Art in the Bathhouse: A Love of Art, History, and Architecture Collide

Updated: Sep 9, 2020

Exhibit by Nadine Shillingford Wondem at Centennial Art Center (2019)

I Can't Swim!

A few years ago, I took a Drawing and Painting class with Didi Foster at the Metro Parks Centennial Art Center (CAC). While on a break, I took a walk in the courtyard behind the studio and observed an interesting feature. There was a sunken courtyard. I thought it was designed that way in order to make it an aesthetically appealing venue for weddings and other ceremonies. But then I came across an article by Erin E. Tocknell in The Bitter Southerner titled A Cool Dip and a Little Dignity: A History of Nashville's Divided Swimming Pools. Ms. Tocknell's research gives insight into the rather interesting history of the CAC. The history of the complex can be summarized in the following statement:

Negro leaders contended last night the action was taken to block effects to integrate the pools. Six Negroes were turned away from the Centennial pool Tuesday.

This blog post follows my journey into discovering the dark history hidden in the landscaped grounds of the Centennial Art Center complex.

He said Negroes will demonstrate as a “last resort” if negotiations fail.

Centennial Art Center Complex

Photos of the Centennial Art Center

Once Upon a Time in Centennial Park...

The Tennessee State Library and Archives provides Tennesseans with free online access to The Tennessean (1812 to today) through the Tennessean Electronic Library (TEL). The first time I discovered this resource, I felt like I had hit a gold mine. Two hundred and eight years of history right at my finger tips!

I started searching for the phrase "centennial park pool" in the hope of finding out when the pool was constructed. I found out that the building was constructed in the 1932 as a bathhouse. At the time, the country was seeing a proliferation of parks and recreation facilities as part of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative of President Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal. The Centennial Park, Shelby Park, and Hadley Park pools were among several pools constructed in Nashville. Although it was built in the 1930s, an article in the Nashville Tennessean, shows a proposal for the construction of the pool and bathhouse as early as 1917. The article printed in the Nashville Tennessean on January 30, 1917, gives a detailed description of the building and pool. The building is described as a Pompeian swimming pool and bathhouse. The proposed contractor is listed as R. T. Creighton, a member of the board of park commissioners. The architect is listed as Henry C. Hibbs. A 1932 article from the Tennessean describes the constructed pool. Based on this article, the pool was located just west of 25th Ave N. It was 120 feet by 75 feet and ranged in depth from three feet to nine and a half feet. The article also hints that in addition to pools like the Centennial and Shelby pools, there was a negro pool at Hadley Park.

He added that under the city’s segregated system, Negroes have one municipal pool at Hadley Park and several playground pools with free admission for children 16 or under.

The pool appeared to be a very popular destination during the hot summer months. One 1959 article indicates that there were 1200 visitors to the Centennial Park pool.

So where is the pool?

A Hot Summer in 1961

Like most places in 1961, Nashville pools remained segregated. A recent ruling had declared the desegregation of golf courses much to the chagrin of the white population. Erin E. Tocknell's article titled A Cool Dip and a Little Dignity: A History of Nashville's Divided Swimming Pools indicates that a group of African American youth decided to visit the Centennial Park pool one day in 1961. Tocknell's article is a brilliant description of what happened that day. It includes an interview with Kwame Lillard, one of the young men who visited the pool that day. One of the things that stuck with me from the Tocknell article was a quote from Lillard:

"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.

Based on the July 19, 1961 issue of The Tennessean, the following occurred:

"Six negroes who said they were launching a summer project to test segregation at Nashville's public recreation areas were refused admission to the Centennial Park pool yesterday."

As mentioned earlier, Centennial Park and Shelby Park were whites-only pools. Negroes were relegated to the negro pool at Hadley Park. The Tocknell article as well as the 1961 clip from The Tennessean indicates that the young people led by Mr. Lillard left peacefully. But the recent integration of the golf courses had the board members rattled.

“This is the same procedure they (Negroes) followed to get city golf courses integrated.” Spore said. “After they were refused admittance they filed suit and got a court order favoring integration.”

In a July 19, 1961 article, board members Jack Spore and Newman Cheek indicated that there was a scheduled board meeting to determine whether there would be a 'change in the policy' as a result of the incident. However, the board's reaction to this act can only be described as drastic.

Two days after the incident, the board made the decision to close all of the city's 23 swimming pools. The official reason was stated as "financial reasons". A rather dramatic picture from the July 21, 1961 issue of The Tennessean shows the last known use of the Centennial Park pool before it was drained. The photo shows a park employee mid-dive into the large pool (see below). The title "Park Employe(sp) Takes One Last Dip" seems to seal the fate of the pool. The actual closing of the pool occurred in the middle of the day when the pool was probably full of swimmers. Swimmers were ordered out of the pools, admission fees were refunded, and park employees began the process of draining the pools.