t for niggers’,” Lillard remembers. “It was so hot that day, and we went on a lark. We had no intentions ahead of time; we hadn’t called anyone. We just showed up. The cashier was scared to death. Terrified. Poor lady. I felt so sorry for her. You really have to feel sorry for them. They were terrified. Prisoners of their fear. How are you going to hate a prisoner?”

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After about half an hour, Walker and Lillard left. They decided to make a day of their cause by walking back to Jefferson Street, getting a car, and driving to Cascade Plunge, a private, whites-only pool adjacent to the newly integrated Fair Park. But when they got to Cascade, it was closed. They returned to the Freedom Rides office and, the next day, continued on with the work they’d been doing all summer. There were new Freedom Riders to pick up from the bus station and picket lines protesting hiring practices at the H.G. Hills’ Grocery Stores. There was a newsletter to put out — “The Voice of the Movement” — reminding activists not to patronize H.G. Hills, Krystal or the downtown skating rink, all of which were targets of protests that year.

“The summer of 1961 was just an amazing summer,” Lillard remembers. He and Walker didn’t think much more about the pools until a reporter from The Tennessean called them.


 
 

“Minnie” was 11 that summer.

“Back in those days, you opened the door and the kids came home at lunch and you opened it again and they came back at dinner,” she said on a Saturday afternoon, drinking Bud Light straight from the bottle in a blue-tinted, smoke-heavy bar on the west side of town. Minnie is a fictional name for a real person who doesn’t want to be identified, because of her father’s affiliation with the Ku Klux Klan. The name of the bar will remain a secret, too, at her request. She likes it because neither the regulars nor the barkeeps “care if you’re queer, black, white or Yankee.”    

As she told the story of her youth, Minnie peppered her speech with “honey,” “baby,” “sugar lump,” and a laugh that made me think of ball bearings: smooth and rolling with just a little shimmy at the end. She had grown up across the railroad tracks from the more respectable Sylvan Park neighborhood, not far from Charlotte Pike and the black-white dividing line it represented. Those boundaries were important in understanding why segregation persisted for so long.

“We were white trash,” Minnie explained. “We gave the people of Sylvan Park someone to look down on. All we had to look down on were blacks.”

That said, Minnie and her siblings were not much interested in what her father, mother and grandmother said or did when it came to race. Her father, she explained, was an unrepentant bigot who once took her to a Klan meeting out in West Tennessee. (“I was in first grade, probably. I was so dumb. I thought they were wearing choir robes.”) Minnie describes the man who raised her as “just plain evil. … If he had been in a church choir, the roof would have fallen on him.” The conventional narrative is that children learn hate from their parents; however, Minnie claims that her father’s being hateful, even violent, toward just about everyone, including their mother, made her and her siblings less inclined to share his opinions. Her brother, especially, paid little regard to the societal taboo of crossing Charlotte Pike.

“For the longest time, I was the only one in the family that knew where my brother was. He’d go across Charlotte, and he had a whole little group of kids. He liked them better than the wild white kids, I guess. … He had this best friend, and the first time he brought this friend over to have lunch with us during the summer, my grandmother, who was like 90-something at the time and old, old South, was horrified. I mean, just the thought of a black anybody sitting at her kitchen table! So, we had a picnic in the backyard. Thank god the kid couldn’t tell one way or another, but my brother knew. We knew.”

Minnie and the other kids from her neighborhood often did what kids with not much money did on hot days: They walked up the railroad tracks to Centennial, paid their dimes, and hung out at the pool all day. In July 1961, Minnie had just started swimming lessons, but her preferred activity was unrolling a towel on the concrete deck and lying out in the sun.

She remembers what happened two days after Lillard and Walker wanted to swim with dignity.

“I had a new bathing suit. That’s why I took swimming lessons, so I could wear my new swimming suit that I ended up never getting to wear for two or three years. It was blue and had a little ruffle-y skirt on it.”

 
 

In the middle of the afternoon, which was muggy and held the tang of a promised thunderstorm, the PA system crackled to life, “We are closing the pool. Everyone out of the water. Please go to the exits.”  As they left, Minnie, her sisters and her neighborhood friends each had a dime pressed into their palm — the refund for their admission fee. Possessing this unexpected bit of cash, Minnie wanted to walk to the Dairy Dip on 42nd Street and get an ice cream cone.

The kids knew what had happened and why before they even made it out of the pool house. “When we got to the exit, my sister said, ‘It’s because of integration,’ and we said, ‘What does that even mean?’”

It had taken the Parks Board — a public/private governing entity — roughly 48 hours to decide how to handle the juxtaposition of public swimming and the Civil Rights Movement: Every public pool in Nashville was closed that afternoon, all of them drained and winterized by the end of the week. The citywide swim meet scheduled for that Friday was cancelled, 150 trophies for young competitors put in storage. All public swimming pools remained closed until 1963.

