By Emily Reuben
The legalistic fight over the Riviera Club’s racial segregation did not begin in a court room in 1980; instead, the organized resistance to the Club’s policies that led to that court filing began with The Riviera Club Task Force. As far back as 1971, Task Force members were in contact with Indianapolis lawyer Leland B. Cross Jr. as they tried to find a legal path toward ending the bigotted policies of the Riviera.
“1. A complaint filed with the Indiana Civil Rights Commission.
2. A private suit filed under Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, 42 U.S.C.A. §2000a er. Seq.
3. A Civil Rights suit filed under the fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution.” (p. 1)
Cross’ memorandum spells out precedents and approaches for each option, concluding with a recommendation against the latter two methods of legal engagement, citing the prohibitive costs associated with any possible court case and subsequent appeals (1971, p. 15-16). By 1972, a summary
report from an October 16th meeting of the Riviera Club Task Force shows that members were nearly done with their planning and were ready to take action along the lines that had previously been laid out by the likes of Cross and others (“Summary,” 1972). One year later, a memo to the members of the Task Force showed that several Black families, the Osgoods and Butlers, had already applied and been rejected as part of the overall plan to have Black families apply for membership at the Riviera (“Memo,” 1973). As a membership application for a third family, the Donhaues (sic), was prepared, the hitherto rejected families prepared to appeal with the help of other members of the Task Force.
Despite the planning of the Task Force and their preference for appealing to the Indiana Civil Rights Commission, this would not force the club to change. Instead, a member of the organization appearing on the rolls of a 1972 meeting (“Summary,” 1972) filed a lawsuit against the Riviera, alleging a violation of Title II of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. That member also found legal representation from a sympathetic lawyer who had himself been barred from the Riviera Club’s facilities due to his Jewish heritage: Lawrence Reuben. Thus Bates v. Riviera Club, Inc. began in 1974.
At least, on paper.
“[The] club is not truly a private facility and therefore, is subject to the 1964 Civil Rights Act, which forbids exclusion from public accommodations on the basis of race.” -Lawrence Reuben (“Rejection by Riviera,” 1980)
According to Ed DeLaney, who was brought on as a lawyer for the plaintiffs due to an illness Lawrence suffered, several federal judges refused to hear the case, delaying any potential ruling for years. Three judges refused or recused themselves either because of their own Riviera Club memberships or for their own personal reasons. Eventually, the case ended up in the hands of Judge Cale Holder, a former chairman of the Indiana Republican Party. Under Holder, the case did go to trial after five years of waiting and preparation, but DeLaney, Reuben, and counsel from the NAACP ran into a hurdle. The plaintiffs made a request for the Riviera’s membership records after already being denied earlier in the legal process. In an interview conducted for this project, DeLaney explained, “The reason I was asking is under the rules, you have to ask at trial to protect yourself.” What DeLaney alludes to is attempting to secure these records in case of an appeal.
Immediately following this, Judge Holder flew into a frenzy, angrily repeating his dissent as he raised his voice questioning the plaintiffs, all the while punctuating questions with slams of his gavel. DeLaney described the scene, saying:
“I [thought] he [was] going to break the gavel, and he literally runs off the bench, leaving us alone in the courtroom… I went up to the staff and said, ‘What just happened?’ And they said, ‘It’s a mistrial; no trial.’”
The scene seemed fitting for a man described in a 1954 front-page editorial of the Indianapolis Star as having a “lack of fitness for the job [that] is obvious to practically every informed lawyer in Indiana—especially to the attorneys of Indianapolis” (“Why,” 1954). The Star’s editors unsparingly wrote that Holder could possibly develop an aptitude for the judgeship only if he was able to “curb his temper, restrain his emotions and apply himself with equity to the great task which lies before him” (“Why,” 1954). And so the case was delayed yet again until another judge could be found to take on the great task in good faith.
