The Near North Side neighborhood was packed with people for more than a century. People need places to hang out and cool off in Omaha’s hot summers, and in the late 1940s the City of Omaha Parks Department decided to build a swimming pool to serve the community.
By this point, the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects had become strictly segregated, with white families living in one area while African Americans lived in another. However, North 24th Street, which was North O’s main street, was still successful. Businesses packed the corridor from Cuming Street northwards, with customers, workers, owners and others swarming the area constantly. Old timers called it a “sea of glass on a sunny morning” because of the amount of gleaning glass shining at them!
Meeting An Unmet Need
The city’s established pools like Peony Park, Miller Park and elsewhere maintained discriminatory policies against allowing Blacks to swim. The City decided to build a pool to serve African Americans as well as whites, and located it across the street from the housing projects.
Not content with merely opening a pool, the City merged the pool plans with the design of a new Kellom School. The plan called for the school building to operate as a city-run community center on weekday evenings and on the weekends. Combined with the pool, the thinking was that the community’s recreation needs would be satisfied. This model was heralded nationally for being progressive.
Val Peterson, the governor of Nebraska, officially opened the pool in 1952.
Who Used the Pool?
The Kellom Pool was used by both Blacks and whites throughout its existence. In the early decades, when the projects had people of both races living there, the pool was used by many residents. In the later decades when the projects became strictly African American, whites came to the pool from other neighborhoods through nonprofit and government programs.
As an integrated pool serving low-income folks and others, there was charity involved. A nonprofit called United Community Services collected used swim trunks to give away at the pool. For several decades the ARC facilitated swim days at the pool for its clients, and the City of Omaha used the pool for summer programs through the 1990s.
There were near-calamities at the pool. In 1955, a 33-year-old woman named Frenchy Jones was spotted lying on the bottom of the pool near the diving board. A lifeguard and another swimmer pulled her out and the lifeguard gave her artificial respiration. When the fire department arrived in five minutes with a resuscitator, she was revived and taken Children’s Hospital, where she recovered.
In 1956, a beginning swimmer named Robert Wisner, Jr. went into the 12-foot deep end of the pool. Rescued by a 17-year-old lifeguard named Tom Pedersen, Wisner was give artificial respiration until a fire department rescue unit arrived. Wisner survived, and Pedersen was recognized for saving his life.
The pool was used to bolster the community’s self-image. For instance, Whitney Young, Jr. was the Executive Director of the Omaha Urban League in the 1950s when he personally brought groups of Black youth to the pool to swim. He later became an acclaimed national civil rights leader,
For a few years, the City of Omaha Parks Department held a competition to select “the Queen of Kellom Pool.” According to the Omaha World-Herald in 1961, “Nearly 12 hundred persons attended the beauty contest.” That year, the final competition was held at the Music Box, where 15-year-old Gail Elaine Moss was crowned the Queen of Kellom Pool. The next year, Pam McCullum, a 17-year-old from Topeka, won the award.
Kellom Pool is Demolished
In 1980, the City of Omaha received a $250,000 grant from the National Park Service Urban Park Recovery Program to cover the cost of renovating the swimming pool and bathhouse.
The Kellom Pool was closed by the City of Omaha in the late 1990s. The site was demolished at the same time the Logan Fontenelle Housing Projects were demolished, in 1998.
Today, the site of the pool is part of the Omaha-Council Bluffs Metro Area Planning Agency’s parking lot. Part of the Omaha Lead Superfund Site, the entire Near North Side neighborhood continues to struggle to overcome years racist policy-making, systematic discriminatory practices, and social abandon. The absence of the Kellom Pool serves as a cherry on top of a bitter desert of benign neglect by the City of Omaha and Omaha’s civic leaders.