During the hot summer months there is nothing better than a dip in a cool pool. But in 1920s Los Angeles, public swimming pools were only open to black Angelenos one day a week. This injustice would be remedied not by an Olympic-level sports star or powerful government official, but by an upper-middle-class “housewife” named Betty Hill.
“The world is in need of aggressive leadership, and aggressive leadership must come from the women,” Hill said in the Los Angeles Sentinel in 1947.
According to Robert Lee Johnson, author of Notable Southern Californians in Black History, Rebecca Jane Perkins was born around 1882 in Nashville, Tennessee. The granddaughter of a man who had been enslaved, Rebecca, called Betty, studied at the first black school in Davidson County, which was started by her father. She then attended Roger Williams University, where she studied religion. In 1898, she married Army Sgt. Abraham Houston Hill, a member of the famed “Buffalo Soldier” regiment.
The Hills were good friends with fellow Buffalo Soldier Lt. Colonel Allen Allensworth, who founded the utopian African-American community of Allensworth in 1908. The Hills purchased land in Allensworth, located in rural Tulare County, California, while they were stationed in New York.
But upon Abraham Hill’s retirement from the Army in 1913, the couple did not move to rough-and-tumble Allensworth but to Los Angeles, which had long boasted a vibrant and cultured black middle class. They settled in a brand-new home in West Jefferson, the heart of black LA, at 1655 West 37th Place.
Betty Hill immediately immersed herself in civic and political affairs. Their first year in LA, she and Abraham became founding members of the new Los Angeles Chapter of the NAACP. She also taught Sunday school and helped found the LA branch of the Urban League, becoming a longtime board member.
In 1920, Hill organized the Westside Property Owners Association to protect black property owners’ rights. Besides providing legal and political support, the association also sponsored teas and events to raise money for educational scholarships and legal funds. Hill’s tireless networking and community building were formed by a strong belief in self-reliance and the importance of civic groups to combat racism and discrimination. “Betty was an admirer of both Booker T. Washington and W.E.B. Du Bois, and took the best of each philosophy to develop her own brand of political activism,” Johnson writes.
One of her greatest battles would begin in 1926. That year, the playground commission of the city of Los Angeles officially segregated its recreation centers and swimming pools. Black children were only allowed to use public swimming pools one afternoon of the week, for the “public welfare” of LA, according to the Los Angeles Times.
The Los Angeles branch of the NAACP sprang into action and sued the commission with the help of lawyer E. Burton Ceruti, but was defeated.
“After a legal contest lasting more than twelve months, and fought through two courts, a decision, drastic in nature, was rendered against the [NAACP] upholding the right of the commission as a unit of government under the guise of police regulation to segregate Negro citizens,” LA NAACP president Claude Hudson wrote in a letter to the head of the national organization.
According to the LA Times, the court had used the “separate but equal” argument to justify discrimination:
The action of the commission was sustained in a decision by Superior Judge Shaw in Feb. 1926, in which he upheld the authority of the commission’s order, holding that it was not a violation of the fourteenth amendment, since provisions had been made by the city to furnish bathing facilities for the colored folks banned from the pools assigned for the use of Caucasians.
With this order, the fight over public pools was temporarily put on the back burner. In 1928, the legendary Hotel Somerville (later the Dunbar Hotel) opened at 2445 Central Avenue. Hill was at the gala opening for this first black-owned and -operated luxury hotel. It had opened just in time for the 1928 National Convention of the NAACP, which was to be held in Los Angeles. Hill was put in charge of the program for the convention, which by all accounts was a monumental success. Douglas Flamming, author of Bound for Freedom: Black Los Angeles in Jim Crow America, describes the scene:
The local community held a giant parade that featured church groups, fraternal organizations, women’s clubs, and businesses—on foot and in automobiles—floats blooming, banners flying, fraternal uniforms glittering. Afro-Angelenos by the thousands made their way from Washington Boulevard and Main Street to the Shrine Auditorium. There, the NAACP Chorus sang, and an impressive lineup of local, state, and national leaders held forth, including Fred Roberts, California governor C. C. Young, and James Weldon Johnson.