While federal judges were playing hot potato with the case, the public image surrounding the issue started heating up, reaching a boiling point in the wake of a tragedy that occurred one hot day in late May, 1979. That Memorial Day, Dwight Eugene Jones tagged along with two white friends to cool off at the Riviera Club’s pool; however, the boys were turned away due to Dwight being Black. Still seeking relief from the summer heat, the boys walked a few yards over to the White River, which borders the Riviera Club’s property, and went for a swim. While his friends helplessly watched, Dwight was dragged under the water by an undercurrent, where the 15 year old drowned. By Thursday, friends, relatives, and classmates held flowers under a gray sky as they watched Dwight’s blue steel coffin sink into its final resting place a short distance from his tearful parents (Ellis, 1979). The following day, the eighth-grade class graduating from Immaculate Heart of Mary School had an abidingly sad, conspicuous absence.
The Court Case Begins
Pain from the death of a boy swimming unsupervised just yards away from multiple pools staffed with lifeguards that he was barred from swimming in fueled community activism to pressure the Riviera Club to integrate. This pressure would grow over the following year until the case finally made its way to court with Judge Gene Brooks on Monday, October 6th. As opening arguments were coming to a close, the legal question at the heart of the case came into focus: Is the Riviera Club private? The plaintiffs’ lawyers argued that the Riviera Club didn’t meet the legal standard of a private club and was thus a public accommodation, meaning that section two of the 1964 Civil Rights Act compelled them to not discriminate on the basis of race. The question of whether racial discrimination had taken place was seemingly such a foregone conclusion that the club’s lawyer began the trial by saying, “The question is not that the Riviera Club was racist, but rather if the club has the right to decide on the qualifications of its members” (“Rejection,” 1980).
The particular lawyer that the Riviera Club hired to defend their practices was no pushover, having become a United States District Attorney by 30 (“Tabbert,” 1957). Don A. Tabbert had a long history in Indianapolis as a fierce legislator, helping secure over 95% favorable rulings in cases he took on before even becoming Indiana’s leading prosecutor (“Don A,” 1957). But Tabbert wasn’t only known for his legal record by the time he stepped into Judge Brooks’ courtroom. Tabbert was also an outspoken conservative Republican who called the looming specter of socialism “a Goliath of evil…” that would require an equivalent “David… to bring it down” (Jones, 1963). Passionate in his convictions and experienced in the courtroom, Don Tabbert would prove a formidable fighter in the Riviera Club’s corner.
Under oath, the plaintiffs made their intentions clear and stated that they were filing the lawsuit on principle, and as a result, requested only $1 in total damages from the Riviera Club (Headden, 1981, p. 65). While the reason behind requesting such a paltry penalty was not explicitly stated by the plaintiffs or their legal team, such an amount would likely have preempted any accusations that the lawsuit was being filed to destroy the club through bankruptcy or to personally enrich the plaintiffs.
Yet before the opening arguments and the collection of evidence, several of the over 200 subpoenaed witnesses gave depositions, providing the first statements of the case that were made under oath (“Riviera Club,” 1980). The plaintiffs’ legal team had only enough money to pay a court reporter to conduct one deposition, and it was with the chairman of the Riviera’s membership committee.
A few admissions were made under oath about the chairman’s actions and rationale. According to an interview with Ed DeLaney done for this project, the chairman said, “As long as I’m on the membership committee, there never will be a Black member.” When asked to spell out his rationale, the chairman explained what happened at a nearby public pool after it was integrated: “Well, once they started letting African Americans in that pool, the pool went the hell, and nobody wanted to go there anymore, and so, we’re not going to have that here.” White flight from municipal pools to club and residential pools was a major problem for cities trying to justify public spending on amenities that served fewer and fewer citizens. Jeff Wiltse (2007, p. 184) claims that white attendance at newly integrated public pools in the midwest dropped 60 to 80 percent, with some pools’ dropoffs reaching over 90 percent. For every member that left the Rivi, that meant money received from dues and associated fees would precipitously decline.
There is a distinct possibility that the Rivi’s management was concerned primarily with how its most racially prejudiced members may have reacted to racial integration concerning the club’s bottom line. However, the testimony from Tabbert and Riviera Club officials leading up to and throughout the court proceedings hinted that the rejection of nonwhites from the club was more likely a result of personal racial animus. In the weeks leading up to the trial, Tabbert outlined how he and club staff would approach several of the issues that would be hashed out more thoroughly in court. Tabbert asserted, “Our position is that Blacks never applied for membership, or very few, just a handful, did. And, except for one, all who applied did so deliberately in an effort to integrate the club” (Headden, 1980, p. 14). This flagrantly ignored the Riviera’s history of proudly proclaiming with a lawn sign that only white Gentiles were welcome in their private club, pretending that the thousands of Black families surrounding the property merely lacked interest in, for the time, pristine swimming and workout facilities. Referring to applicant families with even a single melanated member, Tabbert declared, “They’ve put a gun to Riviera’s head since 1975” (Headden, 1980, p. 14).
