HALLANDALE BEACH

Finally, a new pool for Hallandale Beach’s black community

 

cteproff@MiamiHerald.com

Today it is just a forlorn concrete slab, but once it was filled with laughter and splashing, as the sounds of Sam Cooke, the Temptations and Jackie Wilson drifted overhead.

In the days of segregation and beyond, the Dixie Pool was the heartbeat of Hallandale Beach’s black community.

“Those were some of the best memories of my life,” said Luvenia Brown, 65, who swam freestyle and the medley for the all-black swim team in the late ’50s and early ’60s. “It was like nothing else existed.”

But over the years the pool developed cracks, people stopped going and in 1991, the city shut it for good.

For more than 20 years, residents in the city’s still predominantly black northwest section were told they’d get their pool back and more recreational activities — but it never happened.

“The northwest has been forgotten for so many years,” said lifelong resident Hubert “Hammar” Jackson, one of nearly a dozen members of the original Vikings swim team, an all-black team that competed from 1958 to 1963 against other black swim teams from across the state.

But now the city is finally making good on its promise to give the community its pool back. It recently broke ground on a new pool at a nearby park. When the $5 million renovation at B.F. James Park is done by next summer, the new L-shaped pool will boast three lanes for swimming laps, access for the disabled and scheduled classes for children to learn how to swim.

For some, the new pool will be more than just a place to cool off from the South Florida sun, it’s a chance to bring back a piece of history

“We want our kids to have what we had,” said Jackson, 67, who won several state championships for the swim team.

“It’s so important that they know how to swim,” he said.

DROWNINGS

In the 1950s, Hallandale, as it was then known, had little development and a lot of mango trees, tomato patches and other crops. There were also a lot of areas that were undeveloped and naturally were dug out, so water collected in them.

Youngsters, who never learned how to swim, would slip into those water-filled cavities and drown. Often, they died as others watched helplessly, afraid that they, too, would drown.

Among the dead: 15-year-old Bill Chapman, 14-year-old Geraldine McCoy, 14-year-old Rudolph Ferguson, 16-year-old Henry Henshaw and 12-year-old Ulyssee Jackson.

“Hammar” Jackson was 6 when his big brother slipped off the bank and into the muddy water. Ulyssee Jackson’s two cousins — who were about the same age — saw him go down, but didn’t know how to swim. They ran to get help, but by the time rescuers arrived, it was too late.

“After that, my mother always told me to stay away from water,” he said.

Taking note of all the drowning deaths: Orestes Blake “O.B.” Johnson, who worked as a parks and recreation director over the three parks in the black community.

At first, he arranged for a bus to shuttle the kids to Fort Lauderdale every Saturday so they could learn to swim. But the demand grew to the point that there were more children who wanted to go than seats on the bus.

There was a city pool in the white neighborhood to the east. But it was the time of segregation, and blacks didn’t cross the train tracks to go there.

Johnson pushed and pushed City Hall, and finally the pool was built. “My grandfather worked hard for that,” said Keenan Johnson, who had a job lifeguarding in the 1980s.

In the summer of 1958, the Dixie Pool opened and quickly became the most happening place in town.

John Wesley, now 79, remembers hopping the fence the night before the pool’s official opening to take the first dip.

“I was too excited to wait,” he said. “I figured why not?”

The pool had six 25-yard lanes and a deep end, which was marked 9 feet. Jackson said they didn’t believe the marking and one day took a tape measure to it. It proved to be 10 feet deep. There were three diving boards, one three-meter board and two one-meter boards.

TEN CENTS TO GET IN

Every day the pool would open at 10 a.m. to children who were already waiting to get in. Those who weren’t on the swim team had to pay 10 cents to get in. The kids who used the pool helped clean it. They’d scrub the tile, hose down the decks and even learned how to control the chlorine levels.

Pool-goers flirted, horse-played and listened to the music. Some sat on the deck and snacked on five-cent soda pop and cookies from a concession stand on a nearby field.

Brown, the freestyle swimmer, remembers the late-night splash parties where they swam to the glow of a few lights and the sounds of music from two speakers set up near the deep end. She also remembers the contests to see who could hold their breath the longest.

“We liked to challenge each other,” she said.

The teens began racing each other, and the coaches and lifeguards eventually began teaching proper technique.

In 1959, the Hallandale Vikings Swim Team was formed, competing every weekend against other black teams throughout the state. The 20 members were dedicated, practicing throughout the day every day.

The Vikings’ relay team — Hammar Jackson was a member — won the state championship five years in a row.

“We couldn’t be beat,” he said.

But one thing they couldn’t beat was segregation.

In 1962, Jackson’s coach took him to a diving competition at a North Miami pool. But when they got there just after 9 a.m., his coach found out Jackson couldn’t compete because blacks weren’t allowed. Jackson stayed all day to watch the competition. After everyone else got out of the water and went home, the competition organizer allowed Jackson in. He performed 10 dives for the five judges who stayed to watch him.

The scores didn’t count, but if they had, he would have finished second, allowing him to move on to another competition that would have determined whether he could go to the Olympics.

The members of the team also worked as lifeguards at the pool.

Knowing how to swim — and how to help others — came in handy one day for Jackson.

Andrew Mozie Fleming said a bunch of boys were rafting on a lake when they flipped. Fleming was one of two who couldn’t swim.

“He was my lifesaver,” he said of Jackson. “He is why I am here today.”

After many of the original swim team members grew up and left for Vietnam, college or for other opportunities, the pool began to lose its spark.

“Distractions moved in and the pool was no longer the only ticket in town,” Jackson recalled.

DETERIORATION

The pool really went downhill after Johnson, the pool’s benefactor, died in the mid-1980s. The pool began developing cracks, and the city never invested in fixing them, Jackson said.

Rules, written and unwritten, about blacks crossing the railroad tracks had long been put aside, and people began going to the east side of the city to use the pool there.

Eudyce Steinberg, the vice mayor at the time, remembers the city’s decision to close Dixie Pool in 1991.

“It had nothing to do with where it was,” Steinberg said. “The issue was no one used the pool.”

In 1995, it was turned into an in-line skating rink, then it regressed into a concrete slab.

It seemed destined to forever remain that until the city undertook a plan to redo all of its parks. Groundbreaking on the new pool, which is being built at B.F James Park, 101 NW Ninth St., was held recently with a ceremony marking a “new era.”

Jackson and several other swim team members said they hope the city will enlist some of them to teach the new generation who use the future pool how to swim.

“All they need to do is say the word,” Jackson said, “and we will be there.”

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