Wanting again: Washington civil rights motion made progress 60 years in the past | Residing

The new presidential administration of John F. Kennedy had just completed its first month in office 60 years ago. The American collective conscience looked to Kennedy’s “New Frontier” programs for education, housing, and civil rights reforms – and hoped for progress on problems that have existed in American society for generations.

There was a palpable longing for such changes on the country’s main roads.

In Washington in 1961, African Americans continued to encounter segregation on a regular basis. Black men and women were denied entry to a local bowling alley and were allowed to roller-skate for one night a week, instead of a popular ice-skating location. Jobs in Washington’s central retail district were essentially banned for skilled African American applicants. Black teenagers had been effectively prevented from swimming in Washington Park’s swimming pool.

However, when the first signs of spring began to appear in 1961, there were also signs that it was going to be a year of change. Neither the federal nor state governments would bring this change to southwest Pennsylvania – this challenging work was left to a relatively small group of local activists.

Perhaps the most significant work of 1961 was undertaken by the leaders of the Washington branch of the NAACP and, equally importantly, in hindsight, the NAACP youth chapter known as the “Junior NAACP”.

On the way into 1961, Louis E. Waller was the driving force behind the NAACP Washington Branch. At only 33 years old, Waller belonged to the organization

He and President had a bold vision of what could be achieved this year. Other members of the Washington Branch leadership included Julius H. Lillard, Rev. WT Foster, Harold D. Burch, Rachel Miller, Lillie B. Gaines, and Dorothy Kelley.

“They barely saw what lay ahead,” the NAACP Washington Branch story later recalled. “Fighting to be safe, but also things that were once considered absolutely inaccessible came within reach.”

In fact, with great planning, sacrifice, and perseverance, some great things would be accomplished in 1961. Among the many civil rights advances made this year were the following key “firsts”:

  • The admission of the first African American to semi-private accommodation at Washington Hospital;
  • The placement of the first black workers in two local factories;
  • The admission of the first African American member to the Alpine Club;
  • Hiring the first African American in the retail sector in Washington when Marie Brown Mull became a sales representative at JC Penney Co.;
  • Breaking the color barrier on the arena ice rink.

Perhaps the most important symbolic “premiere” of 1961, which is still very popular today, was the effort to desegregate the swimming pool in Washington Park.

To appreciate the significance of this event, it is important to consider that in 1960 two attempts to achieve equal participation in swimming in the Washington Park pool had failed. As African American members of the Girl Scouts as part of their annual day camp in July 1960, the Girl Scouts simply parked swimming off schedule. A month later, as part of the official Washington bicentenary celebrations, an eagerly awaited swim meeting was held at Washington Park Pool. But when several African American teenagers arrived at the pool to participate that day, the swim meeting was abruptly canceled. The rejection was doubtfully attributed to a sudden malfunction of the pump room.

With the NAACP willing to retest the pool’s approval guidelines, the alleged pumping problem became too difficult to resolve and the pool remained closed for the remainder of the season.

Equal opportunities at the pool in Washington Park would be delayed until June 1961 when three members of the Junior NAACP, Myra Campbell, Debra Thomas and Linda Wade, returned to the pool and finally broke the color barrier. The NAACP announced the milestone in The Truth, the Washington Branch newsletter

“… On Monday June 5, 1961, three spirited youngsters went swimming in the Washington Park Pool without incident … Myra Campbell, Debra Thomas and Linda Wade were the first negroes to swim in the Washington Park Pool,” it says in the announcement. “The NAACP welcomes these youthful ‘Freedom Swimmers’ for their efforts. At their young age they realize that we are not ‘FREE’ when a right is denied. “

Campbell, who currently resides in New Jersey, recently discussed the 1961 events in a video interview with the Washington County Historical Society. When asked about the importance of Washington Park pool integration, Campbell was proud to have done her part in removing barriers to today’s African American youth.

“Looking back, we did it,” she said. “We helped move that forward.”

The Historical Society will wrap up its Black History Month celebration with a special episode of its Laid Back History video series on Tuesday at 7:00 p.m. The episode will contain excerpts from that interview with Campbell. The episode was produced with support from the Washington County Community Foundation.

Milhollan is Operations and Development Coordinator for the Washington County Historical Society.

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