Witnesses Take the Stand
Witnesses were soon called into court to make sense of the opposing claims. Defending the club on the stand was James Pavey, recording secretary of the club’s board. He claimed that he had voted to reject every single Black family who had applied since 1974 due to seeing their efforts as “‘phony’ and motivated by the lawsuit against the Northside club” (Rohn, 1980c). In addition, he claimed that he would vote wholesale against any Black applicants on principle, saying that “trying to integrate the club would be an example of a controversial activity not compatible with the ideals and policies of the club” (Gelarden, 1980). Also presenting the Rivi’s perspective in the case was the club’s general manager and president of the board, William King. On the stand, King indicated that he attached a note to a 1973 application from a Black man which said, “Confidential information received indicates the primary purpose of this application is to stir up trouble and cause dissension within the club” (“Riviera Dismissal,” 1980), referring to the man’s involvement with the Riviera Club Taskforce. King was not pleased with the Task Force’s existence, calling it “a group organized to preach hate” about the Riviera Club (“Riviera Dismissal,” 1980). In addition, Don Tabbert asserted to Judge Brooks that the club received its first application from a Black person in 1973 and on that basis subsequently asked, “How can anyone argue that Riviera discriminated in 1974?” (“Riviera Dismissal,” 1980) Tabbert would soon find out exactly how one could say that as he listened to the accounts brought forth by the other notable witnesses in the case.
The beginning of this particular answer came from the testimony of Patrick Butler, a Black Indianapolis attorney who had previously worked as a professor at Indiana University’s law school. He testified that in 1973, he had secured sponsorships from four white Rivi members yet was rejected and had his appeal rebuffed (“Riviera Club Access,” 1980). Another Black attorney, Frederick Rice, had his application rejected despite securing the same white Rivi sponsor as several white families who were accepted into membership (“Riviera Club Access,” 1980).
Many others called to the bench echoed this trend of being denied membership and entry to the club if they were visibly Black. Michael Rodman was a Black branch manager for Indiana National Bank who had his family’s application rejected with all appeals ignored (Rohn, 1980c). Standing out for the emotion and candor of his testimony was Edwin Harper, a Black biochemist, who testified about his rejection from the Riviera Club and the rationale behind his application. While most testified that their reason for applying was simply wanting to use the club’s facilities, Harper was different. Harper said that he was directly inspired to apply at the Riviera Club due to the 1979 drowning death of Dwight Jones.
“If Riviera had had a policy of not excluding Blacks, Dwight Jones would probably not have drowned because he would have been swimming at the pool under supervision. Because of the circumstances of his death, an aggravation and an insult to the neighborhood also posed a threat to children like Dwight Jones. By not applying, I was cooperating in the discriminatory policies of the club. I could no longer ignore the existence of the club and not apply.” (“Minister,” 1980)
White community members also took to the stand to detail their experiences with the Riviera. Clark Williamson, a professor of theology at Christian Theological Seminary, claimed that over five years as a member of the Riviera Club, he had never once seen a Black person in a pool or on a tennis court operated by the club. Paul Baker, a former state swimming champion with the Riviera Club’s swimming team, stated that he’d once heard from his coach that the club opted out of hosting a swimming competition due to some teams including swimmers of color (Rohn, 1980c). While working at the Riviera, he saw coworkers pull out signs falsely stating that the facilities were at capacity whenever a member was accompanied by a Black guest (Rohn, 1980c). Having filed the lawsuit against the club in 1974, Reverand Robert Bates took the stand as well and detailed how he had had no issues bringing white guests to the Riviera. He only encountered issues when trying to bring Black colleagues, including Michael Woodard, who was counted among the case’s plaintiffs, to avail themselves of the club’s facilities (“Minister,” 1980). Though unnamed, one other witness said that club staff had “asked if any ‘colored’ children would be attending her child’s birthday party at the facility” (Rohn, 1980c).
