David L. Bristow

“We Just Wanted to Swim, Sir.”

Forty-five years ago, the NAACP Youth Council challenged a segregated Peony Park—and won.

 

By David L. Bristow

 

This article first appeared in The Reader, February 5, 2009

 

 

Talk to anyone in their 30s or older who grew up in Omaha, and they can probably tell stories of visiting Peony Park as a child. Until the amusement park at 78th and Cass closed in 1994, it was an Omaha institution, the sort of place that seems larger in memory because you saw it through a child’s eyes.

             But for many older African Americans, Peony Park has a different meaning. Its swimming pool was long closed to blacks—a very public example of Omaha’s quiet, unofficial segregation.

In 1963, a group of local youths decided to do something about it.

 

 

Today Herb Rhodes is a successful businessman and director of the Nebraska Cattlemen. His commodities-trading business, American Harvest Co., is located on North 24th Street in the heart of downtown North Omaha. But in 1963, he was a 20-year-old Omaha University student, and like many of his contemporaries, he was eager for change.

             To understand what happened at Peony Park, Rhodes said, you have to go back to 1955 Mississippi, where a 14-year-old African American boy named Emmett Till was brutally murdered and mutilated for allegedly disrespecting a white woman.

Till “was a boy about my age,” Rhodes said, and his murder “made me conscious that there were people on this earth who were vehemently opposed to me based on my color. It mobilized the whole era.”

Many black leaders have cited Till’s murder—and the failure to convict his killers—as a spark for the civil rights movement. The famous Montgomery, Ala., bus boycott began later that year.

Meanwhile, in Omaha, just one day before Till’s August 28 murder, two black swimmers were barred from participating in an Amateur Athletic Union swim meet because Peony Park wouldn’t allow them in their pool. Both were friends of Rhodes.

“That’s when we became very sensitized that even though we were kids, they were still directing racism at us and at our generation,” Rhodes said, “as if this is going to be something in perpetuity.”

Such discrimination was illegal under Nebraska law. Peony Park was taken to court, found guilty, and paid a $50 fine. But the pool remained whites-only for eight more years.

             The park might have been challenged earlier had it been Omaha’s only segregated institution. Although Northern segregation wasn’t as blatant or violent as its Southern counterpart, it was real and widespread. Banks, landlords and insurance companies restricted black residents to a designated section of North Omaha. Today, Rhodes lives near 48th and Pratt in a house that used to have a restrictive covenant to prevent its sale to blacks or Jews.

             Companies tended to limit black employment to low-end positions. Even black teachers were restricted. Rhodes said that Harry Burke, Omaha Public Schools superintendent from 1946 to 1962 (and namesake of Burke High School), “proclaimed that as long as he was superintendent, there would not be a black educator in the school system, other than the two schools that served the black community,” because Burke opposed having black teachers “where white children would see a black person in a role of prominence or authority.”

             But there were signs that things were changing: Civil rights protests in the South; the 1957 integration of Little Rock High School in Arkansas; even a movement against colonialism in Africa, where in 1960 Patrice Lumumba led the Congo to independence from Belgium before being toppled in a CIA-backed coup.

             In the spirit of the times, by 1963 Omaha activists were challenging local segregation. A group called the Citizens Coordinating Committee for Civil Liberties (better known as “4CL”) protested job and housing discrimination. They picketed businesses that refused to hire blacks; protestors carried signs saying, “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work!” In reporting the protests, the Omaha World-Herald admitted that it, too, was being picketed because it employed no African Americans in other than menial positions.

Young people wanted to get involved, too. The NAACP Youth Council, of which Herb Rhodes was a member, began talking about what they could do.

 

 

On June 4, 1963, Fred Winthrop, a young black airman from Offutt Air Force Base, went to Peony Park for a swim. A lifeguard told him that he couldn’t use the pool, though he said he was sorry.

             “It’s not me,” the man said. “It’s the people I work for.”

Winthrop returned two days later, this time accompanied by officials from the Catholic Interracial Council. He wanted witnesses. Again, he was refused admittance. Blacks could enter the park, but not the pool.

Winthrop pressed charges.

Though Peony had already been found guilty of violating Nebraska law in the 1955 case, Winthrop told the weekly Sun newspaper that he got the runaround from city officials, who referred him from one office to another. Assistant City Attorney Walter Matejka told them that the complaint must first be discussed with the city’s Human Relations Board.

Winthrop and his allies insisted that this was strictly a criminal case, and said publicly that they had no intention of going through the board. The Human Relations Board was already being widely criticized for its ineffectiveness. And later that month, board chairman Rev. Edward Stimson, pastor of Dundee Presbyterian Church, told the Sun that he advocated moral screening for blacks seeking to move into white neighborhoods.

