In January 1951, Perkasie News-Herald editor John Sprenkel spoke in public about the Menlo Park pool and one of its most controversial policies.
At the time, Menlo Park and its pool were still privately owned. Perkasie Borough would not acquire the facilities until May 1, 1956, and only after Perkasie residents approved the purchase by a 3 to 1 margin in a referendum. Royal Pants owner Maurice Neinken donated $25,000 toward the $115,000 sale price to make sure local children could access the pool.
Sprenkel also knew of the pool’s history, having written about it back in 1939 when first modern pool was built using money gained by Henry Wilson, the park’s owner, from selling part of his land to Perkasie Borough for Lake Lenape Park. The $30,000 pool investment was part of a plan to restore Menlo Park to its glory days in the Victorian era.
But in 1951, John Sprenkel was concerned about a national controversy surrounding the region’s most famous resident, Pearl S. Buck, and Sprenkel wanted his readers to know about Buck’s character. The Washington, D.C. school district had banned Buck (known in Perkasie as Mrs. Walsh) from speaking at a segregated high school that month, hinting she had Communist ties. Buck spoke with Sprenkel and said she was banned because she opposed segregated public schools in “the capital of the entire world.”
The Sprenkel offered a testimonial. “We also observed how Mrs. Walsh offered the privilege of her swimming pool to a little Perkasie lad, who had been denied the use of the park pool several years ago. The Perkasie schools had accepted the generous offer of the use of the swimming pool at Menlo Park several mornings each week during summer school vacations,” Sprenkel wrote on January 25, 1951, in his Speakin’ O’ Things weekly editorial.
“Hundreds of school children under the supervision of playground directors and supervisors enjoyed the healthful recreation. However, one morning the park management called aside one of the supervisors and said, ‘I’m sorry, but that little negro lad in your group cannot use the pool. You’ll understand, perhaps, that this, park is tied up with an organization of swimming pools of suburban Philadelphia and one of the rules of the organization prohibits negroes from using the pools,” he recalled.
“The park management was completely honest, and the enforcement of the rule probably was the most distasteful act he ever performed, but a violation of the rule meant banishment from the organization,” Sprenkel added. “[The child] cried that morning and possibly many more mornings, but he respected the rule.”
Soon the news got back to Pearl Buck. “It was when Mrs. Walsh heard of the incident that she offered the privileges of her pool to the lad who, for no other reason than the color of his skin, was denied the privilege of the pool. Happily, the ban on park pools was lifted last year as it applied to school privileges, but the incident at least told the community something about Mr. and Mrs. Walsh.”
Then for the record, Sprenkel called out Washington, D.C., for its segregationist record. “We recall the Marion Anderson incident, and we remember how Dr. Ralph Bunche passed up an opportunity to give invaluable service to his country because it would have subjected him and his family to the humiliation discrimination in our nation’s capital.” (In 1950, Dr. Bunche, like Pearl Buck, had received a Nobel Prize.)
Online research reveals the pool group was the Philadelphia & Suburban Pool Swimming Association, which also was sued in 1951 for $50,000 for refusing to allow a Black minister to use a pool in Philadelphia. An article in the September 22, 1951, edition of Billboard said that Woodside Park’s Crystal Pool was operated as a separate facility to allow the pool to remain Whites-only. The Rev. Harrison Shields challenged the ban, supported by the American Civil Liberties Union. The Swimming Pool Association and its president, Vernon Platt, who owned the Somerton Springs Swim Club, were among the defendants. Billboard said that Platt’s group represented “nearly all the swimming pools in the Philadelphia and suburban area.” The lawsuit was settled in 1952 when the city of Philadelphia took over Crystal Pool and ended the race ban on swimmers.
Today, it is important not only to remember Buck’s decision to step up to the challenge, but also Sprenkel’s decision to speak about a sensitive issue. However, it was not the first time the News-Herald called out segregation. In November 1949, the newspaper condemned Washington, D.C. for forcing visiting students from Morrisville, Pa., to stay in separate hotels based on their race. (The Morrisville school decided to go to New York or Boston instead.)
John Sprenkel retired from the News-Herald in 1953 after a 33-year run as its editor. His January 1951 column on Pearl Buck and the Menlo Park Pool was a moment we can all learn from.