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Back in the day, July 26, 1963: Ten black youths swim for the first time in Peony Park's pool
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Back in the day, July 26, 1963: Ten black youths swim for the first time in Peony Park's pool

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Peony Park 1963

This photo was taken on the second day that Black people were admitted to the Peony Park pool. On July 26, 1963, Peony Park, which had been strictly segregated, allowed Black people to swim in the pool for the first time. Herb Rhodes, second from left, was among the first Black people to swim at the pool that first weekend. He is shown here at the diving board dock with, from left, F.J. Pepper of Omaha Urban League, Betty Jo Moreland and Dale Anders.

The stories are distinct, but their origin is the same: a neighborhood so vibrant, so unified that individual accomplishments and devastations touched every house from Tech High to Kountze Park. A neighborhood where, depending on the night, they might see Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, Ray Charles, James Brown, Joe Louis, Jesse Owens or Jackie Robinson – just walking down 24th Street. A neighborhood despite its humble size and remote location in middle America, became a progressive beacon in the national protest movement, recognized by would-be presidents and would-be revolutionaries.

Peony Park, an Omaha amusement park that closed in the 1990s, was strictly segregated until July 26, 1963. Black people were allowed in parts of the park but were banned from the pool.

However, 58 years ago today, 10 members of the NAACP Youth Council swam briefly in the pool and celebrated a significant victory in Omaha's early march toward racial equality.

A lifeguard "escorted" the group of teens into the pool.

Previously, Black people had tried without success to fight Peony Park's ban.

One month before the July 26 swim, two Black Offutt Air Force Base airmen had initiated anti-discrimination legal action against Peony Park after they were denied entrance to the pool during an outing with white airmen. The City Prosecutor's Office filed a civil rights charge against the park.

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Herb Rhodes and fellow members of the NAACP Youth Council challenged the racist ban earlier in July 1963 by trying to enter the pool. When they were denied entry, they and carloads of other young people peacefully stayed outside the gates, causing a long backup of would-be swimmers on a simmering summer day.

Then-Gov. Frank Morrison said the amusement park appeared to be violating anti-discrimination laws. Rather than let Black people in, Peony Park officials closed the pool as demonstrators chanted outside.

Peony Park tried to get around the law by reopening as a private pool but eventually conceded and began admitting Black people. Rhodes was among the first Blacks to enter the once-segregated waters. He went back only once after that, but his children could go there as they wished in the future.

Bob Paris was a 22-year-old ex-Marine who had recently returned to Omaha. He worked full time at the Veterans Hospital to save money for college and helped with the youth council. 

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Paris said the incident involving the Offutt Air Force Base airmen and others solidified the resolve of youth council members.

"It wasn't about swimming in the pool," Paris said. "It was about one thing: denying us access."

Integrating Peony Park's pool was the young people's contribution. Their success rippled across the city and splashed through an unspoken but ever-present barrier that separated Black people from white people.

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