Guests spilled out the doors at the Centennial Arts Center, 25th Ave. N. and Park Plaza to take part in ‘Wade In These Waters.’ There was a mix of African American and Caucasian men and women who’d come to hear a conversation about the events held in that very room regarding the story behind the public swimming pool becoming integrated.
This conversation was led by Phyllis Hildreth who served as the moderator, guiding four panelists, David Ewing, Nashville historian; Howard Gentry, Criminal Court Clerk; Reavis Mitchell, Fisk University historian; and Monique Odom, Metro Parks director.
Because Centennial Park is a staple of Nashville history, it was deemed a prime location to tell the story about a pivotal event held on its grounds.
“It is important to have a conversation on the arc of the African American experience in Centennial Park,” said moderator Phyllis Hildreth, director of Grants Management and Strategic Partnerships at the American Baptist College. The panelists addressed the city’s past, its impact on the current day and how we move forward in the future.
The audience was attentive when the panelists spoke about their different perspectives concerning their interactions at the pool site. Howard Gentry, Jr. spoke of him being a little kid and only wanting to swim. He wasn’t attempting to make a statement; he just wanted to swim. He and Reavis Mitchell, Jr. shared stories about their childhood, with both of them living nearby. They experienced the prejudices of all aspects of segregation.
As certain events were recalled, a young Black man in the audience (who looked to be in his 30s) silently shed tears. Following the event, the young man stated: “I just began to think of my father and all that he went through. He told me stories—but to hear other men talk about what actually happened right here, it just touched me.”
The entire presentation was quite moving as Nashville historian David Ewing spoke of the brave actions of Kwami Lillard, who was in the audience, and the late Matthew Walker. Following several comments on their fight for equality, Kwami was asked to join them.
Declining the invitation to take a seat on the panel, Kwami graciously made remarks in regards to his part in the pool’s closing: “On one simple day, Matthew Walker and I decided to go to the pool with our 25 cents and a towel and request to be allowed to swim. We not only were told ‘no’ but that the pool would be drained. As we waited around, we noticed the water receding and the pool was being drained at that very moment. And, the thought of going to another pool was also out because the other 27 public pools were also drained following this action.”
A dynamic poem by guest poet Stephanie Pruitt, Commissioner for Metro Arts, ended the evening’s activities. She created the poem from the words spoken about feelings arising during the conversation.
“The Conservancy’s ‘Wade In These Waters’ program is the start of a conversation to recover and reconnect the broken strands of Nashville’s civil rights story in Centennial Park,” said Hildreth.