Centennial’s never reopened.


 
 

While Minnie walked home and Lillard drove Freedom Riders to the office in his older sister’s Studebaker, Parks Board Chair Edwin Crutcher, released the following statement to the press: “The Nashville Board of Park Commissioners at a regular meeting today voted to close effective today all swimming pools in the city park system. This action was taken because of financial reasons. The board regrets that it was necessary to take this action.”

In The Tennessean’s article on the closings, the only person buying Crutcher’s line was Crutcher himself. Lillard is quoted in the article: “The financial reasons cited by the board are a gimmick without validity. This is inconsiderate to employees and thousands of children.”

“We got criticism from both black and white since no one could swim,” Lillard remembers. “But we never imagined the Parks Board would do such a thing. We thought surely, surely they wouldn’t drain all the pools for two little black boys.”

Nashville Finance Director Joe Torrence told The Tennessean the board had not informed him of any financial difficulties, and Mayor Ben West, who deftly negotiated a line between shrewd and noble when it came to Civil Rights, claimed he had been given “no notice of the closure.” While it is true that city had cut its pledged funds for the parks from $858,000 to $759,000 that fiscal year, the City Council had also promised to provide additional funds if they were needed. According to The Tennessean, it cost about $50,000 a year to operate the pools.

In the spring of 1962, Mayor West called for the Parks Board to reopen Nashville’s pools. When his request was denied, he suggested that the board be restructured and made accountable to the City Council and citizens of Nashville, but the board was under no legal obligation to comply. Since 1901, the Parks Board had been self-perpetuating, not elected. Though Nashville had a robust black middle class and black councilmen, firemen, policemen and newspaper reporters, every member of the Parks Board was white and male. Even as the pools remained closed for another summer due to the claimed financial difficulties, the board made plans to build a petting zoo and kiddie amusement park in Centennial. Ultimately, “The Land of Enchantment” was halted, not because of money, but because Fair Park’s owner called a friend on the board to complain about potential competition. All the while, the pools remained empty and neglected.

West said he had “bumps on his head” from banging it against the immovable wall of the Parks Board’s decree.


 
 

What’s remarkable about Nashville’s story is that it is not remarkable at all. If you live in a Southern city that has a swimming pool, something like this almost certainly happened there. If it doesn’t have a public pool, it likely did at some point. “Most Southern cities that I read about, the pattern was very much that cities would close down their pools rather than allow integrated use,” says Jeff Wiltse, author of “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.” Wiltse explains that as the Civil Rights Movement gathered momentum and the Civil Rights Act was passed, larger cities, like Nashville and Birmingham, reopened some of their pools or built pools where blacks tended to live and relied instead on de facto segregation. However, countless smaller towns, unable to afford more than one pool, paved them over or “repurposed” them into flower beds rather than follow the law.

“It really all came down to this Southern mindset of not wanting black men in the same space as white women,” says Linda Wynn, assistant director for state programs at the Tennessee Historical Commission. The perception that white women needed protection from black men goes all the way back to the origins of the Ku Klux Klan and “Birth of a Nation,” but as spaces where men and women gathered with much of their bodies exposed, public pools were especially vulnerable to the fear-mongering that surrounded blacks’ hopes for dignity and equality. Across the country, desegregated swimming pools were a line few leaders were willing to cross or even touch.

 
 

That’s a lost opportunity. Since the 1920s and ’30s, when city governments across the country began to build large leisure pools for citizens to enjoy, swimming has been heralded as a community-building activity. In his book, Wiltse cites the words an enthusiastic Depression-era official in Pittsburgh shared with Beach and Pool Magazine (yes, that was a real publication):  “Let’s build bigger, better, and finer pools, that’s real democracy. Take away the sham and hypocrisy of clothes, don a swimsuit, and we’re all the same.”

Few, if any, municipalities in the United States could overcome prejudice and violence to bring races together in the same way the pools had united white men, women and children of various social classes earlier in the 20th century. In Nashville, as in many Southern cities, the shuttering of pools in 1961 and 1962 coincided with the growth of suburbs and small “club pools,” like the one my family joined in the ’80s, which were nearly all funded by membership fees. By 1963, thousands of whites who conceivably might have returned to the Centennial, Shelby and Howard Park resort-style pools were instead cooling off in these neighborhood clubs or at larger commercial pools like Swim and Sun, Pleasant Green, Cascade Plunge, Willow Plunge and Sun Valley.


 
 

As the days grew longer and another summer’s worth of heat settled into the basin in 1962, Nashville’s children worked within the boundaries that had been established for them. White kids on the city’s perimeter had their choice of private pools. The ones who couldn’t afford membership or admission took to various springs or quarries or, as one man mused on the “I Remember Nashville When …” Facebook page, “relied on the Slip’N Slide and rain showers.”

