Decades ago in Baton Rouge, black children were not allowed to swim in the pool at the white-only City Park, so a private group called the United Negro Recreation Association started raising money to build a park and pool of their own. The development, eventually named Brooks Park, was finished in 1949 and quickly became a popular gathering place for residents of Old South Baton Rouge.
The original pool was eventually replaced with a smaller one, and it’s not the lively attraction it once was. But it remains a symbol of days gone by in a neighborhood that residents remembered fondly during a panel discussion Saturday at the Carver Branch Library. The event was the second in a series leading up to the dedication of a memorial in honor of the 1953 Baton Rouge bus boycott, a seminal event in local civil rights history.
Baton Rouge was selected last month as the 18th site to be part of the Toni Morrison Society’s Bench By The Road program, which installs commemorative benches in places significant to African-American history. The bench will be placed at the McKinley High School Alumni Center and unveiled at a ceremony on Feb. 6.
Along with the bus boycott, municipal pools marked a flashpoint in Baton Rouge’s civil rights movement. After activists — some of whom were arrested — attempted to integrate the City Park pool in 1963, it was closed and filled in.
Fortunately for black children in Old South Baton Rouge, the Brooks Park pool was there for them to use, thanks to the efforts of its namesake nearly two decades earlier.
The Rev. W.K. Brooks was president of the United Negro Recreation Association, which raised money to build Brooks Park. The group’s approach was unpopular with some blacks, who refused to donate money because they believed they should be able to swim in public pools as taxpayers.
It was a time, however, that many black children never learned to swim properly and ended up drowning in creeks and the Mississippi River, said 19th Judicial District Court Judge Trudy White, whose grandfather, William Baker, was a member of the group that raised money to build the pool.
White discovered the story of United Negro Recreation Association about a decade ago, leading her to conduct interviews and write a script for a documentary, “Baton Rouge’s Troubled Waters,” that aired on Louisiana Public Broadcasting.
The Brooks pool was a social hub in Old South Baton Rouge, which White remembered as a self-sufficient community where residents had everything they needed — schools, grocery stores, meat markets, tailors and churches — in one square mile. But the neighborhood began to deteriorate after integration and the unrest that followed in the 1960s.
“Times were so hard for black people in my age group that the majority of my classmates moved away,” said Almenia Freeman Warren, 71, a former principal of McKinley High School who grew up on East Washington Street.
People could escape the racial turmoil at the Brooks Park pool, which was larger than an Olympic pool and always seemed to be busy, said Warren, who later became a swimming coach at Baton Rouge Magnet High School. The Sunbeam bakery once hosted a swim competition there and gave loaves of bread as prizes.
“This park was just like Blue Bayou,” Warren said. “Blue Bayou has people come from everywhere to swim, and it was just like that for black people. They came from Clinton, Ethel, they came from everywhere because they had no pools for black kids anywhere.”
Raymond Jetson, pastor of Star Hill Church, urged people at Saturday’s event to “treasure the remnants that are left” of Old South Baton Rouge. He said too many people today do not know about the area’s history.
At the same time, facilities that once played a key role in community life are declining. While filming reenactments at the Brooks pool for her documentary, White found the same showers and toilets that were there when she was a child.
“Everything was still the same, which went to show the lack of reinvestment in our community,” she said. “As Baton Rouge expanded, the money was going elsewhere instead of putting money back into the inner city communities.”
After dedicating the renamed City-Brooks Community Park in 2008, which combines the two formerly separate parks, BREC had to close its pool and those at three other parks in 2010 because of cracks and other problems. City-Brooks’ pool was later reopened as a smaller pool that focuses on teaching kids to swim.
“It has turned into a swimming pool that’s remote, on the side, nondescript,” said Robin Clark, who grew up in the area.
Still, some attendees of Saturday’s panel said they make it a point to take their children and grandchildren to City-Brooks to swim and play, hoping they will absorb some of the history that took place at and around the park.
“South Baton Rouge is not just a geographic thing, but it’s also a cultural thing and a traditional thing,” Clark said. “It is part of who we are, it is our heritage, it is our culture. When we say South Baton Rouge, it denotes food, it denotes a type of environment, it denotes a type of relationship with neighbors.”
Editor’s note: This article was changed on Tuesday, Dec. 22, 2015, to reflect that Trudy White is a judge in the 19th Judicial District.