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BLACK HISTORY IN HOT SPRINGS: Who bathed the world?

This is the third of four articles to be published in The Post's Black History Month Series. A new article will publish every Tuesday in February.


Bathing

Hot Springs National Park's Bathhouse Row has historically marketed itself with the slogan "We bathe the world," but have you ever stopped to think, who bathes the world? At one time, it was primarily Black bath attendants, despite most bath houses being segregated. The Black history on Bathhouse Row is deeply rooted and complex, but two historians from the National Park Service are working to help tell that history to the world today.


Through a digital exhibit hopeful to launch by the end of the summer, Park Archeologist Victoria Reichard and Park Museum Curator Tom Hill are working with the local community to gather historical archives and oral histories to illustrate who bathed the world*.


"Kind of our first step on this, and what we're really looking to really start with this summer is an online exhibit about specifically the bath house attendants and the people who were working the bath houses**," Reichard said.


"But not just about their life in the bath houses, more of a wholistic picture, and looking at their lives and their communities, and what was going on in Hot Springs, and, you know, what was church like? What was their family life like? And fleshing that out a little bit more."


Hill said there is "so much of the story that has gone untold."


Attendant

"It (working in the bath house) was a wonderful like for Black people, even in the Jim Crowe South," he said. "... They could make a good living, even compared to what white men and white women were making at the time.


"It's just if they wanted to do shopping or they wanted to do business, there were still restrictions on society. So they could work on Bathhouse Row, they could have patrons ask for them by name every year when they came back to bathe again and again in the bath houses, but if they wanted to go out to eat or go to a bar or go shopping, they had to go to Black businesses because everything else was still racially segregated.


"And we don't talk about that in the Park. We don't talk about the stories that are uncomfortable.


"... And I would like to ... get them involved in helping get that story across to the visitors. ... Because we're now enjoying, I'll put it that way, a highest visitation we've ever had in park history because of the pandemic, so yeah we have an excellent opportunity to get more of our story out to the public."


As they pursue the project, both Reichard and Hill honed in on the fact they want help from the community to complete it.


Bath attendant Dan Scroggins

"Even now I would say that we don't involve that portion of the Hot Springs community very often," Reichard said. "It's not a bridge that's been intentionally built, and I think the ... Park as a whole is hoping that we can start taking one steps to build those bridges."


She added that it's not the Park trying to tell a story for other people, it's other people using their platform to tell the story.


"And that's the way the Park Service wants to operate anyway," Hill said. "It's supposed to be a partnership or a collaboration in telling anybody's story, not us trying to say it for them. That keeps them voiceless, still. All we want we want to do is facilitate their voice."


To complete the project, the Park Service will be hiring a full-time summer intern at $17 an hour for 480 hours. They prefer the intern to be a local recently graduated college student, but everyone is encouraged to apply. For more information, click here.


Black History on Bathhouse Row


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"As far as Black history within the bathhouses, I mean it goes back all the way as early as the first bathhouses," Reichard said. "We have ads from, I think it was about the 1830's, advertising if people wanted to send their slaves here they would treat them and send them back. So I mean, it's deeply rooted and complex."


During reconstruction there was actually an African American man, A.C. Page***, who owned one of the bath houses on Bathhouse Row, but just very briefly, she said.


"And then, unfortunately, post reconstruction in the Jim Crowe era, things started to get segregated again," Reichard said. "So we're starting to see a kind of environment where African Americans weren't welcome to bathe in the bath houses, or were only allowed to bathe at very specific times, but they were working in most of the bath houses. With the exception of one that advertised that they only use white attendants because it meant better service."


However, as Hill states, "The whole reason why the water was set aside by the government, preserved from being privately owned, was to provide the medical care for the American public." So here were a few of the most popular Black-only bath houses:


Woodmen of the Union Building

The largest was in the Woodmen of the Union Building, which was later known as the National Baptist Hotel later, and today is a senior apartment complex.


"That was the center of Black Broadway, which that part of Malvern Avenue was called," Hill said. "It was where most of the African American businesses were owned and operated in town."


The Crystal

"... But there were other Black bath houses on Malvern Avenue. The first one was the Crystal, but it went out of business and ... was taken over by the Knights of Pythias, so it was called Pythian Bath House. It was standing where the parking garage for Hotel Hot Springs is on Malvern Avenue."


One more popular bath house that allowed Black people in a segregated setting was the Government Free Bath House, which sat behind Bathhouse Row from 1878/1879 to 1921, before moving to Spring Street and remaining open until about 1959.


Then came the Civil Rights era when the bathhouses were being ordered to desegregate.


Desegregation

"The NAACP sent in officers from Chicago to come in and actually test out those desegregation rules, and it kind of was a whole thing," Reichard said. "They came in, they were told to come back when the bath houses were closing basically, and they knew better, so they called in everybody, and they were like, 'Uh-uh, you're supposed to be desegregating. You're going to give us baths.' And that was more or less the end of formal segregation at least. That was around 1963."


*Reichard said the idea for the project came from local historian Cheryl Batts, who was featured in the first Black History Month Series. Check it out, here.


Bottoms

**Two of these people were Dr. Timothy Leroy Bottoms and Negro League Baseball Player Lewis Austin "Snook" Wesson. The following information was provided by Hill:


Bottoms (1917-2003) was the Chiropodist, or foot-health specialist, on the staff of the Fordyce Bathhouse in the late 1950s. He was born in Monticello, Arkansas, and later moved with his parents to Hot Springs where he graduated from Langston High School in 1939. Following graduation, he was inducted into the U.S. Army, and was stationed in Italy, Africa, France, and Germany. At the end of World War II, he was selected by the Army to study cultural relations between America and Europe at the University of Dijon in France.


Wesson

After being discharged from service, Bottoms attended Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, where he majored in Pre-Medicine. He subsequently completed

Podiatry School at the Illinois College of Podiatry and Foot Surgery in 1956. By 1957, he was listed in the city directory as the chiropodist in the Fordyce. A few years later he opened an office at 413 Malvern Avenue in the African American business district. Former clients relate that Dr. Bottoms would often sing as he worked on their feet. He remained in Hot Springs until his retirement in 1980.


Wesson, like other bath house attendants, was also in the Negro Baseball League. He was a bath attendant for several years, and then went on to play for several different Negro League teams.

***A.C Page owned and operated The Independent Bath House. It was called The Independent for a couple of reasons, Hill said.


The Independent

"He was trying to remain independent from the Bath House Owners Association that dictated all the prices — well they didn't dictate, they agreed on a set price for all the bath houses, but he wouldn't join the association, so he was being very independent. ... He was eventually driven out of business by the bath house owners association, and the Maurice family bought that building and made it into the first Maurice Bath House."


Hill notes the first Maurice Bath House was in the same location as the "new Maurice," which is the Maurice Bath House standing on Bathhouse Row today.



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