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November 15, 2023

David Isom, 19, Broke the Color Line in a Segregated Pool in Florida, Resulting in Officials Closing the Facility in 1958

On June 8, 1958, 19-year-old David Isom, a recent graduate of Gibbs High School, swam at the Spa Pool, adjacent the Spa Beach in Florida. “I feel that it’s not a privilege, just a right,” Isom said. The cashier who sold Isom a 35 cent admission ticket said she had orders to treat Isom “like any other citizen.” About 45 white people already were in the pool when Isom entered. They paid little attention to Isom, and Isom said he was treated politely by everyone present. Tommy Chinnis, the head lifeguard on duty, said the youth “was like everyone else.”

Nonetheless, when Isom left after about twenty minutes in the pool area, pool manager John Gough tacked up a “closed” sign on the entrance. Gough said he was acting on orders “because a Negro has used the facilities.” So eventually, the Spa Pool and the Spa Beach did shut down. But, the city council did reopen the facilities in 1959. The new city manager George K. Armes declared that they were to be kept open unless there was trouble.

While seen today as a casual act of revolution, many white people back in 1958 viewed this simple statement as a threat to their imagined superiority. Many facilities in the 1950s were racially segregated. This segregation extended to pools, libraries, toilets, water fountains, schools, colleges, restaurants, and more, with the facilities for African Americans often being in poorer conditions than those exclusively for white people. These restrictions were established through a set of systematically racist laws known as the Jim Crow laws.

Jim Crow was a theatrical character developed by Thomas D. Rice, who portrayed African Americans in offensive and stereotypical ways. The character typically involved a white man dressed in rags with blackface, portraying a black man as impoverished, unintelligent, and unreliable, suggesting that they should not be integrated into society. The character often engaged in dancing and singing racist songs while reinforcing the idea that the presence of African Americans increased the likelihood of crime, such as theft, in the vicinity.


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