Stimson said that when the Urban League asked him to support open-occupancy policies, “I told them that as a Christian minister I could not.” He reasoned that “a substantial number” of black families “tolerate a permissiveness in matters we consider moral and would make them unacceptable in most communities… We must have a means of screening out the morally undesirable.”

It went without saying that Stimson saw no need to subject white residents to such screening.

             Meanwhile, city officials said they couldn’t tell if swimming pools were covered under the law, which guaranteed equal accommodation at “inns, restaurants, public conveyances, barber shops, theaters, and other places of amusement.” Peony Park’s lawyer argued that the pool was a place of public “recreation,” not “amusement,” and was therefore exempt.

             The City of Omaha was obviously determined to interpret the law as narrowly as possible. On July 12, the Omaha Star reported that city had declined to file charges against a South 16th Street bar for refusing service to a black University of Nebraska student. Bars were not covered, officials said.

             And even some restaurants flouted the law with impunity. For example, according to Rhodes, the popular Mr. C’s Steakhouse on North 30th Street refused to serve blacks in the dining room. They could only pick up take-out orders in the parking lot.

On July 18, the Omaha city attorney said that his office would accept no more civil rights complaints until the municipal court ruled on the Peony Park “test” case.

That, of course, would take months. And even if Winthrop won, would the court have any more effect than it had in 1955?

 

 

The NAACP Youth Council wasn’t aware of Winthrop’s case. Today, Archie Godfrey is a retired Omaha resident; at the time, he was the council’s 18-year-old president. He remembers that the issue “came up almost accidentally at a meeting,” when a council member spoke of being refused entry to the pool. The group decided to protest only after much debate.

             “A lot of parents were cautious,” Godfrey said. “We were kids.”

The group made plans for nonviolent protests to embarrass Peony Park. On Saturday afternoon, July 13, a carload of young people arrived at the front gate, where—to no one’s surprise—they were refused entry “due to anticipated large crowds,” they were told.

             Rhodes remembers that a crowd of white people formed to oppose them, but said that he never feared that violence would erupt. He even recognized one of the most vocal members of the “go back to your own neighborhood” crowd. It was a former classmate named Steve. But Steve didn’t recognize Rhodes; all he saw was a bunch of blacks where they didn’t belong.

             Rhodes knew that Steve had come to the United States as a “displaced person” because of World War II—from Germany or some nearby country. Rhodes said,

             “Hey, Steve, this is an issue for Americans. You’re not even an American.”

             He soon tried a different approach. He told Steve who he was, and reminded him of how they used to walk to school together. That changed things somehow. Steve drifted to the back of the crowd.

             The press soon arrived to cover the event; the Youth Council had notified them ahead of time. “The media was our insurance policy” against violence or false arrest, Godfrey said. A World-Herald reporter started asking the protesters what group they belonged to.

             “We just wanted to swim, sir,” a youth replied.

 

 

The youths couldn’t enter the park, but they could keep coming back. Park operator Charles Malec closed Peony on Sunday afternoon. Though by all accounts the protestors remained peaceful, Malec said that he feared “it was going to start a disturbance.”

“It’s hysteria,” he told the World-Herald. “I don’t know what to do. It will take someone smarter than me to figure out what to do.”

He said he was flooded with phone calls, and that 25 of 26 callers warned that they would stop swimming at Peony if he started admitting blacks. Over the next several days, other members of the Malec family insisted that their whites-only policy was based on simple economics, not on any prejudice of their own.

“We’re not here to go broke for the cause of civil rights,” Joseph Malec, Sr., said.

For the next several days, the black youths kept showing up quietly at the gate, and Peony Park kept shutting down and refunding admissions. When a group of 14 protestors arrived on Tuesday the 16th, the park had already closed in anticipation of their arrival, refunding 500 admissions.

According to the World-Herald, the youths stayed across the street, singing songs, while a crowd of white youths watched them and occasionally jeered. At last, the black youths stood up, clapping and shouting “Freedom! Freedom!” and stepped toward the white youths, several of whom stood up. Two police officers intervened, ordering the white youths to go home.

Either way, the protests had not turned violent, as some had predicted. Gov. Frank Morrison said publicly that Peony appeared to be violating state law, and that people had a right to protest peacefully.

But after radio stations aired rumors that the governor was planning to personally lead a group of black youths into the park, Morrison distanced himself from the protesters by saying that he could see “no useful purpose to be served by demonstrations of any kind,” because they “only inflame people and prey upon their passion.”

 

 

By then, the Malecs were growing desperate. The protestors were not letting up. And even if Peony won in court, it was sure to face future legal challenges. Though the bill hadn’t yet taken effect, the state Unicameral had recently added the words “and recreation” to the “other places of amusement” clause in the public access law. In order to keep blacks and whites from swimming in the same water, Peony needed to skirt that particular law entirely.

