“Tell us about a news story that has captured your attention” is one of Kat Bouska’s prompts this week. I spend every workday reading a variety of news stories as I prepare eight different nonprofit sector newsletters at SmartBrief, so I scanned my memory for something that stood out.
In the process, I went to my personal folder in Slack, where I ferret away all kinds of things, including articles I may want to use in a newsletter.
On Sunday, January 17, I had saved City renames portion of Findlay Street. At the time, I had been looking around on the internet for a story that mentioned Martin Luther King, Jr. Although we were not publishing on MLK Day, I was looking for something that I could include in the International City/County Management newsletter I edit for the issue that ended up being published on Tuesday, January 19.
I didn’t use the Portsmouth article in the January 19 issue (I used this instead), but I’m grateful this prompt led me to read the article, which is about so much more than naming a portion of Findlay Street in Portsmouth, Ohio, after Martin Luther King, Jr.
The history behind Portsmouth’s choice
It took almost two years for the Portsmouth City Council to finalize the renaming of a portion of Finlay Street to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way, as it did this month.
The history that led to the city’s choice of location started in 1961. A Black teenager (Eugene McKinley) drowned in a sand and gravel pit — the young Black man was not welcome in the city’s only pool, which only admitted white people.
The new street sign is across from the McKinley pool. And the history behind the McKinley pool is where this story develops its layers upon layers upon layers.
This history from the Scioto Historical project explains the mixture of acts of cowardice and courage that occurred between McKinley’s death in 1961 and the naming of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way in January 2021. SIXTY YEARS.
The piece Eugene McKinley Memorial Pool & the End of Jim Crow in Portsmouth, Ohio — “A Place in the Sun for Everyone” covers many details of those 60 years.
Here are some of the main points drawn from the newspaper article and the Scioto Historical project piece, but a bullet list really doesn’t do the situation justice:
Portsmouth had the nation’s first Black coroner, Dr. James Forrest Scott Sr., and a Black police chief, Ted Wilburn, at the time McKinley died.
City residents mounted an effort to build an integrated pool after McKinley’s death. What they did not do was advocate for the whites-only Terrace Club pool to be integrated.
After the Civil Rights Act was passed in 1964, one solution would have been the integration of the Terrace Club pool, but the Terrace Club was exempted as a “private club.”
A “wade-in” took place on July 17, 1964, at the Terrace Club pool, which refused admission to six Black people.
On that day in July, one white kid shook hands with one of the Black men. What a powerful image.
Dr. Scott, as the coroner, was the only law enforcement authority with the power to arrest the sheriff. That’s exactly what he threatened to do if the sheriff proceeded to arrest the two juvenile boys involved in the wade-in. (Four of the participants were adults and were released on bond, with the charges eventually being dropped.)
Another direct action took place on July 21, 1964.
An investigation found that the Terrace Club, which had evaded integration based on being “private,” had been getting a discount on city water.
The Terrace Club was renamed “Dreamland” and stayed in business until the 1990s, as an integrated facility.
The McKinley pool, which opened in 1966, is now the only municipal pool in Portsmouth, Ohio.
And now the McKinley pool is situated on Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Way.
One of the things I love about reading so many local government stories is the exposure to the incredible amount of work that goes into making a change like this happen. It takes focused effort to research options. It takes dogged work to convince local government officials to make a change. It takes patience and tenacity.
Councilman Sean Dunne got educated by speaking with Jacklyn Hockenberry, who had researched how cities had named or co-named streets after Dr. King as part of the Shawnee State Sociology Club. Dunne and Hockenberry came up with the proposal to locate the renamed street near the pool.
In a message Dunne released, he said, “There is added significance to this location, as it reminds me of the folk story of death flowers, or mandragoras. It was said they grew where innocent men had been hung, and they possessed incredible powers.”
Nothing will fix the loss of Eugene McKinley. In the fight for justice and equity, there are very few “fixes.” But this story reminded me that — hopefully — the work is not in vain.