St. Petersburg, a city surrounded by water and known for its resort lifestyle, had no pools where African Americans could swim until 1954. That changed when Jennie Hall, an 85 year old white woman from Montana, stepped forward to help the African American community build a pool. With a rather startling and unannounced moment in front of St. Petersburg’s city council in June 1953, Jennie Hall proclaimed she would be donating $25,000 for a swimming pool to serve the African American community. To prove her seriousness, she wrote a check for $10,000 on the spot and promised an additional $15,000. The City Council, somewhat cowed and taken aback, agreed to match the gift with $35,000 of city funds.
Public swimming pools first became popular in America in the urban, working class neighborhoods of northern cities in the 1870s. The first pools were little more than public baths and were rigidly segregated by gender and class, but not by race. In the 1920’s these public bathing pools underwent a social and cultural transformation and gained immense middle-class popularity. Going to pools was considered as popular and all-American as going to the movies. African Americans, however, particularly in the South, were excluded from swimming with whites of any gender or class. This was the case in St. Petersburg. African Americans had no access to swimming pools and no access to beaches on the Gulf of Mexico. Swimming was only permitted in Tampa Bay at downtown’s South Mole beach.
Following World War II, and continuing into the early 1950’s, the issue of locating and constructing a pool for the African American community in St. Petersburg was endlessly debated. Lacking a consensus, the matter languished on the city’s priority list. During this period, use of the South Mole for swimming by African Americans was tacitly accepted and meager funds were directed towards its maintenance and staffing. By the 1950s, the City operated a small “learn to swim” program at South Mole and employed N. L. Brown as a lifeguard where he would supervise activities for several hundred swimmers.
The Supreme Court’s 1954 desegregation rulings did not end debate about use of public pool facilities in St. Petersburg. In August 1955, seven Black youths unsuccessfully attempted to desegregate downtown’s Spa Pool. While the segregation of St. Peterburg’s swimming pools and beaches was found unconstitutional in 1957, further attempts in the summer of 1958 to integrate downtown’s Spa Beach and Pool (since demolished) were stymied. Rather than allow Spa Beach Pool to be used by all residents, regardless of race, the City instead closed all of its pools and beaches, not opening them as intergraded facilities until January 1959.
Jennie Hall was born outside a small Missouri town on December 13, 1869. She attended college, funding her education like many women, by teaching as it was one of the few occupations available to educated women. Hall left teaching after her two brothers persuaded her to join them in the lumber business in Butte, Montana. After selling the business, Hall retired to St. Petersburg in 1921 at the age of 53. She remained in the city until passing away in 1955.
Like many retired middle class women, Hall was active with several civic and religious groups but her actions in front of the city council came as a surprise. Hall was not known as a wealthy woman. She told the newspaper that she did not have a great deal of money but that she lived frugally so as to be able to do things for others. Hall told the newspaper she was frustrated with the lack of progress on building a pool for “Negro children.” After funding the pool, Hall continued to give generously to the African American community.
In February of 1955, just prior to her death, the B’nai B’Brith awarded Jennie Hall the St. Petersburg Brotherhood Award because of her long history of efforts on behalf of St. Petersburg’s African American population. Hall was the first woman to win such an honor. Hall’s death was reported in the New York Times with an obituary titled, “Jennie Hall, Aided Negros in Florida."
Jennie Hall Pool opened on June 16, 1954. At the dedication, a bronze plaque honoring Jennie Hall was placed in the bathhouse where it can still be found. Entrance fees were initially set at fifteen cents for children under the age of fourteen, twenty cents for children under seventeen, and twenty-five cents for adults. The pool’s first manager and chief lifeguard was Ernest A. Fillyau who would be elected to city council for two terms in the 1990s.
From the outset, the African American community heavily used Jennie Hall Pool. The pool staff conducted free swimming lessons and inter and intra city swimming competitions for older children became common. By 1958 an estimated 10,000 children had learned to swim at the pool.
As part of a city “belt tightening” in 2010 in reaction to the great recession, Mayor Bill Foster recommended closing Jennie Hall Pool. In response, the Wildwood Neighborhood Association, led by Lillian Baker and Lisa Wheeler Bowman, who would be elected to city council in 2015, joined with Preserve the ‘Burg in successfully applying to have Jennie Hall Pool designated as a local landmark.
Preserving historic sites that stand as witness to our shameful Jim Crow past as well as testimony to the resiliency of our communities is how we tell our city’s full history. Jennie Hall Pool represents the tangible, living history of St Pete.
If you'd like to know more about Jennie Hall Pool, check out our Sense of Place video!