On Thursday, July 18, Peony Park reopened as a private club—a popular Southern strategy for avoiding court-ordered integration of public places. Anyone who wished to enter the park needed to fill out an application and pay a nominal fee to receive a membership card.

             On Sunday the 22nd, a group of black youths asked to join the club. They filled out membership applications, but were told that they needed sponsors. Several white youths pointed out that they hadn’t needed sponsors when they joined, and offered to sponsor the black youths. The black youths were then informed that their applications would require the approval of the park’s membership committee—even as new white members were being practically waved through the gate.

             Charles Malec told reporters that he didn’t know how soon the applications would be reviewed, because so many had come in already. Apparently the committee was swamped.

 

 

As Peony continued to lose money, the owners grew desperate. A teenage employee of park “told his mother that the Malecs told some of the employees to stand at the front gate and start a fight,” Godfrey said.

The employee’s mother told the Catholic clergy, who went public with the story. The park capitulated soon after. Without violence, the park opened its pool to all paying visitors on Saturday, July 26. A group of black youths took a swim that day, and the disorder and bankruptcy that the Malecs had warned against failed to materialize.

             Rhodes believes that city leaders quietly pressured Peony to drop its whites-only pool policy. Segregation was never rooted as deeply here as it was in the South, and thanks to the protestors, Nebraska’s largest amusement park had suddenly become an embarrassment to Omaha.

             Godfrey remembers that the NAACP (including adult leaders) met with the Malecs during the protests. “As a family they seemed depressed,” he said. “They seemed very confused” and wondered why this was happening to them. “But the bottom line is, they missed the point.”

             The mid-sixties were a busy time for the NAACP Youth Council. They won a second victory at Mr. C’s, where they demonstrated until the restaurant allowed black customers to eat in the dining room. Godfrey declined to name all the restaurants that were picketed because many are still around today and have become “very fine establishments.”

             A few businesses, however, clung to segregation more fiercely. Rhodes said that Linoma Beach near Ashland refused to integrate despite protests, both he and Godfrey spoke of threats of violence at Merritt Beach in Sarpy County.

“We had to go through a gauntlet of people with bats and in construction helmets,” Godfrey said, but “probably within a year the whole situation changed.”

             Although they didn’t immediately end all local segregation, the youths (along with adult activists, both black and white) placed it permanently on the defensive. Hereafter, those who wished to maintain segregation would have to defend it publicly. Even temporary setbacks helped fuel a growing national revulsion against patterns of race relations that had long seemed unchangeable.

“At the time, no one knew that they were making history,” Rhodes said. “That’s something that historians bestow on an incident, but at the time no one said, ‘Let’s go make history today.’”

“It was a dirty feeling that we had to fight for this,” Godfrey said. “That became our summer—demonstrating, reassuring the people back home that we weren’t a bunch of hoodlums.” He said his parents were asked about the protests at church, and “took a lot of abuse” for it.

Rhodes also acknowledges that black adults of the time were often reluctant to protest. The threat of job loss was real. As young people, “we did not have an economic knife at our throat.” And he knows that previous generations had it much worse in their youth. When his parents were teenagers, they saw a classmate lynched in St. Joseph, Missouri.

For Godfrey, the summer of ’63 led to a lifelong involvement in politics; he was part of Robert Kennedy’s national campaign staff in 1968, was later a political appointee of Gov. Charles Thone, and is currently a leader of the United Urban Voters League.

Rhodes, too, is proud of what his generation accomplished.

“I’d like to think that in some small way—and I mean in a very small way—that what was done in Omaha by my generation has made it possible for some guy to believe, to believe, really BELIEVE, that he could be president of the United States.”

 

 


Bibliography

 

Civil Liberties Docket, Vol. I, No. 2. December, 1955. http://sunsite.berkeley.edu/meiklejohn/meik-1_2/meik-1_2-3.html

 

Dundee and West Omaha Sun, June 13, 27, 1963, and July 18, 25, 31, 1963.

 

Omaha Star, June 14, 21, 1963, and July 12, 1963.

 

Omaha World-Herald, July 14-16, 18, 22, 1963.

 

 

 

Regarding Omaha Public Schools discrimination, see also:

 

Lawrence J. Larsen, et al, Upstream Metropolis: An Urban Biography of Omaha and Council Bluffs, University of Nebraska Press, 2007, p. 297.

 

Harry B. Otis and Donald H. Erickson, E Pluribus Omaha: Immigrants All, Douglas County Historical Society, 2000, p. 133.

 

 

© 2009 David L. Bristow

 

www.davidbristow.com

“It’s not me,” the man said. “It’s the people I work for.”

 

“At the time, no one knew that they were making history,” Rhodes said. “That’s something that historians bestow on an incident, but at the time no one said, ‘Let’s go make history today.’”