By: Tara Spencer
I knew people were going to have strong reactions to the blog I wrote about Peony Park. Not because of my writing, but because I’d already heard the way people talk about it. You can see the adoration in their eyes as they recount some of their favorite memories.
When I was in college, I was part of a kind of experimental class. The professor, Dr. Chris Allen, wanted to teach students how to make a documentary, start to finish, over the course of two semesters. I don’t think I’d ever been so excited for a class before. Only six of us signed up.
In our initial discussion, we gravitated towards the idea of doing a story on Omaha’s Black history during the time of segregation. But due to our small size, we didn’t think that was a topic we would be able to cover in a mere two semesters.
Some preliminary research had been done, and in that exploration, one of the students discovered the not-always-so-nice history of Peony Park. After much back-and-forth, it was decided that we would make our documentary on this Omaha institution, but we were going to make a point to cover its whole history.
It’s easy to see why people idealize it the way they do. We don’t have anything around today that can touch what it was in its heyday. Members of my own family had stories about how much fun going to Sprite Night was, though their stories weren’t quite as wholesome as most others we heard.
As I mentioned in the blog, most people we interviewed had only fond memories, including former Nebraska Congressman Lee Terry and Carl Jennings, the man who literally wrote the book on Peony Park.
Others remembered things in a different light. We spoke with former Omaha mayor Mike Boyle and Omaha businessman Herb Rhodes, who was a part of the historic change to the park’s policy. Both men discussed the incidents that led to the decision to allow Black people to swim in the pool and the aftermath.
Personally, I only have one memory of Peony Park, as I was quite small when we visited. I remember riding on the Sky-Rail with my mom and brother, and seeing the pool below, wishing we had brought swimsuits. I didn’t know its history until I started researching it for the documentary.
Despite the controversy surrounding segregation and reported drownings and near-drownings, the pool remained the biggest draw for the park.
To address a couple questions people had concerning the last blog post, the pool occupied 4.5 acres (including the beach) and held roughly 5 million gallons of artesian well water. Depth ranged from 1 to 10 feet and was 700 feet long.
Over the years, attendance did wane. As revenue dropped, operation costs increased, and eventually the decision to sell was made.
When we look back on places and events from a vantage point of several years or decades, it’s easy to romanticize them. But it’s important to remember that oftentimes we can be biased to only remember the good points.
That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t get to enjoy those feelings of nostalgia, but we should know that our experiences are likely different from those of others.
Looking at history should be all-encompassing and include the good, the bad and the terribly ugly. Nostalgia can be lovely, but we shouldn’t let it cloud the facts. Analyzing why and how horrific events happened and actively working to ensure they don’t happen again is the best way to keep history from repeating itself.