Return to Rocky Springs protests

Picketers are shown protesting segregation at Rocky Springs' pool in the summer of 1963. Nelson Polite Sr., now a Lancaster city councilman, is holding the sign that says, "Democracy for Everyone."

As a child, Nelson Polite Sr. loved going to the Coatesville picnic every summer at Rocky Springs.

He remembers riding the trolley and being scared as it crossed rickety tracks over the Conestoga River on the way to the amusement park.

The picnic was a huge gathering, drawing black families from Chester, Lancaster and other counties.

As Polite, now a Lancaster city councilman, got older he noticed the park’s swimming pool had the same sign posted every year:

“Closed for repairs.”

Polite soon realized that was no coincidence. The Rocky Springs pool was off-limits to black swimmers, and the sign was a pretext to enforce that segregation whenever the picnic was held, he said.

Years later, in the summer of 1963, Polite was on the front line as marchers protested the pool’s failure to integrate after its owner lost a court case brought by Lancaster attorney Bob Pfannebecker. Rocky Springs was one of three county pools sued for discrimination in 1960, and all eventually lost. Other pools around the country faced similar legal battles.

The amusement park at Rocky Springs closed in 1966, and some say the segregation controversy led to the construction of the public pool in Lancaster County Central Park.

That contentious, under-publicized chapter of Rocky Springs’ history is one focus of an exhibit by 11 Franklin & Marshall College students who did an in-depth study of the park for an American studies senior seminar. Their work is on display through May 12 in the lobby of the school’s Shadek-Fackenthal Library.

Sandwich test

Last semester, the students each researched a different aspect of the park, from its 19th-century beginnings as a popular picnic spot along the Conestoga River south of Lancaster city to its rise as an amusement destination and its subsequent decline.

The seminar, which covered the broader, national topic of 100 years of commercial entertainment, was taught by M. Alison Kibler, assistant professor of American studies/women’s studies.

Three of the students looked into the segregation fight: Allison Pavero chronicled the legal angle; Elaine Keever compiled oral histories on the protests that followed; and Laura Piersol checked out pool desegregation cases in other states.

In addition to Rocky Springs, Brookside and Maple Grove swimming pools also were the subject of lawsuits filed by Pfannebecker.

Kibler noted that a number of pools around the country were in the same boat, including one at Glen Echo Park near Washington, D.C, which faced pressure to integrate in 1961.

“[That] was a big issue” as the civil rights movement was getting into full swing, she said.

But before the three local suits were brought, white and black volunteers were recruited to gather evidence of segregation that could be used in court.

They relied on a tactic known as the “sandwich test,” said Allison Pavero.

First, a white person would easily gain access to the pool; then a black individual would try to get in, only to be told “there’s an admissions process,” she said; and, finally, a second white person would be allowed in, no questions asked.

Signs weren’t posted banning black swimmers, Pavero said, so the pools were not “up front” about their segregation.

The sandwich test was done June 11, 1960, she said, and suits were filed in county court against each pool later that year.

‘Whites would stop going’

A McCaskey High School alumnus who graduated from F&M in 1955 and the University of Pennsylvania Law School in 1958, Pfannebecker was practicing with Jacques H. Geisenberger Sr. when he agreed to take the cases at the request of the Freedoms Committee. He is now managing partner of Zimmerman, Pfannebecker, Nuffort & Albert.

Not only were the pools a “visible” public accommodation that made ideal lawsuit targets, there was a legal precedent for desegregating them arising from a recent Philadelphia court decision, Pfannebecker said.

The Freedoms Committee was partly influenced by the local Unitarian-Universalist and Quaker congregations and tackled housing and other civil rights concerns, he said.

“I was sympathetic” to what they were doing, said Pfannebecker, a Unitarian and a Democrat who was involved in a number of progressive causes. He was used to issues that “rocked the boat,” he said.

At the time, Pfannebecker also was a counsel for the local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.

Rocky Springs’ owner Joseph Figari had been sued in the late 1940s, and lost, after two black men attending a Congress of Industrial Organizations picnic said they weren’t permitted to swim in the pool. That was a criminal case, while Pfannebecker’s was civil.

He accused the three pools of violating the Pennsylvania Human Relations Act and requested an injunction to prevent them from continuing to discriminate.

The Rocky Springs and Brookside suits ended in 1961, Pavero said, with the courts ruling against the pools. Maple Grove, however, appealed all the way to the state Supreme Court before losing in 1963, Pfannebecker said.

Today, Pfannebecker shakes his head when he remembers some of the arguments made by defense attorneys.

In a Dec. 20, 1960, Intelligencer Journal article, Rocky Springs lawyer Robert Ruppin is quoted as saying, “If blacks were admitted into the pool, whites would stop going.”

Summer protests

Even after the court case, the Rocky Springs pool still wouldn’t desegregate, Eileen Keever said. Protests were organized in the summer of ’63, around the time of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the March on Washington.

Among those taking part in the Sunday marches around the pool were members of the NAACP, faculty from F&M and Lancaster Theological Seminary, and members of churches such as Bethel AME, she said.

Prior to that, protests were held against three downtown department stores, Watt & Shand’s, Garvin’s and Hager’s, accused of discriminatory hiring practices, Pfannebecker said.

The students’ exhibit in the library includes a photo from one Rocky Springs march, showing about a half-dozen black protesters walking single file. The men are wearing shirts and ties, and the women dresses and skirts; some have small American flags.

The male at the head of the line is holding a sign: “All Men Are Created Equal in God’s Eyes!!!”

Two spots behind him is Nelson Polite Sr. His sign reads, “Democracy for Everyone.”

Kibler said one of her favorite signs, mentioned in a newspaper article at the time, said, “Our Color Won’t Wash Off.”

Ron Ford, a former Lancaster County commissioner, also marched at Rocky Springs. He was then a college student at Morgan State University in Baltimore.

The protests “brought a lot of negative press to the pool,” Keever said. The NAACP also boycotted concessions at the park, she said.

During the summers of 1964-66, the pool was rented by a fraternal organization, she said, and closed when the park did in 1966.

One fallout from the lawsuit and protests was the decision to no longer hold the Coatesville picnic at Rocky Springs, which cost the park a big chunk of its revenue.

According to newspaper records, Brookside shut down in the late 1970s and Maple Grove in 1987. Both had changed ownership. Under new leadership, Rocky Springs briefly reopened in 1979 and 1980 but attendance was poor.

Today, part of the original park is condominiums, and the rest is owned by Sam and Elaine Stoltzfus, who bought it in August 2001. They lease out a bed- and-breakfast there, which includes a honeymoon cottage. Elaine Stoltzfus said she and her husband have long-term plans to renovate the park’s restaurant building for year-round use as a meeting space, and the carousel building for seasonal use.

One positive outcome from Rocky Springs’ refusal to integrate its pool was the construction of the county pool, which was open to everyone, Pfannebecker and Polite said.

But there are some residual bad feelings. Asked about the Rocky Springs carousel, which returned to Lancaster during the administration of Mayor Charlie Smithgall, Ford paused.

“I never felt excited about that,” he said. “Maybe it’s because it was a reminder [of the segregated pool].”

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