Lewis Flanagan, who responded to my request for information on that “I Remember Nashville” page, was 8 years old when he walked up to his neighborhood pool for his regular morning swim lesson in 1961 and found the gates padlocked. He calls the following summer of 1962 “my first experience with busing.” He and his friends met at the closed pool every morning, and a non-profit organization took them to the pool at an African-American institution called Riverside Hospital. The kidney-shaped pool was not ideal for the lessons and competitions he was becoming interested in, but it did allow them to “get in the water and have a good time.” Flanagan rode the bus to that pool every day that summer. He tried to keep himself sharp for the day when he trusted he would return to a “real” pool and swim in races.

“That was the way of life. What you had could be taken away at any time,” Flanagan says. “We knew that the reason we were at Riverside in the first place was because the white people just didn’t want us in their pools. We were very aware of that and very critical, even as an 8- or 9-year-old. That had more to do with their hatred than it had to do with us, but we did internalize it.”

Across town, Minnie and her siblings built a fort by the railroad tracks in the woods and called it their “cool spot.” She also took up roller skating. Minnie’s father and some of his friends had hatched a plan for a whites-only pool that would be fed by a pond up on a ridge west of town. Collins Pool was open by 1962, but Minnie refused to go. When she had the money, she skated at the Hippodrome, which was across West End Avenue from Centennial Park.

“Those tricks they do on ice, I could do on roller skates,” she remembers. “The only talent I ever had was roller skating.”

The following summer, some pools were reopened by a restructured Parks Board. But Nashville had consolidated its city-county government, and the new mayor, Beverly Briley, recommended the pools “not be opened for recreational purposes.” Instead, he suggested the board open the smaller pools for “teaching children to swim because of the many deaths from drowning resulting from inability to swim.” The board took Briley’s advice, also designating specific days of the week for either boys or girls to swim and limiting classes to children under the age of 14.

 
 

The gender separation and utilitarian purpose, reminiscent of pool-use policies from the Victorian era, slowly fell by the wayside. Flanagan has no memory of boys and girls swimming separately on his side of town. With the restructured city government and the 1964 Civil Rights Act, Nashville’s remaining public pools were gradually, quietly opened to everyone, regardless of race or gender.

“That was exciting, seeing water in this pool where there hadn’t been. It was an event, and we got back into the routine of the lessons and the open free play,” Flanagan remembers. He joined the Hadley Park Swim Team and worked as a lifeguard there through high school. “I would have swam in the bathtub if I could. I loved swimming because it’s the next best thing to flying.”  

Though he tended to stick to the Hadley Park Pool, Flanagan says he supported the activists’ efforts to desegregate Nashville’s pools.

“I had enough of a sense of justice to realize it was the right thing to do,” he says. “My parents taught me that anybody can learn anything. They taught me that there is nothing you cannot do. Segregation flies in the face of that.”

Like so many white Southerners of a certain age, Minnie would prefer not to discuss segregation or the desegregation effort. She knows her relatives were the ones standing in the way of people like Lewis’s family.  

“People are ashamed for their parents and grandparents. You know, the fact that anybody would bleach a pool versus letting some kid go swimming, that’s just ... I’m ashamed of your stupidity,” she says, dropping her chin and addressing a point behind the bar as though a segregationist had materialized above the schnapps bottles. “Your bigotry … I don’t like to be reminded of how people were treated. There’s nothing you can do to change it. I’ll be honest with you, baby, I don’t know that we’re going to learn anything from hearing this story.”  

Lillard and Flanagan would disagree. They see the work of the Movement as unfinished, and stories from the past illuminate issues we face today. Lewis lives in Dallas, having retired from his career as a chemical engineer. When a police officer pinned a young girl to the ground outside a subdivision swimming pool in McKinney, Texas, last summer, Lewis was angry, but not surprised.

“I wish it was new, but there are all kinds of McKinney-like stories all around and I don’t see it being over for a while,” Flanagan says.

“I compare it to the Allied Invasion of France,” Lillard says of the entire Civil Rights Movement. “The object of the Invasion of Normandy was not to get to the damn beaches of Normandy.”


 
 

The saga of Nashville’s pools brings the early story of a generation’s rebellion into focus, from Lillard and Walker’s march through town, to Flanagan doggedly practicing the freestyle in the hospital pool, to Minnie’s refusal to swim at Collins. There was both resistance and business left unfinished once the Civil Rights Act brought it all to an uneasy truce.

