This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Municipal Park Pool. In the spring of 1968, the city of Jackson voted to build the pool at the cost of $39,250 for the pool itself, $2,000 for concrete work around the pool, $500 for a fence and a $750 architect’s fee. The grand total for the 70 foot by 35 foot pool was $42,500.
There was much excitement surrounding the pool because for the first time, black citizens would have a pool to swim in. Due to segregation, the pool at Vanity Park was off limits. Most black citizens who wanted to swim did so in the Tombigbee River or the many creeks in the area.
Tommie Pernell, of Austin, Texas, and formerly of Jackson remembers the summer of 1968 well. He was one of five teenage boys who was recruited by Jackson High School basketball coach Ned Harbuck to obtain lifeguard training through the Red Cross. Along with Pernell, Joe Bell, Joe Daffin, Willie Scott and Karl Andrews completed the required training for water safety instructors at Camp Maubila. Jim Johnson of the American Red Cross in Mobile certified the young men on Aug. 16, 1968 after weeks of rigorous training. Because the young men had never had any formal swimming training, they had to be taught strokes, breathing techniques and lifesaving strategies. Eric Walker served as a demonstrator and the young men followed his lead.
Pernell vividly recalls the opening of the pool and the excitement in the community regarding it. One thing he is sure of is that the pool opened at 9 in the morning, but citizens would be lined up waiting on the gates to open, knowing that the first hour of operation was dedicated to swimming lessons to people of all ages. Pernell recollects teaching swimming lessons to men older than himself, including Robert Dean, a former Jackson volunteer firefighter.
“I’ll never forget the excitement that we all had for the pool. It was good to have a safe place to swim and to enjoy social functions,” Pernell stated.
The entire experience was so momentous that 50 years later, Pernell still carries his Red Cross water safety instructor card in his wallet, not so much as a reminder of his own accomplishments, but those of the city of Jackson.
Remembering Jackson 50 years ago
“Jackson was a thriving town. The Locke Theatre and Bedsole Fendley’s were booming, along with other businesses. Unfortunately, everything was segregated, even the schools until September 1965.” Tommie Pernell’s memories are as vivid of 50 years ago as they could be of yesterday. He recalls growing up in the depot area of Jackson where he says there wasn’t much money, but a true sense of community, compassion and character. People in the depot area depended on each other to meet needs. Pernell remembers Jeff Moore who owned a plow and would plow every garden in the depot. Also intense in his memory is the depot grocery market, ran by Jesse Robinson.
Irish Poet Oscar Wilde wrote of experience, “Experience is the hardest kind of teacher. It gives you the test first and the lesson afterward.” I am thankful for the willingness of Tommie Pernell to share his life experiences with me.
Three years prior to the opening and enjoyment of the Municipal Pool, the atmosphere was much different in Jackson. This was during the era of the Civil Rights Movement and tensions were high. Pernell states that there were racial “stirrings” in the town. He recalls hearing of a young black man in the area that was shot by police and other incidents of racial profiling. There were boycotts of Jackson businesses and the atmosphere was emotional. As an observant 12 year old, Pernell composed his thoughts in a story that he titled, “The Turbulent Summer of 1965 Through the Eyes of a 12 Year Old.” An incident that will be forever etched in Pernell’s mind is Dr. Martin Luther King’s visit through Jackson that summer and his stop at Pernell’s home church, Mount Olive Number 2 Baptist Church.
“The eight that dared”
When school began in September of 1965, Jackson High School, which at the time was a seventh through twelfth-grade school, welcomed eight black students for the first time. Three seventh graders, Brenda Faye Brown, Billy Ray Henry and Tommie Pernell joined seniors Clemontine Bush, May Hughes, Robert Lee Jackson, Clarneice Moore and Linda Paulette Wimberley at JHS as the new school year began. Pernell says that he has always referred to himself and the other seven as “The eight who dared” because such an undertaking was unheard of at the time and these would be the first black graduates of Jackson High School. Pernell refuses to speak negatively of anyone who opposed their attendance at the school. He stated, “People were doing what they thought was right. I’m a better person for it and I hope they are, too.”
Teachers making the difference
Although it may be cliché’ to state it, teachers definitely made the difference for the eight students who dared to walk the halls of JHS and for their white contemporaries. Principal Frank Barbaree was one of these. According to Pernell, Barbaree did “an admiral job of keeping us all safe and making us feel comfortable. John Ballinger was another teacher who made special efforts to reach out to the minority students. The teacher who had the greatest impact on Pernell’s life was Coach Ned Harbuck. Harbuck donated basketball goals to families who lived in the depot and recruited the boys to play for his JHS basketball team. Harbuck was also instrumental in the recruitment of lifeguards for the municipal pool. Pernell remembers that Harbuck’s wife and son, Ken, rode the bus with the team to all of the games.
As the turbulent 1960s ended and the schools became fully integrated in the 1970s, Pernell earned his diploma from Jackson High School in May 1971. He then attended Tuskegee University where he received a degree in accounting and moved north to Milwaukee, Wis. where he worked as an accountant for the U.S. Treasury Department. After 13 Wisconsin winters, Pernell and his family moved to Austin, Texas, where he resides today. Retired from the U.S Army Reserves after 31 years of service, Pernell is also retired from the U.S. Government and from a Texas school district where he worked as a teacher’s assistant for special education.
Return to Jackson
In 2012, Pernell returned to Jackson to spend time with his mother who was ill. He spent two months here and during that time, he was able to reconnect with all of his influential teachers with the exception of Ballinger. He walked the halls of his alma mater where his mentor’s son, Ken Harbuck, was then principal. During this time, Pernell was recovering from rotator cuff surgery from an injury caused during JHS football practice decades back. Pernell says that Ray “The Hog” Rotch laid a memorable hit on him that kept his shoulder aggravated for years. The staff at HealthActions treated him “royally” and his shoulder is healthy now.
‘Blessings in disguise’
While he can recall the turbulence and the unrest of his formative years, Pernell chooses not to do so. He refers to everything he observed and endured as “blessings in disguise” and states that the man that he has become is because of his upbringing in Jackson. Pernell has been married to wife Sarah for 44 years. The couple has three children and two grandchildren. The young man who was allowed only to caddy on Jackson’s golf course and never to play is now a golf instructor as well as a tennis instructor because of his experiences in Jackson.
Weekly columnist. Feature Writer.