Centennial Art Center to commemorate Nashville’s Civil Rights history

Centennial Park Swimming Pool marker unveiled
Posted at 6:54 AM, Mar 23, 2022
and last updated 2022-05-19 07:34:12-04

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (WTVF) — On Wednesday, Metro Parks unveiled a new historical marker to commemorate the Centennial Art Center’s important role in Nashville’s Civil Rights history.

The art center will be celebrating its 50th anniversary one month from the unveiling. Metro Parks officials say it’s important to acknowledge and honor the significant impact of past events, also the people who played an important role in changing segregationist policies of the past.

The site of the center was once a public pool and bathhouse for "whites only" in the 1930s and stayed that way for nearly 30 years.

One day in 1961, two young Black men, Kwame Leo Lillard and Mathew Walker Jr., led a small group to swim at the pool but were denied access.

Rather than desegregating the pools, the mayor’s response was to close all swimming pools in Nashville, including its premier pool in Centennial Park at the time.

Eventually, the other pools reopened, but the Centennial Park pool and bathhouse remained vacant for 10 years.

The unveiling of the historical marker memorialized the people and events that took place there.

“This park, this facility is a place to come to learn about some of the Civil Rights efforts that took place to bring the city to where it is today. “It took sacrifice and efforts, so the marker that we're unveiling really emphasizes the fact that we've come a long way,” Metro Parks’s Superintendent of Community Affairs Jackie Jones said.

The unveiling of the marker happened at 11 a.m. Wednesday at the Centennial Art Center.

A reception in the Art Center’s gallery followed the unveiling.

Mayor John Cooper, Evelyn Lillard, wife of the late Kwame Leo Lillard, and Dr. Candace Koney, niece of Matthew Walker Jr. were in attendance.

“I think our community doesn't really understand the full story of what happened here. As the director of the Art Center and with us celebrating our 50th anniversary, I really felt it was important to illuminate the past, educate the public as to what happened, and just tell the truth,” said Joshua Wagner, director of Centennial Art Center.

This unveiling is one of many events planned this year for the Centennial Art Center’s 50th anniversary.

The date of the 50th anniversary falls on April 23, the same day as the Earth Day Festival at Centennial Park.