Saturday, February 4, 2017

"Wade In the Water" -- The Story of Dreamland Integration


I want to thank Jeff Lisath, Eugene Collins Sr., and the Facebook site “Northend Reunion” for this chronicle of Dreamland pool as it relates to Portsmouth history. I relied strictly upon their accounts to write this summary. It represents their amazing story. I respectfully submit the writing as part of Black History Month. I pray it enlightens the readers.

I trust all is accurate according to the accounts I have read. If there are inconsistencies or things that need correction, please comment here or email them to me at And, if anyone can add important details to the chronicle, please share them.

Dreamland (also known as the Terrace Club for part of its existence) was originally incorporated in 1929 as a private, for-profit swimming club. The grounds were more than three acres in size, and the pool itself was double the standard Olympic size. The facility was, quite frankly, like no other.
After completion, Dreamland soon became an unparalleled summer recreation spot for most area residents and a jewel of Portsmouth's storied past. With one of the largest pools in Ohio, it was a mecca for swimming, dancing, and a host of other social and recreational activities.

Dreamland was a vital symbol of developing youth – a place where teenage girls went to show off their new bathing suits and work on their tans as well as a spot where teenage boys displayed their virile agility to attract the queen of their reveries. For most who entered, it was a magic place where hundreds gathered to celebrate carefree summers and engage in joyous rites of passage.
However …

Many do not realize that African Americans were not privileged to share this treasure for over 35 years. Dreamland was a private, segregated club, not a public entity. The city did not own the facility, so general tax money was not used for operation and maintenance.

Today it seems almost inconceivable that minorities once were denied entry to one of the most beloved facilities of bygone days. Yet, the discrimination at Dreamland is a regrettable piece of history that must never be forgotten. The truth must be preserved for the benefit of future generations.

Although segregation was not the law in the northern states like Ohio, de facto (in practice but not necessarily ordained by law) segregation was a reality. De facto segregation remained a common issue in the North, even many years after de jure (based on law) segregation was outlawed in the South. Since there were no laws involved, de facto segregation was harder to combat, and in some ways more insidious, than de jure segregation. In this manner, even in the North, discrimination and segregation remained acceptable at the time. Thus was the case at Dreamland.

Dreamland remained a white-only institution until 1965. Until then, blacks weren't afforded the opportunity to join the club. Neither could they enter as guests. They simply were not welcome there... period. Confessing the obvious prejudice involved, John Lorentz, co-manager of Dreamland pool in the 60's, stated, “The truth of the matter was, if you were white, and (you) could cloud a mirror, you could become a member by filling out a form. If you were black and filled out the form, somehow that never got acted upon." This was the reality of social consciousness.

By the way, it was common to see discrimination and segregation practiced all over Scioto County during those years. Few black families lived outside the city, and even in Portsmouth where almost all African-Americans attended school, grade school was segregated until the late 1950s from the 1st through the 8th grade. The black children went to Booker T. Washington School while the white kids, even those who lived directly in front of Washington school went to Lincoln Elementary School.

In addition, even though Portsmouth High School was integrated, blacks were not allowed to attend the Junior/Senior Prom until 1954. But, in yet another ugly irony, they were permitted to showcase their talents on Trojan sports teams.

In those days, black high school students were forced to have their own prom at the Washington Elementary School – this is how the school offered them so-called “equal opportunity.” Then, in 1954, Portsmouth had an undefeated football season and the black players on the team were particularly outraged about the segregated prom – they were serving their community with great distinction on sports teams, but they were not accepted at their own prom. Their just protests that year finally ended the practice of having a segregated prom.

This kind of intolerance was a reality common in the yesteryear of the area. To younger generations today, the past may seem like a bigoted age, and compared to today, it surely was. Granted, Scioto County then was not as segregated and racially intolerant as the Deep South – places like Mississippi and Alabama – yet equality and opportunity at the time were largely dependent upon the color of your skin.

