How Public Artists Are Exploring the History of Segregation in Baltimore

Everyday Utopias Opening, April 15, 2017. Photo: Author.
Everyday Utopias Opening, April 15, 2017. Photo: Author.

How should America publicly acknowledge its history of legal segregation? For many people, the intricate system that required whites and blacks to eat, drink, shop, travel, play, and study separately remains the stuff of lore passed down through family stories and popular culture. Others first learn about segregation in the classroom, where it is unfortunately often portrayed as a mere detour on a triumphant national journey to racial equality.

Although this system of legal racial segregation permeated the United States’ and especially the South’s public life and physical landscape for decades, there are relatively few public markers or landmarks that acknowledge its history today. Rosenwald Schools, one of the most important Black institutions of the Jim Crow era, are severely endangered and little known to the general public. The paucity of preserved sites of segregation is striking considering that several new groundbreaking museums and sites devoted to African American history have opened recently, plans for a national memorial to lynching were announced last year, and communities across the country are vigorously debating what to do with Confederate memorials.

One community where residents are making strides to publicly address the history of segregation is Baltimore. From April 15 to May 7, a group of nearly a dozen artists mounted an ambitious public project called Everyday Utopias at the site of a formerly segregated African American public swimming pool. In the late 1910s and early 1920s, Black Baltimoreans organized a community campaign to push the city’s government to establish a “colored pool” in which Black citizens could cool off in the summer. Having a place to swim under the supervision of life guards was particularly important at a time when Blacks regularly drowned in the city’s basin (now known as the Inner Harbor). Black lobbying for the pool and additional efforts to raise funds for its operating costs were ultimately successful, and in 1921 the city opened Pool No. 2. The pool and an adjacent set of tennis courts restricted to African Americans functioned as Baltimore’s de facto Black public park within—yet apart from—the city’s 745-acre Druid Hill Park. The pool remained in operation until 1956, when it was closed after federal courts ruled in favor of the NAACP and a group of Black Baltimoreans who filed suit against the city’s and Maryland’s segregated beaches.1

Lauren R. Lyde, The Integrationist, 2017. Photo: Author.
Lauren R. Lyde, The Integrationist, 2017. Photo: Author.

The first artist to respond to this history was Joyce Scott, a Baltimore native and 2016 MacArthur Fellow, who added a set of markers and colored concrete designs surrounding the pool for her work Memorial Pool in 1999. Although the swimming pool had long been discontinued as a recreational facility, its metal ladders and life guard stand remained in place and the pool was filled with soil topped with grass. In a sense, the combination of art and organic matter brought a dead swimming pool back to life.

Sheena Morrison. (Photo courtesy of Sheena Morrison).
Sheena Morrison.

Fast forward to 2017, and a group of ten visual artists and curator Sheena Morrison created Everyday Utopias, an extraordinary collection of aesthetic statements on the pool at the once segregated site. Lauren R. Lyde’s The Integrationist is a vibrant oil painting on a clear Plexiglas surface resting on top of a kiddie pool. It depicts a group of young Black swimmers joined by a single white swimmer, gesturing to a widespread but unconfirmed story of a lone white boy who chose to swim at Pool No. 2 after its official desegregation. Lyde’s work draws on the idea that “white and black people alike [had] an opportunity to integrate their neighborhoods and schools and businesses of their own free will.” Integration was supposed to be a two-way process, and not just a matter of making Blacks abandon their institutions.

Tiffany Jones’ I, Colored features a set of red, yellow, green, and blue flags, each printed with the message “I, Colored.” About ten feet behind the flags on the former pool house, Jones created a black-and-white mural with photographic collage and drawings depicting various scenes of Black people enjoying the outdoors, as well as images of a Black Lives Matter protest and Black musicians.

Antonio McAfee’s contribution, a set of banners including The Visionary and Young Man Through the Layers, recreates photographs from a series of portraits of middle-class Georgia Blacks organized by W.E.B. DuBois and Thomas Calloway for the 1900 Paris International Exposition, The Exhibit of American Negroes.  Seven other artists rounded out the installation with a variety of works responding to the pool’s history.

Tiffany Jones, I, Colored, 2017. Photo: Author.
Tiffany Jones, I, Colored, 2017. Photo: Author.