According to Flamming, the NAACP decided to capitalize on the momentum brought by the convention’s success. While other officials focused on a membership drive, Hill decided to renew the battle over public pool usage. According to Hudson, this injustice had become an “obsession with her.” And thus began the story, Hudson wrote in a letter to the NAACP, nominating her for the organization’s Walker Medal Award, “of a most remarkable fight of one woman when all the rest of us had lost hope.”
Hudson understood why Hill was so determined to change the odious one-day-a-week policy. “The whole problem of racial contact and self-respect was at stake here,” Hudson wrote in the 1932 letter. “The humiliation of children daily does such harm, that it is impossible to calculate.”
Hill faced an uphill battle. To appease black Angelenos, the playground commission had built a state-of-the-art public pool on Central Avenue, near 23rd Street, that was open seven days a week to the black population that surrounded it (it was also open to white Angelenos). In 1928, a boycott of this “separate but equal facility” was organized, but it met with little success. “It was with great difficulty, that we held attendance at this pool below normal. Frankly, most members of the branch were discouraged,” wrote Hudson.
Hill decided to use a different tactic. Under the guise of Westside Property Owners Association, Hill would file suit against the playground and recreation commission. She enlisted local resident Ethel Prioleau, who agreed to send her children to the local public pool in Exposition Park on a whites-only day. The children were subsequently ordered out of the pool by rec center director L.H. Breker.
“Prioleau allowed Hill to file suit on the Prioleaus’ behalf. Hugh Macbeth and Eugene C. Jennings served as Hill’s attorneys, pro bono,” Flamming writes. “The NAACP lent moral support, but Hill, Jennings, and Macbeth hauled the freight.”
The action got the attention of the white press, which were usually loathe to report on black Angeleno activism. The LA Times reported on August 4, 1929:
Trouble that has been fomenting for some months for the playground and recreation commission in its efforts to enforce race segregation in city swimming pools came to a head yesterday when Mrs. Ethel Prioleau, colored, of 1311 West thirty-fifth street obtained an alternative writ of mandamus in Superior Judge Craig’s court requiring the Playground and Recreation Commissioners to appear in his court next Friday to show cause why colored residents may not use pools assigned to Caucasians.
Prioleau’s argument was simple: She “seeks to have her children allowed to use Exposition Park pool on the ground that as a taxpayer she contributed toward it and that it is the nearest pool to her home,” reported the LA Times.
But what followed would be anything but simple. According to Flamming, “twenty-five court appearances followed—with Hill present at every one.”
As the “bath house battle” wound its way through the courts, Hill focused on multiple projects at once. In 1929, she founded the Republican Women’s Study Club, the first of its kind in America. According to Flamming, the club “analyzed policies and politicians, disseminated information, lobbied, and championed selected candidates, hoping to mobilize black voters, especially women.”
In early 1931, a ruling was finally rendered in the Prioleau case—and it was victory. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Walter S. Gates ruled that the playground commission had no right to make discriminatory regulations. He gave the city of Los Angeles 60 days to issue an appeal—or all recreation center pools would be immediately opened to all races at all times.
The city attorney refused to appeal unless the Los Angeles City Council authorized the action. Over the next 60 days, Hill lobbied around the clock to ensure that the City Council would not vote to appeal Gates’ decision. The LA Times hinted ominously that an “active negro politician” was “conferring” with individual council members, convincing them to not vote to appeal or suffer the consequences at the ballot boxes.
