Joyce J. Scott’s Memorial Pool, 1999 Baltimore

A little history. In the mid-19th century, a growing movement in the US was influenced by the romantic landscape tradition seen in European parks. On the surface, the purpose of these parks was to be a place where urban workers could enjoy clean air and sunshine; however, sociologist Dorecta E. Taylor believes that they were an effort to “civilize the masses.” It was thought that by improving the environment and health of the working class, morals would improve as well. In 1858, a strong proponent of this theory, Frederick Law Olmsted, opened New York City’s Central Park. Not wanting to be outdone by his neighbors to the north, Baltimore Mayor Thomas Swann began searching for a property that would rival Central Park. They chose the “splendid bucolic landscape” of Lloyd Nicholas Roger’s Druid Hill Estate on the outskirts of Baltimore City as their showpiece. As a progressive program, the Park was designed to bring nature to the urban working class. However, location was a problem. Most people arriving at the Park had to do so in carriages and horseback. In 1863, the city built a steam railway connecting North Avenue to the Park. However, the cost meant that poorer citizens south of the Park still could not afford a visit, while residents to the north in Hampden and Woodberry had more accessibility. 

By the early 1900s, residents of Hampden, these days the neighborhood everyone refers to as cool, used to park as an impenetrable psychological and physical barrier for keeping outsiders (i.e., African Americans, immigrants, Jews) out. The tightening grip of racism in Baltimore came with codified segregation in 1910 by limiting Black residents to specific city blocks. By 1927, the Ku Klux Klan organized parades, baseball games, picnics, and carnivals at Druid Hill Park. As a result, Black visitors kept to the western portion of the Park, which housed the segregated pool and tennis courts; the side that bordered Hampden was far too dangerous. 

Constructed in 1921 under the designation “Pool No. 2,” it was an aquatic facility established to cater to the recreational swimming needs of Baltimore’s extensive Black community, which numbered in the hundreds of thousands. This was it—one pool. In contrast, other areas in the city boasted six public pools that, despite being meticulously maintained, were inaccessible to African Americans. Even though Pool No. 2 was almost half the size of the neighboring, whites-only Pool No. 1, its popularity was so immense that admission had to be organized in shifts due to the large crowds. Ironically, prior to desegregation, Pool No. 1 lacked filtration and was directly linked to the reservoir. Whereas Pool No. 2 was equipped with filtration systems to clean the water, Black folks swam in. Inadvertently, this discriminatory policy led to a safer experience for the Black pool.

The turning point came in 1953 when an African American boy tragically drowned while swimming with two white friends in the Patapsco River. He lived near Clifton Park but was denied access to the whites-only pool there, thus prompting him to opt for the perilous river feeding Baltimore Harbor’s Middle Branch. In response, the NAACP advocated for the desegregation of all municipal pools in Baltimore. Faced with resistance from the Parks Board, the NAACP pursued legal action, ultimately winning the case on appeal. In June 1956, the city’s public pools were declared open for the summer season on a non-segregated basis. On the inaugural day, over 100 Black swimmers went to Pool No. 1, while only one white swimmer jumped into Pool No. 2. The end of the summer brought the end of Pool. No. 2 and any remnants of Baltimore’s “separate but equal” swimming facilities.

For forty years, the pool’s concrete shell sat dangerously empty. During the research phase of the 1995 Druid Hill Park Master Plan, discussions were held between park officials and residents to identify the most cherished aspects of the Park. Together, they unearthed a shared sentiment of nostalgia among local residents for the historically African American portion of the Park. In response, the city established a plan of “a meditative, artistic, and informative setting acknowledging the segregation era at the site’.” Following a 1996 open call for art proposals, the task of redesigning the pool as a space for contemplation and celebration was entrusted to Baltimore’s artistic genius, Joyce J. Scott.

Raised in West Baltimore’s Sandtown neighborhood, once referred to as “Baltimore’s Harlem,” in her youth, Scott swam in what had previously been Pool No. 1. When I think of Scott’s work, what first comes to mind is her ability to seamlessly blend craft, storytelling, and social commentary to challenge societal norms and confront racial and gender issues. I always think of her intricate beadwork, so densely layered and vibrant. But for her work in Druid Hill Park, Memorial Pool is a series of subtle gestures aiming to commemorate the social experiences of Pool No. 2 patrons and preserve the collective memory of local resistance against discriminatory practices of exclusion. She filled the pool with dirt and soil to the brim, then filled the rectangular expanse with grass. It’s so beautifully simple, you might miss it if not for the armature of structures that hark back to what it once was: ladders, lifeguard stands, and the diving board frame were painted brilliant blue. The space is enclosed by a thin layer of cobalt blue ceramic tiles and concrete sidewalks with a flowing design in shades of orange, red, and blue, inspired by traditional African motifs that symbolize peace, tranquility, and community unity. A long wooden structure that once served as the men’s dressing rooms is running along one edge of the pool.

Walking on the grass, where once there was water, on a quiet day, you can almost hear the echoes of the joy that was once had here. I could feel the site’s enduring spiritual or emotional aura on a recent cold but sunny Thursday morning. The skeleton of the old diving board casts a long shadow that seems to mimic the unhurried change of racial progress in a city that seems too unbothered by its lack of progress. Scott’s sculpture is a tangible and enduring reminder of a significant historical moment when racial segregation was dismantled. Her work is a visual representation of the past, an enduring invitation for audiences to reflect, engage, and evolve in our understanding of the intricate interplay between art and society.