nA hundred years ago, on August 14, 1931, the city became Pittsburgh has opened its largest and most luxurious public swimming pool in Highland Park. The opening day was a great fanfare and pride. However, it was also a day that African Americans who tried to enter the pool turned away. When black citizens returned the next day, the Pittsburgh Courier reported, four were “beaten and driven out of the pool by a band of white crooks.”
Similar problems would persist for many years, with blacks finding no relief – from either the Pittsburgh leaders or the courts – until a few Hill District entertainment and gambling entrepreneurs looked beyond the city limits. Specifically, Gus Greenlee and Richard Gauffney reached out to an unusually enterprising Washington County resident named Ruben “Rube” Wasler Jr. for a solution.
Wasler was born in 1891 and was 22 years old when his father died in a coal mining accident in 1913. Wasler joined the army during the First World War. Stationed in Fort Lee, Virginia, an army newspaper dubbed him the “Irving Berlin” of the camp because of his skills as a songwriter and singer. He cut off his entrepreneurial teeth by organizing a band and promoting shows on the grassroots. Family members remember Wasler as a tall, outgoing, cigar-smoking man who was so bow-legged that a dog could walk between his legs when standing upright.
Back in Washington after the war, Wasler began promoting black car racing on Arden Downs, a dirt road north of the city. His racing partners included Greenlee and jazz musician Jelly Roll Morton. The Arden Downs races made history in 1929 when Wasler booked the nation’s first interracial car race.
When Greenlee and Gauffney became aware of the problems in the Highland Park Pool, they turned to Wasler. Together they founded the Tri-State Amusement Co. with Wasler’s red brick house in downtown Washington as its headquarters. And in 1934, Tri-State leased a resort beach on National Pike (now US 40) about six miles east of Washington in the small community of Glyde. Glyde Beach Park was more than a decade old and was one of more than a dozen swimming beaches that developed outside of Pittsburgh in the 1920s. Before the 1934 summer season, the Canonsburg owners of Glyde Beach catered for white guests.
Wasler’s Memorial Day promised something else: band concerts, a dance pavilion, tourist huts, a tennis court, picnic areas, and a 750,000-gallon pool with seating for 5,000. And to the black Pittsburgh residents traumatized by the violence at the Highland Park Pool, Wasler promised visitors that they “can swim where you are welcome”.
Glyde was probably an unusual place for a black summer vacation spot. The small intersection community is not known for its ethnic diversity. “It has always been rural white people,” said a man whose family had farmed the area for more than a century, and asked to remain anonymous. “I can’t imagine that there would ever have been African Americans who felt comfortable going into this community.”
But go. In the two years Wasler rented the property, it was known as Norris Beach after the name of its owners. It hosted tour bands, church picnics, and crowds of members of the Black Pittsburgh Social Club, FROGS (Friendly Rivalry Often Generates Success), and their guests during the Brotherhood’s annual summer get-togethers. Preserved photos show the property’s three acres with hundreds of people and rows of parked cars. The courier reported on concerts, picnics, swimsuit competitions and emancipation celebrations.
For the 1936 season, however, the pool was reopened under new management and new policies. Advertisements in Washington County newspapers read that the pool had been “completely remodeled, sterilized and cleaned.” If there was any question of who might be welcome this season, other advertisements said, “Caucasian Patronage Desired”.
Years went by and after new owners bought the property in the 1950s, they finally replenished the pool. They opened a motel there across the street from Davison United Methodist Church.
This part of Washington County has also lost the memory of ever having a hip swimming and events club caring for the area’s black population. People who remember the pool do not remember seeing African Americans. One, 79-year-old Ray Jennings, has lived in Washington County his entire life, and in the 1940s his family rented a farmhouse across from the pool. Neither he nor his 93-year-old aunt, who remembered attending a dance there, remembered seeing African Americans.
Published stories allude to the pool’s final closure due to breakup issues, but that would have been long after Wasler’s time there. “A number of our readers … agreed that the end of the club, or at least its swimming pool, was the result of racial prejudice,” the Washington Observer reporter wrote in 2014.
Bob Jones has owned the property since 2006. It has been used as apartments since the 1970s, he says. However, once he met someone who remembered the old pool and its time as a black hangout. “I had a lady who lived here in the trailer where I am and said she’d skip school in Washington and come out with the blacks and swim if there was a pool.”
Wasler, he quit the entertainment business in 1939 and joined the Washington Police Department, becoming one of the first black officers in the previously separated force.
“I remember my parents talking about him being one of the first black cops,” said Lorraine Perry, a retired teacher and board member from Pittsburgh. “If I remember Mr. Rube, he was an old man. And I only remember that he walked on two sticks. “
Wasler died in 1969 at the age of 78. His family still lives in the red brick house where all these plans were made long ago.