White community members didn’t just talk about rejection that they observed happening to others. Yet another unnamed witness described how her membership at the Riviera was not permitted to be renewed after adopting non-white children (Rohn, 1980c). One of the plaintiff’s key witnesses was Ernest (Ernie) Kobets (commonly misspelled as “Kovets” in coverage of the trial), who was, at the time, the white owner of the Illinois Street Food Emporium, a restaurant less than a third of a mile from the Riviera Club. In an interview conducted for this project, Ernie Kobets and his wife Sue explained that they had moved to the Meridian-Kessler neighborhood due to its reputation as a mixed-race community. Being an interracial family with multiple adopted Black children, Ernie and Sue Kobets were encouraged by this diversity and felt optimistic that their children would be relatively safe in the area. While the family’s oldest child had begun swimming lessons at a local YMCA branch, Sue and Ernie wanted an even closer place for the whole family to swim together. The Kobets were savvy to the racist policies of the Riviera but applied in spite of the fact that their adopted children were Black. On the witness stand, Ernie explained that taking the family to swim two blocks away from his workplace would be much more convenient than any other option (“Kovets,” 1980).
After sending in an application for membership and following all normal procedures, the whole family was requested for an in-person audience with members of the Riviera’s membership board. After appearing and answering a few questions, the Kobets family received a letter informing them that they had been rejected for membership. All requests for appeal were to no avail.
After a whole day of testimony from Ernie Kobets, the plaintiffs brought their star witness to the stand. This particular witness was perhaps the prime example of the critical flaw in one of the Riviera Club’s key arguments: that the Black people applying for membership were doing so as a political statement in favor of integration and not to simply use the club’s facilities. The star witness in the case was Gilbert Holmes, a Black Indianapolis resident who had served the better part of two decades in the United States Army (“Rejected,” 1980). Major Gil Holmes took the stand in his army uniform, his chest displaying the many medals from his time in Vietnam. And on the stand, Holmes laid out that he was a member of the Indianapolis Jewish Community Center but that the much more convenient place for his family to swim was the private swim club just four and a half blocks from his house that he shared with his wife and children (“Rejected,” 1980). Holmes’ standing in the community helped add credibility to his claims that he simply wanted to use the Rivi’s facilities, having been on the board of directors of the Butler-Tarkington Neighborhood Association and a member of the Fort Harrison Officers Club (“Rejected,” 1980).
The Rivi’s Defense
After all the witnesses had been questioned by the plaintiffs’ legal team, Tabbert was to make the case to Judge Brooks that the Rivi was a private club and thus not subject to the Civil Rights Act of 1964. But Tabbert tried a different tack. Throughout the case, Don A. Tabbert maintained two key points in his arguments: 1. The Riviera Club did not discriminate on the grounds of race in membership or in who was allowed to use club facilities as a guest 2. The Rivi should absolutely be allowed to discriminate on the grounds of race for any guest or member-related matter by virtue of being a private club (“Kovets,” 1980). In lieu of making a positive case for the Riviera Club, Tabbert motioned for Judge Brooks to dismiss the case then and there, claiming that the witness testimony had “failed to make a case that the club unlawfully discriminated against Blacks and that it had any duty as a private club to admit any of the Blacks who had applied” (“Riviera Dismissal,” 1980). It was at this point that Judge Brooks did something unexpected.
Ed DeLaney recalled what happened next: “The judge said, ‘I’ll see you all at nine o’clock in the morning. I have to decide this issue.’ He comes back the next morning, never forget this, sat up there on the bench, and he had a two or three-page typed statement in his hands” and said:
‘I’m going to read to you what I would have to rule if I ruled now because, Mr. Defendant, I know you don’t have to call any witnesses. So I’m going to pretend that you’re not going to call any witnesses and that I have to rule based on the evidence that I’ve heard up until now…I find out you discriminated based on race and did it repeatedly. You’re too large a club to be a private club under the law. This is going on for years…now I’m not saying that this is my final conclusion because you haven’t put on your evidence. But based on the evidence that Reuben and DeLaney have presented here, you’re going to lose big time on all these various bases.”