Morrison organized the Everyday Utopias as her Master of Fine Arts thesis project at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA). She is a New York City native with a background in community health education and the history of public health prior to coming to MICA. As a child, Morrison heard her grandmother reminisce about “colored day” in her native Raeford, North Carolina, a designated time of the week in which Blacks were allowed to travel into town for shopping and socializing, a practice replicated in many Southern small towns on Saturday afternoons.

In the project’s curatorial statement, Morrison suggests that Everyday Utopias “exhumes the promises of a once-segregated pool with contemporary artworks that dignify identity and cultivate hope over despair.” Morrison conceded to me in our interview that the pool may be a “physical manifestation of a time we’d all rather forget.” But it is also, she insisted, a reminder that “civic engagement is a dynamic process that’s based on the circumstances of our times. We have the agency to make changes based on what’s happening…The pool itself is a representation of both our struggle and our success.”

Antonio McAfee, Young Man Through the Layers, 2017. Photo: Author.
Antonio McAfee, Young Man Through the Layers, 2017. Photo: Author.

Demanding the construction of a swimming pool for Baltimore’s African Americans was actually a “utopic notion. There wasn’t a place for black people” to swim before then. By the 1950s, in turn, “there was a resolute notion to shut it down.” But Blacks who demanded they be able to use the city’s white swimming pools were also undertaking a “resolute utopic act.” After all, civic engagement can create places of community, but it can also dismantle structures of oppression. Morrison hopes that visitors to Everyday Utopias were reminded that “we have a responsibility to each other, to be receptive to the people around us who think differently, who are different, who are from different places.”

To some observers, commemorating a formerly segregated site as a product of positive civic engagement may seem misguided, if not foolishly revisionist. To be sure, African Americans old enough to have experienced legal segregation firsthand have passed on painful memories of humiliation and exclusion to their children and their children’s children. Yet some African Americans remember select aspects of segregation with a surprising dose of nostalgia. Such memories do not represent an acceptance of the degradations of Jim Crow or a yearning for mandated segregation. Instead, they are a recognition of the rich public life and strong, cohesive community institutions, especially schools, that Blacks developed as a response to legal white supremacy.

Everyday Utopias is a creative and challenging artistic statement on the quest for survival and recreation within the oppressive confines of Jim Crow. What is perhaps most impressive about this project is how it recreated a positive, affirming emotional space amid a former site of segregation. The installation’s opening on April 15 felt more like a family reunion or block party brimming with energy than an antiquarian exploration of the distant past. Attendees mingled with artists and relished their creations, including works they struggled to decipher. A table with free chicken wings and baked goods was open to all visitors, and a sound system blasted old school favorites such as Sly and the Family Stone’s “Family Affair” and Charles Wright & the Watts 103rd Street Rhythm Band’s “Express Yourself.” It is worth pointing out, too, that Baltimore’s Recreation and Parks department, the original administrators of the pool, helped to make the installation truly public with their generous in-kind support.

The history of Baltimore’s Pool No. 2 is a testament to the oppressive system of legal racial segregation. But the pool was also a place of Black recreation, Black community, and even Black joy, a place that Black Baltimoreans could call their own at a time when the city’s white society wanted little to do with them. This is the story that Everyday Utopias tells—one that is difficult and discomforting but nonetheless absolutely necessary to share widely and publicly if we want to grasp the full history of segregation.

  1.  “Do We Need Swimming Pools?” Baltimore Afro-American, June 24, 1916, 4; “Kelly Miller Opens Campaign for $7500: Local Drive For Funds to Complete Swimming Pool Closes Next Monday,” Baltimore Afro-American, October 10, 1919, 2; “Once There Were Only 2,” Baltimore Afro-American, November 19, 1955, 17; Louis Lautier, “High Court to Rule on Md. Beach Cases,” Baltimore Afro-American, November 12, 1955, 22.

Joshua Clark Davis

Joshua Clark Davis is an assistant professor of history at the University of Baltimore. His forthcoming book, From Head Shops to Whole Foods: The Rise and Fall of Activist Entrepreneurs (Columbia University Press, 2017) examines how natural foods stores, head shops, feminist businesses, and African American booksellers emerged from social movements in the 1960s to advance the goals of political transformation and cultural liberation. Follow him on Twitter @JoshClarkDavis.