One such councilmember had vigorously protested Gates’s ruling, stating: “Judge Gates’ decision is so sweeping that the board will not be able to designate the days when boy scouts can go to the mountain camps. Why, the board can’t even set separate days for men and women to bathe.” Only days later, after a conference with the “negro politician,” he had changed his mind. According to Hudson:
On three successive occasions, between June 16th and August 16th, the Playground Commission fought bitterly for a vote of the City Council to instruct the City Attorney to take an appeal from Judge Gates’ decision to the appellate court. On each occasion Mrs. Hill worked vigorously to convince a majority of the City Councilors of the rank prejudice and injustice of the commission’s attitude and, in some instances, threatened indifferent councilmen with future political battles.
The council voted on the appeal three times, but either deadlocked or voted against it. On August 16, the playground commission was out of time. LA public pools were opened to all races at the height of the sweaty summer. Hill had achieved, according to Hudson, “one of the greatest victories in the history of the progress of the Race.”
Part of Hill’s victory was certainly attributable to the political power of the Republican Women’s Study Club (Hill changed the name to Women’s Political Study Club when Roosevelt came to power ). The club would expand to over 20 branches across the state. At its height, it would have 10,000 black women members. By 1932, Hudson wrote that the club’s “significance is already demonstrated in the increased respect for the Negro’s political support which recent office-seekers have manifested in many ways and for which potential office-seekers seasonably make their bid.”
That same year, Hill became the first black woman in the U.S. to run a major political campaign when she ran the primary campaign for California Sen. Samuel M. Shortridge.
Hill made good on her promise to help those who helped her people. Her influence was seen in the Los Angeles Sentinel’s endorsement for a city councilmember in 1935, four years after the pools had been desegregated:
Praise for Councilman E. Snapper Ingram’s policy in the now historic “swimming pool” case was uttered by residents of the tenth district this week as they predicted his re-election by an overwhelming majority May 7. Ingram was praised because of his consistent support in the city council of the fight, led by Mrs. Betty Hill, which resulted in the abolition of color lines at the municipal swimming pools.
Like all agents for change, the powerful and intense Hill had her detractors. One fellow Republican once griped: “Leave it to Betty Hill to bring up some headache.” A more extreme political enemy, who was backing an opposing candidate for office, called her (according to the Sentinel) a “scoundrel and unfit to lead the race,” who “ought to be drummed out of the country.”
Hill didn’t let her critics stop her. In 1937, she joined other black LA leaders, including Charlotta Bass and Vada Somerville, at the opening of the new Olympic-size pool at Val Verde County Park in Castaic. The park, originally called Eureka Valley, had been created as a “black Palm Springs” in the early 1930s before being purchased by the county as a welcoming public recreation area for California blacks.
In 1940, Hill became the first black female delegate from west of the Mississippi at the Republican National Convention. Throughout the 1940s she fought fascism, racism, and misogyny and continued to support leaders who championed civil rights through the Women’s Political Study Club.
After her husband’s death in 1948, Hill kept up her busy schedule, even as her health began to fail. In 1955, she joined dignitaries at the opening of an Olympic-size pool at Will Rogers Park that had been championed by black civic leaders and the Sentinel:
A community dream came true last Saturday morning, with the formal opening of the new $200,000 swimming pool at Will Rogers park, as public officials and civic leaders joined with the people of the community to watch thousands of youngsters initiate the pool…more than 2000 persons were present at the dedication and more than 1000 children used the pool the first hour it was open.
Two weeks later a plaque honoring Hill was placed outside the new pool.
Betty Hill died on May 12, 1960. Upon her passing, the “Mother of Political Leaders” was celebrated in an obituary in the Sentinel: “It has been said that no history of political life in California can be written without a chapter or two devoted to her... Through her efforts in the WPSC she is credited with accomplishing more to help elevate the Negro in the Southland than any other woman.”
Betty Hill was buried in Rosedale Cemetery. In 1980, the Denker Senior Citizen Center, a stone’s throw from her longtime home, was renamed the Betty Hill Senior Citizen Center. Her home at 1655 West 37th Place is now Los Angeles Historic-Cultural Monument No. 791. And every summer, thousands of kids, regardless of race, pack into the public pools of Los Angeles, enjoying the simple pleasure of being young.