Understanding the setting and the social climate of our forefathers is imperative in acknowledging the importance of our struggles with equality. Dreamland, an oasis for whites, was both a remnant of deep social division and an ignition point of racial change. It is gone forever, but memories – both good and bad – are forever burned in the local consciousness. This story will illustrate the importance of something as basic as a swimming pool and its availability for all.

A Tragic Day

If you were black in those days, your refuge for swimming in Portsmouth was the dangerous Scioto River. Concerned parents frequently warned young people not to go swimming in the river. Yet, impetuous youth are tempted by both risk and adventure. Some things do not change.

It was there, at the river, on June 9, 1961, that tragedy struck. 14-year-old Eugene McKinley, a black youth from Portsmouth, drowned as a group of boys swam in a sand and gravel pit west of the the flood levee at 12th and Chillicothe Streets. In a horrible twist of fate, McKinley and some of his male friends had decided to go swimming there to celebrate their last day of school. For Eugene, it was his final day on earth.

The community mourned their unthinkable loss. Family and friends were overcome with grief. The tragic event directly led to a movement by a group of North End citizens including Eugene Collins Sr. (then age 26), Charles Stanley Smith, Jr. (PHS '50), Curt Gentry (PHS '55), and others. No one accepted that other blacks should risk life and limb when Dreamland was right there in the back yard. It was time for action.

At the time, Collins had just gotten out of the service and was serving the Portsmouth Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) on its legal redress committee.

Smith was an Air Force veteran who was then working for Empire Detroit Steel. As president of the local NAACP chapter, he was very active in community affairs.

Having excelled in all three major sports, Gentry was widely celebrated as Portsmouth’s most accomplished athlete of all time. After starring for the Portsmouth Trojans, he played football with the Chicago Bears, baseball with a minor league affiliate of the Pittsburgh Pirates, and basketball with the Harlem Globetrotters.

At the time, Gentry was home for the summer from Maryland State College. Needless to say, the local community considered him a much-respected icon. Mr. Gentry later served as head football coach at Alabama Agricultural and Mechanical University and at Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri.

The Demonstration

Spurred on by the recent drowning and by the injustice of segregation, the group decided to test the public accommodations section of the newly enacted Civil Rights law by attempting to enter Dreamland (aka the Terrace Club). They fully understood the establishment was operated as a “private” club to bar African-Americans. It was no secret to anyone in town. Eugene McKinley's had become the ultimate indignity.

Their goal was to use a demonstration to draw enough attention to integrate the pool. With the aid of an attorney from the Cincinnati NAACP, they carefully considered just how to carry out their protest.

The group devised a plan and decided to put it into effect when Police Chief Tedd Wilburn, a much-respected black official, was out of town on vacation that summer. They were cautious of the perception of Mr. Wilburn being able to do his job as chief of police, negating a conflict of interest. And, of course, the group did not want their bold protest to jeopardize the position of the chief in any way.

The Northend Community group of Collins, Smith, Gentry, Gentry's mom, and several underage youth finalized their plan to enter Dreamland. To help assure success, they gained the backing of some Northend establishments and a few others in the community. This support included Dr. James Forrest Scott, who served as the first black county coroner in the United States, and Verne Hairston, a prominent black businessman. Many people were too fearful of retribution to join the plan, and for good reason. They understood being arrested might cost them their jobs or put them in jeopardy of who knows what other reprisal.

As the important day drew near, local advisers briefed the demonstrators on proper procedures, and they also made plans to be at the courthouse with bond money in case of arrests.

Then, finally, the time came to set the plan into effect. To be safe, Mr. Collins and Ms. Gentry stayed outside of Dreamland to make sure the group was not injured and to inform any police that might arrive of their simple intentions. The rest of the group – Charles Smith, Curt Gentry, and the juveniles – went to the window and offered their money to enter. As expected, the attendant refused to accept their fee, so, as planned, the group simply laid the correct admission down on the spot and jumped over the turnstile to get inside.

According to Eugene Collins Sr ...

