By Emily Reuben
Founded on January 12, 1933, The Riviera Club cemented its status as one of Indianapolis’ premiere private swimming facilities early by hiring 1924 Olympic Gold Medalist and world record setter Euphrasia Donnelly as one of the club’s swimming instructors (“Swim Star,” 1924) (“Riviera,” 1933). The Rivi, as it was called, focused on its pools and organized swimming teams, making it a popular destination for both casual and competitive swimmers.
Yet despite the Riviera Club adding pools as membership grew, its designation as a private club ensured that members would only be swimming with community residents whom they actively wanted to engage with. For some Hoosiers, like my Jewish father and Black families living in the neighborhood around the club, membership was denied by design.
While the Riviera Club’s history of racial and antisemitic discrimination may seem alarming when viewed through a modern lens, it is important to note the Rivi was working within the racist and antisemitic cultural backdrop of the day. To fully understand how a popular club that amassed thousands of members like the Riviera was not only allowed but expected to cater solely to white Hoosiers for over four decades, it is necessary to explore the racial dynamics of American society during the time of the club’s inception.
Bigotry in Indianapolis: AN OVERVIEW
During the 1930s, when the Riviera Club first opened its doors, negative views toward non-whites were rampant in American society. Possibly the best encapsulation of the cultural mindset of the time can be seen during the late 1920s in one of the biggest scandals to rock Indiana state governance: the jailhouse revelations of the leader of the Indiana Ku Klux Klan, D. C. Stephenson.
The state’s Grand Dragon had been convicted for the second-degree murder of Madge Oberholtzer in 1925 after she had died from intentional self-poisoning done in response to her kidnapping and brutal rape at his hands. By 1927 when it became clear that he would not receive a pardon for his crimes, Stephenson flipped on his Klan allies. Documents demonstrating political corruption that reached into the governor’s mansion were obtained and published in “The Indianapolis Times” (“Stephenson’s Statements,” 1927) (Stephenson, 1926) (Prince, 1927).
This scandal is widely credited with the precipitous downfall of the Klan in Indiana, which had hundreds of thousands of members at its height (Lutholtz, 1991). The Klan agitated against Catholics, Blacks, Jews, immigrants, alcohol drinkers, and left-wing radicals such as anarchists and communists, creating a tent big enough to draw in a substantial percentage of Hoosiers during the 20s (Endelman, 1984, p. 118). Much of this had to do with a reactionary backlash to high numbers of Jewish as well as Catholic immigrants flocking to the US in the late 1800s through the first decades of the proceeding century, as well as widespread support for the Temperance Movement (Goldstein, 2006, pp. 191-194).
These popular views are no better showcased than by looking at pools, spaces notable for historically evoking racial tensions. Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (2007) explores the history of municipal pools along with the racial and socioeconomic factors that served to bar Black Americans from entry. Wiltse (2007) begins the history of racial animus by demonstrating that the gender separation in pools disintegrating during the 1920s and 30s is the cornerstone of future bigotry in public swimming spaces. The widespread belief in far-flung racial stereotypes, such as the notion that Black swimmers would dirty swimming water, compounded with extant anxieties accelerated by the gender integration of American pools at the time. These beliefs were further cemented when swimwear for both sexes transitioned from modest, full-bodied jumpsuits to tight-fitting shorts for men and two-piece swimsuits for women. This cultural shift helped fuel both a sense of increased physical intimacy and the increasing sexualization of pools as men and women, boys and girls, all occupied the same water. The racist notion that white girls and women were something to be protected from Black men and boys solidified the desire for racial segregation across the country in private and public iterations of this newly eroticized social space.
Similarly, the prevalence of antisemitism restricted Jews from a variety of public spaces, including recreational spaces like swimming pools. Private clubs in major cities and small towns, including Indianapolis, routinely barred Jews from private clubs, making it a common practice at the time (Dinnerstein, 1994, p. 91). Compounded by the growth of antisemitism stemming from the ongoing development of the Second World War, Jewish Americans were viewed by some white Americans as a separate, inferior race. In Indianapolis, all country clubs save the Highland Country Club had a history of excluding Jews from their memberships; as did many private clubs such as the University Club, Propylaeum, and most private clubs except the Athenaeum and the Columbia Club (Endelman, 1984, pp. 117-118). A notable example of Jewish exclusion surrounding the Riviera Club surfaced in January 1959, after the son of Rabbi Maurice Davis of the Indianapolis Hebrew Congregation attempted to visit as a guest. The nine-year-old was disallowed from entering the club, despite having the required pass for entry. Rabbi Davis noted that while the club may have a legal right to discriminate, the practice was, in his words, “evil and harmful.” Davis wrote in the congregation’s bulletin:
“First [my son] learned of [The Riviera Club’s] wonderful slide that went directly into the pool. And then he learned that Jews were something less than welcome.”
