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

Updated: May 16, 2022

Exhibit by Nadine Shillingford 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.

Handicapped children, who had awaited eagerly all week for their two-hour swimming lesson joined their adult teachers in gazing dejectedly at the empty swimming pool in Sevier Park, one of the city’s pools closed Thursday by the park board.

At the time, the parks board was self-perpetuating, that is, they elected their own members. They were separate from the city government. Then Mayor Ben West did not have an answer to questions from his constituents. One attendant at a question and answer session asked why there were proposals for new parks at the same time the pools were being shut down?. His answer was recorded in the July 21, 1961 edition of The Tennessean as:

"We'll have to get you an answer from the city park's board."

 A day later, in the July 22, 1961 edition of The Tennessean the NAACP called for the reopening of the pools but the pools remained closed.

Records from the August 4, 1961 edition of The Tennessean indicate that there were unsuccessful attempts to schedule meetings to discuss the issue. Board members were either out of town or hesitant to attend without other board members (who were out of town). 

At a meeting on April 9, 1962, one suggested solution was to introduce legislature to tie the board with the city council thus ensuring transparent decisions. However, a letter from City Councilman Glenn Ferguson discussed in the May 13, 1962 issue of The Tennessean mentions that the pools were still closed. Current US Representative, John Lewis, then a Fisk University student was part of the delegation approaching the board. Yet the pools remained closed.

By April 7, 1963, Nashville had a new Metro Nashville government but the pools were still closed. The first mayor of this new consolidated government was Mayor Beverley Briley. 

The old parks board was officially terminated on April 1, 1963 with formation of the new Metro Nashville government. The reopening of the pools was only one item on a long agenda waiting for Mayor Briley. Based on the December 3, 1968 edition of The Tennessean, several of the smaller pools were reopened over the years but Centennial Park pool and Shelby Park pool remained closed. Even so, the pools which were reopened and desegregated were available only for limited time periods and only to children under the age of 12.

Based on a 2015 article published in The Guardian this display of racism was not limited to Nashville. The availability to reopened and desegregated pools to only children under the age of 12 is historically attributed to “white anxieties about black men interacting with white women in an intimate public space”. One quote from this The Guardian article states as follows:

Wiltse says that aside from racist preconceptions about black people carrying communicable diseases, this extreme reaction can mainly be explained through “white anxieties about black men interacting with white women in an intimate public space”.
This white fear, created around a mythology of dangerous, hypersexual black men and vulnerable, precious white women in need of protection, is one that held particularly dangerous meaning for black people in the south, where the mere interaction of black men or boys with white women was sometimes the cause for terror lynchings. The most famous case of this perhaps is Emmett Till, a 14-year-old black boy who was killed in 1955 in Mississippi after interacting with a young white female shopkeeper.
Town after town in the south filled their pools with dirt, cemented them up, sometimes even bulldozed them. If desegregation meant equal access to public goods, then floor line equality – where nobody had access to anything – was seen as the preferable path.


The Reincarnation of the Pool and the Birth of the Art Center

So what happened to the Centennial pool? As stated in 2015 article of The Guardian:

Town after town in the south filled their pools with dirt, cemented them up, sometimes even bulldozed them. If desegregation meant equal access to public goods, then floor line equality – where nobody had access to anything – was seen as the preferable path.

The Centennial Park pool was no exception. Several issues of The Tennessean throughout 1970 include Notices to Bidders requesting proposals from contractors to work on the renovation of the old pool building. Work requested included exterior plaster ceilings and gypsum board walls, electricity, tiling, granite work, and plumbing. The only announcement I could find about the opening of the CAC is from the May 28, 1972 issue of The Tennessean. It is a rather short article buried on page 18.


Reflections from the Author

I first published this blog post in 2019 for an exhibit at the Centennial Art Center. I am preparing for another exhibit at the Gordon JCC in Nashville and this time the significance of this work means even more to me. Almost 60 years later, we are still facing racial conflict. Amid the pandemic of 2020, police murdered an unarmed man. A white woman falsely accused an unarmed black bird watcher for asking her to leash her dog. A young jogger is gunned down by armed men. Protesters appealing for justice are gassed just minutes before the President walks up to a church and poses for a photo op. I've also seen ignorance in many forms on social media. I've seen people justifying this behavior.


Where is the justice?


Reflections from You

I want to hear from you. Do you, a friend or relative remember stories of the old Centennial Park Pool? How has this story affected you? Share your thoughts and this story on Instagram or Facebook. Feel free to share this blog post with your friends. Don't forget to tag me!



About the CAC Architecture

The CAC building located at 301 25th Ave N, Nashville, TN 37203 houses a gallery, painting studio, and pottery studio. It is an H-shaped building with a red tile roof. The painting studio is a large brick room with tall ceilings. High windows make the room bright and airy during the daytime. The pottery studio is filled with shelves and tables and pottery pieces in various stages of creation. The main gallery is a tiled area with large glass windows overlooking a well-manicured courtyard and herb garden. The glass doors from the gallery and a side door from the painting studio opens out onto a vast courtyard. The courtyard is furnished with metal patio tables and chairs. Beyond the courtyard is a beautiful herb garden which is maintained by the Herb Society of Nashville. The herbs surround a pool containing two water fountains. Steps on the left side of the herb garden lead down to a sunken sculpture garden surrounded by high walls. The floor of the sculpture garden is made of the same material as the courtyard with a manicured lawn in the center. This garden is often used for weddings and other social events. The CAC offers various art courses in 2D and 3D art mediums. The gallery also showcases free art exhibits. For more information, call the Centennial Art Center at 615-862-8442.


About the Author

Nadine Shillingford enjoys bringing her ideas to life using charcoal on toned gray paper. Her art captures people in everyday situations and brings them to life by studying their facial expressions. Her whimsical approach to art also gives life to her work. Nadine does not have a formal art background. Most of her methods are self-taught/trial-and-error and developed through a lot of practice. She has established an international following on social media by completing and posting a daily #quicksketch drawing on her Instagram and Facebook pages. Each #quicksketch drawing is completed in 1-3 hours. Her work has been displayed in several shows at the Centennial Art Center and she is currently exhibiting artwork at the Rose-Hulman Institute Technology gallery in Terre Haute, IN from January to May, 2020. Nadine is the author of the book Hello Beautiful! (available on Amazon) which is a wonderful portrayal of her relationship with her father, Mr. Wilmurt Shillingford who passed away due to cancer in 2017. The book is a collection of short stories which evokes both laughter and tears. Nadine is also a computer security consultant and holds a doctoral degree in Computer Science from the University of Notre Dame. She was born on the island of Dominica in the Caribbean but currently resides in Nashville, TN with her daughter, Hailey and dog Lola. 


Further Reading

All newspaper clippings are from The Tennessean.

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