Civil Rights Heritage Center
Backstory and Context
The story of the African American struggle to obtain their full civil and citizenship rights often centers on events that occurred below the Mason-Dixon line in the post-World War II years—particularly the thirteen years between the Montgomery Bus Boycott that began in December 1955 and the assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968.
However, as blacks migrated from the southern states to cities in the north in search of economic opportunity and social equality, they often confronted many of the same barriers faced by their relatives and friends who remained in the south. Blacks who settled in northern cities such as South Bend realized that although they had escaped the outright oppression and disenfranchisement they faced in the south, challenges such as job and housing discrimination, unequal education, and limited access to public accommodations had followed them north. South Bend's Engman Public Natatorium served as a bitter example that northern blacks—like their brothers and sisters in the south—would also have to engage in a struggle to force the country to live up to the promise of the Constitution.
We do not know how much Harry Engman, the industrialist and benefactor who donated funds for the building's construction, knew about the use of the word “public” in the pool’s title. However, in spite of that word being there, the people who ran this city owned pool banned African Americans from using it. That act rejected people of color as being part of the public the pool claimed to allow in.
The Engman Public Natatorium opened in 1922. At that time, it was the only indoor swimming pool in the area, and the largest such facility in Indiana. Schools, including the University of Notre Dame, brought their students to the Nat for swimming classes and lessons. Area fire departments used the facility for river rescue training. Yet, the city's black residents were totally prohibited from using the facility from 1922 until 1936 and could only use it once a week from 1936 until 1950. Those barriers fell as a result of efforts made by community activists acting in the interest and support of black citizens. Twice, in 1936 and again in 1950, these leaders opposed the city's efforts to use tax dollars to make repairs on the grounds that the city's black taxpayers would be forced to pay for repairs at a facility they could not use.
The first effort resulted in the state forcing the city to allow blacks to use the pool once a week. The second resulted in the facility being fully integrated. The Natatorium remained opened until 1978 when mounting maintenance issues and a shrinking tax base forced its closure. The facility remained shuttered for more than 30 years, during which time it reflected the declining fortunes of the surrounding neighborhood and stood in stark contrast to the restoration happening in parts of that same neighborhood. The structure might have continued its slow decay or even been demolished had it not been for a group of students and professors at Indiana University South Bend who had embarked on tours of civil rights landmarks and meetings with movement figures throughout the south. These two-week tours, titled Freedom Summer, began in the spring/summer of 2000.
Returning students were inspired by the stories they heard from these living icons, and were determined to learn more about their city's civil rights history. The group decided to collect the oral histories from these longtime residents, and the issue of public accommodations became a recurring theme. The focus and pain of many of these residents centered on the Engman Public Natatorium and was encapsulated in the account by a woman named Barbara Vance Brandy who recalled walking to the Natatorium with her grandmother. She wore a red bathing suit as she approached the booth and prepared to hand the attendant her nickel. However, young Barbara was turned away because she came to the facility on the wrong day.
Eventually, those professors and students along with a diverse group of community leaders and organizations launched an effort to renovate the building, which opened as the Indiana University South Bend Civil Rights Heritage Center in 2010. The Center serves as an example of adaptive reuse as the area where the pool was located was damaged beyond repair and has been transformed into a peace garden that is often used for outdoor events and receptions during the summer. An exhibition on the original brick walls tell the story of the African American presence in South Bend and their fight to integrate the building. The Natatorium has classroom space, a lending library, and a room where films can be shown. In the eight years since its opening, the Center has served as a classroom for IU South Bend professors and students, a meeting place, art gallery, a venue for cultural events such as poetry readings, and a leading voice in the fight for racial and social justice for all people.