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REX NELSON: The black bathhouses

by Rex Nelson | June 29, 2016 at 2:50 a.m.

During a recent visit to the Hot Springs National Park visitors' center in the Fordyce Bathhouse, I was intrigued by an exhibit outlining the tradition of black employees in the city's white bathhouses. The exhibit also chronicled the history of bathhouses for blacks during the segregation era. Couple that with a tradition of Negro League teams holding baseball spring training in Hot Springs and it's evident that the Spa City was an oasis for black visitors at a time when segregation had a stranglehold on the rest of the region.

That's not to say there was racially mixed bathing, or mixed crowds sitting together at baseball games. Segregation laws were enforced in Hot Springs. It is, however, evident that in the wide-open days when casinos and watering holes flourished, the denizens of Hot Springs were a bit more accepting of diversity than residents of other Arkansas cities.

Jay Jennings wrote in Sports Illustrated back in 1993: "In the last two decades of the 19th century, Hot Springs was a celebrated spa. Though its population was only about 10,000, there were always between 3,000 and 6,000 tourists in town. The town's popularity stemmed, as you might guess, from its waters. Hydropathy--'the water cure'--was in its heyday, and with pure mineral water bubbling up from the earth at 143 degrees and huge bathhouses to serve its visitors, Hot Springs promoted itself as America's Baden-Baden, after the famous German spa. To help bathers fill leisure time between their therapeutic dips, entrepreneurs built theaters and casinos. And they staged sports events."

A National Park Service publication notes that when Jim Crow laws were enacted following Reconstruction, "African Americans found that, though they were still free to work in the Hot Springs bathhouses, they did not have free access to bathing in them. As a result, bathhouses owned and operated by African Americans emerged in the early 1900s. Before the Civil Rights Act of 1964, African Americans primarily bathed at those bathhouses, adding to the rich history of the Hot Springs baths. African Americans were the main work force for all the bathhouses in Hot Springs, regardless of patronage. The history of this work is an important part of the Hot Springs bathing story."

In the early 1900s, the federal government began listing specific duties for bath attendants. Those included laundering robes, helping invalids and cleaning bathing areas. The attendants were expected to furnish all supplies. Pack attendants had to wrap customers' bodies with up to four hot packs (towels soaked with thermal water and then wrung out) and provide water for customers to drink. By the 1880s, black customers could buy tickets at the Ozark and Independent bathhouses on Bathhouse Row, but they weren't allowed to bathe during the hours considered optimal by prescribing physicians for white patients.

Black businessman A.C. Page took over the Independent Bathhouse in 1890 and operated it for less than a year as a black bathhouse. It was purchased by Charles Maurice, who reopened it as the whites-only Maurice Bathhouse. Meanwhile, what was known as the Government Free Bathhouse provided free baths for both black and white indigents until closing in 1957. Long waits were common, and the facility was segregated.

The first bathhouse built for the exclusive use of blacks was the Crystal, which opened in 1904 on Malvern Avenue at the edge of the city's black business district. The lease was transferred to the Knights of Pythias insurance organization in 1908. The bathhouse burned in a 1913 fire that destroyed almost 50 city blocks.

W.T. Bailey, head of the architecture department at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, designed a new building known as the Pythian, which opened on the Crystal's site in December 1914. The combination hotel and bathhouse operated until desegregation opened the rest of the city's bathhouses to blacks in the 1960s. In 1922, Bailey designed the nearby Woodmen of the Union Building. It included a bathhouse, hotel, a 2,000-seat theater, a 600-seat auditorium, a beauty parlor, a barbershop, a print shop and a gymnasium. There were medical and dental offices. Nationally famous guests from Joe Louis to Count Basie stayed there. It became one of the nation's best-known retreats for blacks.

The Woodmen of the Union Building was purchased in 1948 by the National Baptist Convention, which performed extensive renovations. The Park Service publication notes: "The management continued the tradition of the Woodmen of the Union by providing a hospital, nurses' training school and doctors' offices, with hot baths still an important part of the health care. They also hosted the annual National Baptist convention until the early 1980s when the organization bought another hotel in Nashville, Tenn., closing this building in 1983."

When the National Baptist Hotel & Sanitarium closed, Alroy Puckett, who had managed the facility since 1968, said: "It's a small price to pay for integration. If that is what is killing us, then let it go on."

The building has since been renovated for housing. Outside, one of the markers on the Hot Springs Historic Baseball Trail states that the site "became the center of African American culture in Hot Springs. It housed virtually every great Negro League player and entertainer who visited the city. Famed entertainer Bill 'Bojangles' Robinson stayed here. He was a close friend of Babe Ruth and part owner of the New York Black Yankees. He was famous for leading parades through town, dancing the entire route."

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Freelance columnist Rex Nelson is the director of corporate community relations for Simmons First National Corp. He's also the author of the Southern Fried blog at rexnelsonsouthernfried.com.

Editorial on 06/29/2016

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