From there, Tabbert called the club’s manager to the witness stand to make the case for the Rivi, but behind the scenes, he was in discussion with Lawrence Reuben, head attorney for the plaintiffs (Rohn, 1980a). After a three-day weekend, court proceedings were delayed on Tuesday as both sides were engaged in hashing out a settlement that would be agreeable for both the plaintiffs and defendant (“Settlement Possible,” 1980). The following day, Judge Brooks announced that a settlement between the two parties had been reached and that the litigation would be suspended unless there was an issue fulfilling the terms of the settlement (Rohn, 1980b).
As part of the settlement, the Riviera Club was able to maintain both its status as a private club and that it never discriminated despite the evidence provided in court. In addition, the Riviera Club’s Board of Directors had certain people ejected in favor of people selected by the plaintiffs, one of those people being Gilbert Holmes (Headden, 1985). Many of the families who applied for membership since the start of the 1970s were welcomed into the club, with the apparent exception of the Jones family, whose son had drowned near the Rivi in 1979 (The Coalition, 1981). Regarding monetary payment, DeLaney recalled, “Part of the deal, they agreed to pay $75,000, I think it was, in legal fees… But that was important to us, not just for the finances; we had put in far more time than $75,000. We just wanted to make the point that you can’t do this without having to pay somebody. You can’t just change your rules, make no payment and quietly slink away.” But the plaintiffs’ legal team weren’t the only ones expecting the Riviera Club to pay up.
After the rough outline of a settlement had been agreed upon by both parties, one of the plaintiffs, Michael Woodard, made it known that he would be seeking $100,000 in damages. This caused a major rift between Woodard and Bates, along with the legal team, who resigned from representing the former. Despite eight days in court where the blatant discrimination from the Riviera Club was demonstrated repeatedly, Woodard’s request met resistance for one simple reason. When asked about the validity of Woodard’s request for damages, Reuben told the Indianapolis News that he saw it as a nonstarter “because Woodard testified under oath that he wanted no money” (“$100,000,” 1981, p. 37).
With an out-of-court settlement that only required the club to change its policies, some personnel, and to cover legal fees, the club was able to avoid paying hefty damages to the plaintiffs and was able to remain open with no interruption. This was seen as an ideal resolution to the case by many (“The Riviera Settlement,” 1980).
After the Settlement
In an interview conducted for this project, Sue Kobets relayed that she recalled her Black daughter being confronted by incidents of racist policy enforcement in the time shortly after they were allowed to become members; however, by 1982, such incidents had stopped around her children, and the whole Kobets family was able to enjoy the Riviera Club’s facilities equally. Just four years after the settlement, Gilbert Holmes told the Indianapolis Star in his capacity as a member of the Riviera Club’s board of directors, “Today, you see a lot of children from several ethnic groups, from natural or adoptive parents. You’d see Jews, Asians, Blacks, biracial children” (Headden, 1985, p. 7) all taking advantage of the club’s facilities. Gil’s wife Karen told the Star that she believed “it is only because of the lawsuit and the efforts of local churches and other concerned citizens that her children can share the competition-class swimming facilities of this center” (Headden, 1985, p. 7).
Yet as much as it was pleasant for families who had fought long and hard to be able to join the Riviera Club, there remained what Sue Kobets referred to as a “dastardly, negative” reminder of what they’d been through: the club’s management. Mr. William Z. King was the Riviera Club’s president and general manager at the time of the settlement, and according to his 2009 obituary, remained in those positions until his retirement in 2001. When asked by Susan Headden from the Indianapolis Star about the settlement in 1985, King refused to talk about race and denied that the club had ever had a problem with race. Quoted directly, he said, “We didn’t (discriminate) before… The only thing that has changed here is that we are bound by the ruling of the settlement” (Headden, 1985, p. 7).
So while the settlement was able to change some policies and personnel at the Riviera Club, it wasn’t able to change the attitude of the club’s highest-ranking leader. Neither was the settlement ultimately able to fully make amends for the pain and trauma foisted upon those who were subjected to the club’s steadfast bigotry.
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