(“Rabbi Davis,” 1959).
For members of society placed lowest in the American caste system, it was a necessity to create social spaces and experiences exclusively by and for these groups. Black social clubs served as a method for “social racial uplift and status enhancement” (Guzman, 2022). During the twentieth century, the attitudes within these clubs began to shift as the Black middle and lower classes began to grow and diversify. In an interview by “The Chicago Tribune” (Poe, 2021), Nina Jones, a retired Chicago public school worker who was barred from her high school prom simply for being Black, explains the importance of these spaces. According to Jones who had herself been an active participant in multiple Black-exclusive clubs, the goal of these spaces is not to further segregate or feed into the societal push for segregation at the time. Instead, Jones asserts that belonging to these spaces brings the “…opportunity to feel relaxed around your own people” (Poe, 2021).
In Indianapolis, both Black and Jewish social clubs and pools arose in reaction to segregationist policies. Notably, Frederick Douglass Park, which first opened in 1921, offered a space for Black Hoosiers to swim and congregate. Though Frederick Douglass Park was not initially planned as a Black-only space, signs reading “Negroes only” stood on the property (Thornbrough, 1961). Unfortunately, the opening of this park had a negative effect on the Black community, in that Black Hoosiers requesting to gather at other non-Black parks across the city were often denied (Thornbrough, 1961). The Scenicview Country Club, initially founded as the Sportsmans Country Club, was at one time Indianapolis’ only “Black-owned country club – and premier destination for Indianapolis’ Black middle class” (Drenon, 2022). First opened in 1969, the club offered activities such as golf tournaments, banquets, and wedding receptions. During its time as the Sportsman Country Club, various clubs hosted activities in the space, including the Federation Colored Women’s Club (“Federation Colored,” 1970) and a chapter of the Jack and Jill Club (Jack & Jill Club, 1970), a national club that plans activities primarily for Black children. Despite the Scenicview’s importance in the community and even hosting Sammy Davis Jr. as a guest of honor in 1972, the club would close permanently in 1973 (Drenon, 2022).
For Jewish Hoosiers, Jewish establishments like The Broadmoor and the Westchester Country Clubs provided safe social spaces to gather away from a hateful public. A 1962 opinion piece from an Indianapolis Jewish paper supported that causality, stating, “The least bit of analysis will show that the Jewish country club was organized as a result of the bar by non-Jewish clubs against Jews” (“Mistaken”). In 1959, The Jewish Post and Opinion released an article surveying five private Indianapolis Clubs: The Country Club of Indianapolis, Hillcrest Country Club, The Meridian Hills Country Club, The Riviera Club, and Columbia Club (“Local Clubs,” 1959).
When interviewed, each of the clubs denied restricting Jewish membership and either claimed to have Jewish members, didn’t have the data on how many Jews were active members, or in the case of the Country Club of Indianapolis, asserted that not many Jewish applicants apply. The Riviera Club in particular stated that they had “no anti-Jewish regulation and that everyone has an equal opportunity of presenting admission blanks” (“Local Clubs,” 1959). This directly contradicts the account of Rabbi Davis above and, as was spelled out in court decades later, is contrary to the facts of the Riviera case.
Of course, shifting cultural and political dynamics would affect municipal pools and private clubs’ admittance policies. As the Civil Rights movement gained steam, many private clubs across the country ended their most flagrantly racist membership policies, though racism was still present and far from resolved. Even minority-run or religiously based clubs and institutions began to revise their own membership policies to allow broader access to their facilities. By 1960, Executive Director of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Center Harold Robbins told the public that membership was open to people of any race or creed, reversing its previous policy of being a space exclusive to Jewish people (Robbins, 1960). This was before Labor Secretary Arthur Goldberg urged private Jewish clubs across the country to begin admitting applicants irrespective of religion or race in 1961 (Labor, 1961), a move that sparked vigorous discussions even in Indiana (“Negroes,” 1961) (“Mistaken,” 1962). Outside of the Jewish community, by 1967, the YMCA made a national directive that all local branches were required to not discriminate based on race when it came to membership (“YMCA,” 2021), a sentiment reinforced by a 1970 civil rights case won against a branch in Alabama that had continued segregating (“United States,” 1972). Yet as more and more clubs reevaluated their membership policies and began to normalize integration, the Riviera Club continued to hold out. By the 70s, the club still refused membership to Black applicants.
