“I’ll never forget, on the corner of 13th and Kinney Street is where we lived,” Al Oliver said. “There was an empty lot there and we always played softball or baseball up there — all the guys in the neighborhood — myself, Shannon Bayless, Brad Bayless, Steve Battle, Johnnny Battle, Steve Johnson, just to name a few. And if we weren’t playing in the lot we were playing in the street.
Oliver, a former Major League batting champion, said on that particular June day in 1961, the group of friends were in the lot playing ball when Eugene McKinley walked by and asked if some of the guys wanted to go swimming.
“It was probably no more than a half an hour later I saw people running down toward the levee, approximately three blocks away,” Oliver said.
When the others got to the river, Oliver said, they realized McKinley had gone underwater and had not surfaced. They began to search for him.
“As it turned out he was fighting, and while a couple of people had a hold of him, he was such a young, strong kid he was a lot stronger than others,” Oliver said. “And, as you are fighting for your life there is that extra strength, and they couldn’t hold him.“
Oliver said a rescue crew began to drag the river.
“I will never forget. It is just like it was yesterday. All of a sudden the drag brought him up out of the water,” Oliver said. “And I can still hear two of his sisters screaming. It was one of the most tragic sights that I have ever seen. It is something that has stuck with me all of my life ever since that day.”
Oliver lost a friend in a neighborhood where everyone was close and where family values prevailed. Now that community was facing a tragedy, and a funeral at the Findlay Street Methodist Church.
At that time, Charles Smith was president of the Portsmouth NAACP chapter, and he began to look at why a child was relegated to swimming in the river, when there was a pool for white children.
“Smith had heard that I had led a group of students at Maryland State College, and we had the accommodations laws changed for the whole state of Maryland,” Curt Gentry said. “There were so many areas in Maryland where black people could not go to — hotels, motels, even restaurants. I helped organize those demonstrations, and we were very successful in even sitting down and talking to the governor who was from the county where the college was located and he promised us that he would get the legislature to strike down those laws and that he did.”
Gentry was best known as one of Portsmouth High School’s elite athletes, but he also had a reputation as a civil rights activist. He had served in the military prior to college, so it seemed natural for Smith to enlist Gentry’s support.
“So when I came home for the summer he asked me if I would assist him in doing something about that pool,” Gentry said. “To me, the drowning of Eugene McKinley was simply gross discrimination against us. The young man is dead because of gross discrimination by the people who governed Portsmouth, because they knew that that was a public swimming pool.”
Gentry tries to express the frustration of being treated as a second-class citizen.
“It wasn’t a very pleasant feeling when we knew that we could play football, basketball, baseball, and go to PHS with these folks, but in the summertime we were not allowed to swim with them,” Gentry said. “I think that one thing you have to realize is that we had, at that time, a very very very strong and nurturing black community. That helped us a great deal.”
Gentry said Portsmouth was mainly the home of many Appalachian white people who, “brought that southern mentality with them to Portsmouth to work in the N&W Railroad and (Detroit) Steel Mill and the foundries with them. And that was a part of the problem.”
Gentry said every time a black person would go to Dreamland Pool, they would be told they had to get a membership, so they would fill out the form but never hear back, and it wasn’t until some white women told them they had never been told they had to be members that they made the decision to integrate the facility.
“Even in Ironton at the pool there, they at least allowed African-Americans one day a week to swim,” Gentry said. “It was either on a Monday or a Tuesday when a lot of guys would go to Ironton to swim because we were obviously not allowed to swim up there on Kendall Avenue.”
Gentry said what really bothered him most was that some of the same coaches who coached the black athletes at PHS discriminated against them at the pool in the summer.
“To this day, a lot of the top athletes that came out of PHS, including me, and my brother (Thom Gentry) don’t know how to swim,” Gentry said. “Our mother would not allow us to go to the river or to the lakes or any place like that because of the fear of exactly what happened to Eugene McKinley.”
The group devised a plan to walk into Dreamland Pool, but it wasn’t a mob mentality at all. Gentry said it was well thought out.
“We got together to make sure that we did not violate any law. It was something like 35 cents to get in, so we laid our 35 cents very close to the turnstiles and went on in the pool,” Gentry said. “And one of the coaches who coached us at PHS and was working at the pool at that time, came up to me and said, ‘Curt, what are you doing in here?’ I did not say anything to him. Some of the guys jumped in the pool, but I had to look for the three-foot area because I couldn’t swim.”
Gentry said what amazed him most were the epithets that were thrown at them by the people who were in the pool at the time, many he describes as PHS’s elite athletes.
The police were called, and to further complicate the situation, Portsmouth’s black Police Chief Ted Wilburn had to respond to the scene.
“Ted came down and asked us to leave the pool. And we all in the black community had respect for Ted. And honestly, he did not know that we were not breaking the law. He didn‘t know anything about that law even though he was the police chief,” Gentry said. “We were taken to the Police Station, and actually we sat in Ted’s office. They had charged us with trespassing. There was a $25 fine, so some of the people who lived in the north end came down and paid our fines, and that was it.”
As a result of the two incidences, the current city pool on Findlay Street is named “The McKinley Pool,” and Oliver wants to take that one step further.
“I’m in the stage of forming a Eugene McKinley Memorial Committee,” Oliver said. “And after we form that committee we’re going to sit down and talk about the possibility of a Eugene McKinley Memorial, a monument.”
Oliver said he would like the memorial to be placed at the McKinley Pool.
“There are so many people, even my kids, and my grandkids, who have no clue who Eugene McKinley was,” Oliver said. “And it is very important for these young kids who are swimming in that pool to know whose pool they are swimming in, and the reason why they have a pool.”
FRANK LEWIS may be reached at (740) 353-3101, ext. 232, or email@example.com.