Truth can easily escape. One persistent urban myth surrounds the old Natatorium, once Davenport's block-long downtown swimming pool at the foot of Main Street. It was built in 1922 and razed in 1977.
The urban myth makes the claim that for years, African-Americans were permitted to swim at the Nat only one day a week. Then, the 500,000 gallons of water would be drained, and the pool refilled next day.
This unbelievable story was told and retold so many times that a plaque stating just that was posted in 2011 during an effort to create a civil rights walking trail. Seven plaques were unveiled at sites that also included a soda fountain and a barber shop. The Nat plaque read, in part:
“The pool was opened once a week to blacks only. The pool would then be drained and refilled before whites would use it. In response to this, Charles and Ann Toney built a swimming pool behind their home at 1010 Western Ave. Blacks could access this pool any day of the week in the long, hot summers. The Natatorium was eventually opened on a non-segregated basis in the late 1960s.”
The problem with the claim on that plaque? It’s a myth, according to the man who wrote it.
“It’s not true. I wrote the copy. I’m responsible,” says Art Pitz of Moline. “I heard the pool-draining story so many times that I thought it was true. I checked quite a few sources. I thought the story was irrefutable.”
That is backed up by the recollections of Ruth Johnson, who was hired in 1955 to head the Davenport Park Board swimming team.
“I remember black kids on our swimming team," she said. "I have no recollection of any segregation policy. Most certainly, the pool was never drained once it was filled in the spring until it finally was drained at the end of each season."
Purely personal, I recall my flailing attempts to learn to swim at the Nat many years ago alongside kids who included Gene Baker, an African-American classmate at Davenport High School who became an all-star player for the Chicago Cubs, and Phil Gomez, my pal in intermediate school who lived in the largely Hispanic Cook Point area of Davenport.
Tyrone Orr, a Rock Island funeral director who grew up in Davenport, recalls how Charles Toney balked at even a hint of segregation at the Nat. “It was in the 1950s when blacks could swim with whites, but I’m not so sure we were always welcome,” Orr says.
“He went ahead and built a swimming pool for us in his back yard at 1010 Western Avenue,” says Orr. “The white kids and the black kids all swam together.”
Bill Gluba, ex-mayor of Davenport, remembers how he joined in swimming in that little pool. “I was a young guy then and we sure had a lot of fun.”
The small pool was filled in years ago. Now, the former Toney house is the home of Ron and Virginia Brobston. “There are pieces of the concrete left,” Virginia says, pointing to bricks from the bath house embedded in the ground. A plaque with the Natatorium myth is in her yard.
An interesting coda to this smashed urban myth: At its Sept. 12 meeting, the Davenport School Board heard a request from a group of community members to name the new swimming pool at Central High School.
Their suggestion? Charles and Ann Toney Natatorium.