One of the first things that Joelouis Mattox learned from his Phi Beta Signa fraternity brothers at Lincoln College: "You never eat watermelon in front of a white person."
This was the 1950s, and Mattox quickly understood the meaning: Don't set yourself as a stereotype in front of the people who perpetuate that stereotype.
During the same period, in Kansas City, many African-Americans balked at using Shelter No. 5 at Swope Park for the same reason. Over the years, the only shelter available for rental to black families at the segregated public park was No. 5, known throughout the black community as "Watermelon Hill." Some patrons found the name amusing; others saw it as another example of blatant racism in the city's biggest park, where the "public" swimming pool and golf course were strictly segregated. (A court order officially desegregated the pool on June 12, 1954).
"Black people created that name for Shelter No. 5," Mattox tells The Pitch, "because people in our community who did use the shelter did bring watermelons with them when they had picnics in the park. But the name was enough to keep some people from going to the park at all."
Mattox gives a lecture on the history of Watermelon Hill at 2 p.m. Sunday, July 14, at the Southeast Branch of the Kansas City Public Library.
"When I moved to Kansas City in the early 1960s," Mattox adds, "Swope Park was already open to everyone and free of segregation. But Watermelon Hill still existed. Everyone felt comfortable there. Church groups and other organizations would have their picnics there. Families would go there."
When researching the story of the segregated shelter for his lecture, Mattox discovered that black men and women older than about 50 knew exactly what he was talking about. "But most white people had never even heard of it," he says.
The days of Watermelon Hill as the only shelter open to black families may have ended in the 1950s, but another East Side gathering place, the Fairyland amusement park at 75th Street and Prospect, remained segregated until 1964. "Blacks were allowed to go to Fairyland one day a year," Mattox says. "Only for one day."
Mattox hopes people attending his Sunday lecture have their own stories about Watermelon Hill to share at the event. "It's the stories about families going to Shelter No. 5 that have kept the memory of its particular history alive for a half century," he says.