In June of 1949, a young reporter was spotted ranting and raving in The Washington Post newsroom. A story he’d co-written had not gotten the play he felt it deserved. Surely the article — about a race riot earlier that day at a public swimming pool in Anacostia, where hundreds of whites and blacks fought each other as mounted Park Police officers tried to quell the violence — was worthy of placement on the front page.
But when Metro reporter Ben Bradlee grabbed an early edition, fresh from the press, the story he’d filed with his colleague Jack London (not that Jack London) wasn’t on A1.
“Not a goddamn word, and we started seething out loud,” Bradlee wrote in his autobiography, “A Good Life.”
The story was buried in the B section, stripped of the word “riot” in favor of such tamer terms as “scuffle” and “incident.”
The incident was an indicator of the sensitivity over integrating public recreational amenities that summer. The pool in Anacostia Park was considered a “white” swimming pool, while the “black” pools were Banneker, at Georgia Avenue and Howard Place NW, and Francis, at 25th and N streets NW. (Interestingly, the Francis pool was located adjacent to a stretch of Rock Creek that had been proposed as a black bathing beach back when the Tidal Basin had a beach for white bathers.)
As Martha H. Verbrugge and Drew Yingling recounted in “The Politics of Play,” their article in the fall 2015 issue of Washington History, the issue of integrating the District’s pools was complicated by the city’s own complex oversight arrangements.
The city’s Recreation Department operated two outdoor pools, for whites only: Georgetown and Rosedale. The Department of the Interior oversaw six pools, four of which were used by whites: Anacostia, East Potomac, Takoma and McKinley.
Federal facilities were supposed to be free from discrimination, but this did not always happen. The Anacostia pool was in a then-white neighborhood, Fairlawn, and blacks did not swim there. The city’s Recreation Department ran whites-only morning open swims and swim lessons at all the federal pools. In fact, it was the seven-member Recreation Board — only one of whom was African American — that had adopted a go-slow approach to integration, infuriating the Interior Department.
While similar arguments were going on over the District’s public tennis courts and golf courses, swimming pools seemed to inspire special rancor. In their journal article, Verbrugge and Yingling quote the testimony of white opponents to integrated D.C. pools. One man said African Americans were more likely than whites to spread tuberculosis and venereal disease. A woman said interracial mingling at a pool could stoke sexual passions, leading to “the tragedy of mongrel children.”
Such were some of the sentiments that were roiling the city.
As Bradlee was seething in The Post newsroom on that night in June 1949, he felt a tap on his shoulder. Behind him was Phil Graham, The Post’s publisher. “All right, Buster,” Graham said, “come on up with me.”
As Bradlee wrote in his autobiography, “He took me upstairs to his office on the fifth floor of the old Post building. There — I couldn’t believe my eyes — was Julius ‘Cap’ Krug, the Secretary of the Interior, who was ultimately responsible for the city pools; his undersecretary, Oscar Chapman, and, representing the White House, President Truman’s special counselor, Clark Clifford. All of them were in tuxedos, as I remember it.”
Graham asked Bradlee to describe to the men what had happened at the pool, then dismissed him.
Bradlee later learned that Graham had issued an ultimatum to the men: Promise to integrate all the pools the following summer or the true story of the riots would run on the front page the next day.
“Krug and company had made the deal on the spot,” Bradlee wrote.
The Anacostia pool, however, remained closed for the entire summer. It was too risky to reopen it. Lifeguards worried that they wouldn’t be able to keep the peace.
Bradlee said later that the episode in the publisher’s office made him uncomfortable. Newspapers exist to print news, not suppress it. Also, there were no African Americans in the room. But Bradlee thought that Graham had probably acted for the greater good.
In 1950, the District’s federal pools opened without incident. There was one change: Whites pretty much stopped going to the Anacostia pool. Self-segregation was as powerful as mandated segregation.
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For previous columns, visit washingtonpost.com/johnkelly.