The Rivi’s troubled history
But the Rivi didn’t just deny Black applicants; they even went so far as to bar Black guests from using any of the facilities when brought to the club as the guest of an active club member. However, given that outright racial discrimination was becoming less and less accepted by similar institutions, the Riviera Club opted not to codify its exclusionary policy within its handbook of club rules. In an interview conducted for this project, Ernest Kobets, a member of the Indianapolis Urban League’s Riviera Club Taskforce, recounts how the club refused Black visitors:
“…What they did back then: They put a sign up that said, you know, ‘sorry but we’re full to capacity.’”
Several community members recall seeing the sign, which read, “Sorry, no more guests today. We’re full to capacity” (Rohn, 1980).
This sign was on display in 1973 when minister and official of the Disciples of Church, Dr. Robert Bates attempted to bring his Black colleague to the Riviera Club’s pool. At the time, club policy only permitted members to bring out-of-county acquaintances and relatives as guests. Just a month after his previous rejection, Bates attempted to bring another Black guest, Michael Woodard. Once again, Bates’ guest was denied access to the club. The Riviera Club cited its guest policy as the reason for Woodard’s initial denial as a guest. However, according to Bates, two white guests he had previously brought were accepted earlier that summer, despite both being Indianapolis residents (“Minister Says,” 1980). Woodard’s interest in the club was not just for an afternoon; he also sent in an application to join the Rivi, but upon being rejected, he joined with Robert Bates in suing the club for a violation of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
Later during trial, Clark Williams, a white professor of theology at Christian Theological Seminary, would testify that between the years 1967 and 1972, he had been a Riviera guest of nonrelatives (“Rejected,” 1980). Williams’ testimony showcases the direct hypocrisy of the Riviera Club’s policy of restricting guests to only relatives of members and those who lived outside Marion County.
The Riviera Club’s actions weren’t a surprise to Robert Bates when he attempted to bring either of his Black guests to swim; in fact, he had been planning on the Rivi disallowing his guests access to any of the club’s facilities. This was due, in part, to Bates’ involvement with a group called The Riviera Club Task Force. The Task Force had been established in 1972 by members of the Indianapolis Urban League, a local branch of a national civil rights organization. Knowing the Rivi’s reputation for racial discrimination within a racially diverse neighborhood, the group’s goal was to both encourage Black community members to apply for membership and to get white club members to sponsor said applicants. With obstinate leaders at the Rivi preventing members from making changes from the inside, it was apparent that the Task Force would need the law on their side to force a change at the club. Knowing this, applicants would then use their inevitable rejections as grounds for requesting a legal remedy that ended in racial integration.
The Riviera’s “At Capacity” sign would remain on display until the conclusion of the lawsuit. Community members alleged that, aside from restricting visitation and membership for Black members, its presence on the property resulted in unexpected tragedy. In May 1979, 15-year-old Dwight Eugene Jones and his friends crossed the Riviera Club’s parking lot to swim in the White River, located just behind the property after Jones was disallowed from swimming at the club due to his race. Caught in the river’s tide, Jones tragically drowned (Gelarden, 1980).
In response to Jones’ death, Edwin T. Harper, a Black college professor who was also denied membership to the Riviera, testified in court, “If the Riviera Club had not excluded Blacks, Dwight Jones would have probably been swimming at the [Riviera] pool under supervision and probably wouldn’t have drowned in the river” (“Minister Says,” 1980).
The death of Dwight Jones heightened the stakes for those looking to challenge the Riviera Club’s membership policies. In particular, Dwight’s mother Linda Jones, herself a member of the Riviera Club Taskforce, was spurred on by her son’s death and became one of the leading community advocates when it came to challenging the Riviera Club’s racist policies (“Rejected,” 1980).
The continued activism and controversy surrounding the Riviera Club all converged on a single courtroom on October 6, 1980, as the case that would determine the Riviera’s fate began.
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