Centennial Art Center tells story of segregated public pool closed in 1961

Public pool from 1932-1961
Posted at 6:21 PM, Feb 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-14 22:48:56-05

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — The Centennial Art Center is celebrating 50 years in Nashville. As part of that celebration, they're also paying tribute to an important piece of history of the site before the museum arrived.

A hallway at the Centennial Art Center tells a story in pictures of the public pool that was there from 1932 to 1961. It was hugely popular on those hot, summer Saturdays, but in a time of segregation, the pool wasn't for everyone.

"There are people still alive today who remember, because of the color of their skin, they could not go swimming," said Supervisor of Visual Arts Joshua Wagner.

Wagner shared how a small group of Black students were denied from swimming in this pool on a day in 1961.

"In two days, all 21 pools around the city were shut down," said Wagner.

Wagner said the closings came from the city leaders' fear of the desegregation of the pools going through courts.

"The pool closed for reasons that were just totally unnecessary," said Dr. Augustus Bankhead.

Bankhead was teaching at Tennessee State University during a time that Nashville was changing, seeing students fight for desegregation of their city.

Five years after the pool's closing, Bankhead remembers standing at the gate surrounding it.

"It never reopened," he said. "I just felt the desire, need, whatever to say something."

Bankhead wrote a letter to the editor for The Nashville Tennessean paper in July 1966; 'Dry Pool Is Grim Monument'. Among his lines is this; "Let it stand as a reminder that in this decade, we were not ready to accept men as men."

The letter is now on display in the Centennial Art Center hall.

As part of the Centennial Art Center's 50-year anniversary, a historical marker will be unveiled next month, telling the story of the pool that used to be there and the lessons a city learned.

"That's part of the human condition, but that doesn't mean we don't always work at improving the situation," said Bankhead.

The 50th-anniversary exhibit will be on display at the Centennial Art Center Gallery through March 24th.