"They got inside the pool area... It's very funny because Curt Gentry couldn't swim, so Curt was running around the pool trying to find three feet of water so that he didn't jump into the pool and drown. He got in. (And) the others jumped into the pool. As they went into the pool, whites began to get out of the pool. Then, lifeguards blew the whistle two or three times.

“Clear the pool!” the lifeguards shouted.

“They cleared the pool. (Then) they (the management) came over the loud speaker telling the patrons and the demonstrators, "We have five illegal people in the pool. If you do not leave this pool, you will be arrested! You will be arrested!"

Collins explained that probably 50 to 75 percent of the people at the pool were younger folks who identified with the protesters – some had even gone to school with them or recognized them as local sports stars, so they saw their actions as a joke or a funny prank, and it really didn't bother them. However, many of the adults there at Dreamland saw the demonstration as a violation of the law and an attempt to take over something that “belonged” to them. They were concerned about “just how much further this (protest) was going to go.”

Collins estimated police cruisers pulled up to the pool in five minutes. He remembered, “Two police cruisers. They (the police) came inside. The demonstrators did not resist nor did the whites at the pool attempt to retaliate. The authorities arrested the adults, and immediately took them and the youth downtown to jail.

The rest of the core group drove behind the cruisers following them to the station where Dr. Scott and Verne Hairston awaited their arrival. There, an attorney for Dreamland filed charges against the adults and according to Collins “wanted to file charges on the youth."

 The Aftermath

Charles Smith was quoted in the July 18, 1964, edition of the Portsmouth Times as saying, “Our ‘wade-in’ marked the first time since the opening of the Kendall Avenue pool in 1929 that a Negro knowingly has swum in the pool.”

He also was quoted as asking, “We all go to school together, live together, why not swim together?”
Dr Scott talked to the sheriff and the police. The Sheriff Department had the responsibility of filing the charges against the youth because of the fact that they had to go to juvenile court. It appeared as if the authorities would arrest the demonstrators.

But then, entered Dr. Scott.

Reportedly, Scott pulled the chief aside, and told him he wanted to speak to the sheriff. Then, Scott talked to the deputy sheriff. After this, the authorities eventually decided to release the kids to their parents and set up a court date for later.

The core group of demonstrators met with Dr. Scott. He said, “An arrest is not going to happen because I have informed the sheriff that if he arrests those kids, that I, as the county coroner, have the authority to arrest him. And I will arrest him. He will be arrested.”

It is said that the authorities consulted their attorney in Cincinnati and discovered that the county coroner was the only person that had the authority to arrest the sheriff. It is believed the attorney also began uncovering some incriminating records and damaging files.

Upon further investigation, the people discovered some pertinent information about the pool. One of the discoveries was that the city was allowing Dreamland to use water at a much cheaper rate than any other commercial business. Questions of local government support raised suspicions.

So, as things began to unravel, more information started coming out, and the city began to realize that it was going to be a major problem dealing with this new-found attention. The result? The children were not arrested, and the charges on the adults were eventually thrown out.

The police delayed the hearing three different times. Eventually the charges were thrown out. Some four years later Dreamland was integrated, yet as an indication of lingering discrimination, the attendance at the pool declined.

I am 66 years-old and a lifetime resident of Scioto County. I often speak about my fond memories of Dreamland – the joyous times spent there with my mother and father, with my brother, with my friends, with my wife, and with my own children. I think of the place as a beautiful symbol of our happy existence.

However, it is my charge to remember that so many others were denied this bliss and prosperity – they were people who were banned simply because their skin was dark. Once they were not even afforded the safe haven of social union and recreation there at Dreamland. Thanks to a brave group of individuals who bravely fought injustice and realized their own dream, we live in a more accepting community. In his tragic end, Eugene McKinley unknowingly ignited a vital movement. He must never be forgotten.

Today, in 2017, the struggle for equality continues. Much of the old de facto discrimination has faded away, but beneath the improved veneer, a more subtle bias still lingers. The task we face every day is to accept and love our fellow human beings for the goodness they possess, not to judge them as different. As we share and celebrate our diversity, we come closer to the precious truth that demands we be our brother's keeper.


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