Early this summer, I drove 120 miles from my home in Chattanooga to Nashville at dawn, aiming to meet the early risers at Hadley Park and hopscotch my way through Nashville’s swimming-pool landscape. It was a humid but otherwise temperate Friday in June, one of those days when the morning air smells like magnolia. Hadley’s outdoor pool survived the closures of the early ’60s, but it was filled in about 10 years ago as part of an effort to make Hadley a “Regional Center,” which is a sort of souped-up community center. Hadley has an indoor pool now, and I walked to it after crossing through a bright lobby featuring an exhibit on the park’s history and a portrait of Frederick Douglass. An exercise class was in progress; about a half dozen women, all of them black, swam or waded as they curled floating foam weights or used kickboards for balance, their hair tucked under swim caps. Windows surrounding the pool were covered in Red Cross posters and paper fish, each bearing the name of a child who had enrolled in swim lessons for the summer.

As the sun climbed, I drove through downtown Nashville and over to Rose Park, which was built on the border of the Edgehill Housing Projects about the time the pools reopened in the 1960s. I have memories of swimming at Rose with my daycare in the early ’80s. While the pool looks much the same as it did then, the view from the bleachers along the soccer field reveals Nashville’s ubiquitous construction cranes advancing from every horizon. When we arrived, the patio in front of the yellow-brick pool house was filled with teenagers from a summer science program run by Fisk and kids who walked over every day from the projects, every face black or brown. The kids from the summer program tossed footballs and chatted in groups while they waited for a school bus to take them back to the college classrooms. Swimming, the head teacher told me, was a welcome weekly break from lab work and textbooks. The Edgehill kids sat alongside the parking lot with their goggles still on their faces, waiting for the pool to reopen after lunch so they could play “Sharks in the Water.” In the pool, a trio of lifeguards celebrated their free time by swimming and tussling, using their red rescue floats as both aid and splash-generating weapons.

 
 

The last stop on my Nashville swimming tour was a place I am as familiar with as any spot in my hometown — Seven Hills Swim and Tennis Club. Eight miles from Hadley, five miles and a world from Rose Park, Seven Hills was the pool my family belonged to. I parked by a stone wall, climbed a magnolia-lined stairway and opened the door to the clubhouse. Every sensation of summers long past returned. The smell of short-order burgers and the sound of ping-pong drifted down the steps. Upstairs, circular glass-topped tables were surrounded by kids who have the day to do what they please. We walked along the edge of the pool and climbed a steep hillside behind it, and I saw that Seven Hills was still an L-shaped glimmer of blue tucked between Shy’s Hill and Laurel Ridge.

Kids still called out dives to each other in mid-air (“Can-opener!” “Pencil!”) and still sulked along the pool’s edge during 10-minute mandatory rest periods every hour. Back down by the water, moms (and they were still all moms) sat under umbrellas next to tote bags stuffed with towels, snacks and sprayable sunscreen. The mothers and I chatted about our respective Middle Tennessee childhoods; they listed the private clubs in town where they’d swam as girls: Wildwood, Temple Hills, West Meade, Hillwood, Maryland Farms — all places I knew, though no place was as evocative as that pool at the bottom of the ridge. With my toes on the edge, I watched the shifting patterns the sunlight made on the bottom and kept thinking of E.B. White’s line from “Once More, to the Lake”:

“There had been no years.”

And there hadn’t.

When the public pools were closed in 1961, Rose Park was a quarry where black children went to cool off, and Seven Hills had just opened in a brand-new suburb. Today, 55 years later, these swimming spots were still essentially segregated.

It might be overly idealistic to think public resort-style pools like Centennial, Hadley and Shelby would have brought blacks and whites together across the South had mayors and city councils not closed them at such a pivotal moment in our collective history. Still, as I drove from the Cumberland River, past TSU, to Hadley Park, Rose Park and finally Seven Hills last month, I couldn’t help but think these groups would enjoy each other: the elderly women greeting me as they waded through the indoor pool with their kickboards and the mothers sipping punch out of YETI tumblers, the boys waiting for their pool to reopen after lunch and the ones eating sandwiches packed from home while playing cards near the diving well — but they’ll likely never know each other beyond abstractions.

Minnie remembers that in 1961, “we just didn’t know that many black kids,” and a man I spoke with from Hadley told me that the only time he saw white people back then was when they came to the door to sell insurance. Both said this lack of knowledge bred fear.

Fifty-five years ago, Lillard told a hateful, fearful gate attendant that his presence would not change the water. And even today, author Jeff Wiltse maintains that public pools “are a pretty cool blank slate” for kids to play and interact with each other.

It’s enough to make you wonder if Southerners missed a chance to write a different story of racial reconciliation across those clear blue waters.

~~~

Erin E. Tocknell is the author of "Confederate Streets," an account of growing up in Nashville during the era of busing. Her essays have appeared in "Sojourners" and "The Southern Review." She lives in Chattanooga and teaches English at The McCallie School.