The Garfield Park Pool, located within the Garfield Park Reservation, was first opened to the public in 1917. Assisted by an extension of the Broadway Avenue streetcar line to the front gates of the park in 1915, as well as opening alongside a new sand beach at the park, the pool itself attracted an estimated 25,000 swimmers within its first year of operation. Over the following decades, the park itself became a symbol of local beauty and prestige, known as a place where residents of the surrounding neighborhoods and the city of Cleveland could picnic and relax in the country air. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, the park was a popular location for community and social organizations to host large outdoor gatherings, as well as a space for local politicians to hold fundraisers and give speeches.
During this period of the park’s existence, a large majority of visitors were either middle- or working-class whites, who strived to enforce an informal segregation of the public space against the local African American population. While segregation of the park was not officially law, whites often harassed or threatened African American users verbally and physically, sometimes even pelting Blacks with rocks, sticks, and food in an effort to drive them away and make them feel as unwelcome as possible. While these events took place throughout the entirety of the park, they were most frequent and prominent at the Garfield Park Pool. One of the reasons for the pool becoming a primary location of harassment against African Americans was that while many whites were already against sharing the same spaces with Black visitors, sharing the same water, which flowed and touched all within the pool, was simply too much for many whites to handle. This led to harassment not being limited to just other bathers, but also by lifeguards and police officers at the pool, the very people tasked with ensuring the safety of all who enjoyed the public space.
A new era began for the pool beginning in 1943, as African American activities and residents began to demand the ability to use public spaces and amenities equally. This was further fueled by the return of black servicemen from World War II, who now fought at home for their full rights as American citizens. Groups such as the Union of Churches and the NAACP were vital in destroying the unofficial segregation that had long been accepted, doing so by organizing mass outings of bathers as well as advocating to local government and police officials for the increased protection of Black pool goers. While violence at the pool continued into the 1950s, the number of Black visitors to the pool only continued to grow year by year. Social groups throughout the area had even begun organizing intentionally multiracial outings to the pool, in an effort to project the image of unity between African American and white swimmers.
As efforts to make the pool a completely safe space for African Americans to enjoy, many local whites began to feel ousted. They saw the influx of Black visitors as a takeover of their beloved park, and over many years white residents would begin to find elsewhere to swim. While the perceived end of segregation and major events of violence can be seen as a major victory for African American residents and the organizations which supported them over the course of decades, it also spelled the end for the Garfield Park Pool. As white residents moved away or began to travel further to different swimming locations, the city of Garfield Heights, already under financial strain along with much of the Cleveland area in the 1960s, would steadily cut the maintenance budget for the pool and park, causing it to deteriorate and fall into disrepair throughout the decade. After years of mismanagement and suffering several acts of vandalism, the pool was closed permanently in 1970.
- “City Recreation Commissioner Takes Swift Action After Negro Bathers Meet Insults At Garfield Pk. Pool.” Call & Post. August 6, 1949.
- “Garfield Park Reservation.” Encyclopedia of Cleveland History. https://case.edu/ech/articles/g/garfield-park-reservation.
- “Garfield Park Triumph?” Call & Post. August 23, 1952.
- “Hoodlums Chase Swimmers from Garfield Pool: Not Enough Police Protection?” Call & Post. August 9, 1952.
- Seawell, Stephanie L. “The Black Freedom Movement and Community Planning in Urban Parks in Cleveland, Ohio, 1945-1977.” Ph.D. dissertation, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign, 2014.
- Smith, Kelsey. “Garfield Park.” Cleveland Historical. https://clevelandhistorical.org/items/show/492.
- Wiltse, Jeff. Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.