Diving Into Equality

A half-century ago this year, a landmark lawsuit was filed that finally set in motion the desegregation of the Riviera Club.
The pool at Rivi in August, 1961.
Photo courtesy Bass Photo Co Collection, Indiana Historical Society

TODAY, THE RIVIERA CLUB, or Rivi as it’s often called, is a beloved summer retreat for Indy’s north siders, granting its members a country club–like experience where several quiet neighborhoods converge. The club boasts an Olympic-sized pool, an elegant restaurant, fitness facilities, and even pickleball courts. The Riviera Club’s enticing amenities prompt local residents to send membership applications year-round. Anyone can join Rivi’s ranks, assuming they are able to pay the membership fee. “Rivi welcomes everyone … We embrace diversity,” says current club president Barb Fasbinder. “Our foundation has partnered with Indianapolis Public Schools, Big Brothers Big Sisters of Central Indiana, Fay Biccard Glick Neighborhood Center, and others to bring our learn-to-swim, water safety, and wellness programming to the members of our community with the highest need.” However, this welcoming attitude was not always the club standard. Fifty years ago, The Riviera Club was sued over its discriminatory membership and guest policies.

When people conjure up images of racial segregation in the United States, they think in black and white. Not only the Black and white of different races, but the black-and-white photos and grainy video footage taken during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950s and 1960s. But in reality, racial segregation was viciously protected far past the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act.

Such was the case in Indianapolis, exemplified in Bates v. Riviera Club, Inc., the 1980 lawsuit that ended the decades-long policy of racial discrimination at the swim club.

The tension between public accommodations and private clubs became the crux of Bates v. Riviera Club, Inc. The Civil Rights Act specified that only “public accommodations” were subject to its anti-segregation measures. This meant that “private clubs,” like The Riviera Club, had a legal loophole to limit their membership for any reason.

Nestled along the banks of the White River, The Riviera Club quickly became a popular recreation destination after opening on January 12, 1933. With its Olympic-sized pool and well-trained swimming coaches, the club founded by James Makin drew in crowds of both casual and competitive swimmers. Despite the low cost of membership bolstering its rolls, The Riviera Club was still inaccessible to many residents of the Indianapolis community. Like many other country clubs of the era, Rivi’s leadership was not at all subtle about who they wanted to join and who they wanted to keep out. A sign on the club’s property read “No Blacks, no Jews” as late as the 1950s.

Recognizing that change would not come from within the club, in 1971, a group of concerned citizens associated with the Indianapolis Urban League formed The Riviera Club Task Force, investigating legal ways to end Rivi’s segregation policy. Legal consultations revealed that among the limited options available, the most expensive and highest-risk way forward would be to file a lawsuit under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. So the task force started work on its other options, leaving the lawsuit as a last resort.

As efforts to desegregate the membership were underway, The Riviera Club doubled down on its policy of exclusion. In 1972, the organization instituted a new rule mandating that all new applicants must appear for an in-person interview. The impetus for this policy was a white member submitting an application for their newly adopted non-white child; the club promptly denied the application and refused to renew the parents’ membership. This move not only reinforced the policy of excluding Black applicants; it also effectively forbade interracial families from using the club’s facilities.

Members of the task force struggled and failed to address Rivi’s discriminatory policies for several years before they were forced to take more aggressive measures. In October of 1974, a white man, the Rev. Robert Bates, who was both a Riviera Club and task force member, brought his Black colleague, the Rev. Michael Woodard, to the club for a friendly game of tennis. The staff deployed its standard tactic whenever a white member brought a guest of color: The employee manning the front desk sent the guest away after setting out a sign reading, “Sorry, we’re at capacity,” irrespective of how many people were, in fact, there.

By the end of the year, Bates and Woodard filed a lawsuit against The Riviera Club for illegal discrimination under the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a result, Lawrence Reuben, a Jewish attorney who himself was not accepted at the club, was hired as the plaintiffs’ lawyer. Reuben then brought his colleague, Edward DeLaney, onto the legal team. Together, they took the legal question central to the case against Rivi forward: Was the club actually private?

Despite filing the suit in 1974, the case languished in legal limbo for years without being heard and was eventually passed over by four federal judges who recused themselves for various reasons. This delay turned out to have tragic consequences.

On Memorial Day, 1979, a trio of Immaculate Heart of Mary students decided a swim was the perfect antidote to the day’s oppressive heat. Two of the boys were Rivi members and tried to bring their Black friend, Dwight Eugene Jones, along as a guest, not realizing the consequences of this decision. Unsurprisingly, when the front desk staff saw Dwight, they immediately turned him away. And so, the group turned to the next best option: the White River, which runs along The Riviera Club’s property. The boys began swimming near the river’s edge, clinging to a log that anchored them to the riverbank. The log dislodged and floated into the center of the river, taking the boys with it. A desperate battle against the current ensued as each boy struggled back to the safety of the water’s edge. It was then that Dwight noticed his favorite hat floating downstream. He left the shore to retrieve his hat and was quickly pulled underwater by the current. Despite his friends’ efforts to save him, Dwight Jones drowned at age 15.

Enraged by this preventable tragedy, the movement to change The Riviera Club’s racist membership policy gained a renewed sense of urgency as the court case loomed. If one child drowned after being denied access to lifeguard attended pools, it could happen again.

Finally, on October 6, 1980, Bates v. Riviera Club, Inc. began its first day in court. The plaintiffs’ lawyers revealed that The Riviera Club accepted over 95 percent of all membership applications, resulting in roughly 10,000 members. Reuben and DeLaney asserted that this, paired with the low cost of membership, meant the organization was not truly operating as a private club. As a public accommodation, they argued, The Riviera Club could not maintain its segregation policy.

One of the defense’s primary arguments was that Black applicants’ intent was malicious and that they wanted to make a political statement by integrating the club, rather than truly wishing to avail themselves of The Riviera Club’s facilities. But this argument failed to hold up against the testimony of roughly a dozen witnesses who recounted the racism on full display at Rivi. The most striking testimony came from Maj. Gil Holmes, who came to court dressed in his Army attire, his chest gleaming with medals awarded for his service in Vietnam. Holmes left a powerful impression on Judge Gene Brooks, demonstrating that the club’s management was so concerned with maintaining an all-white member base that even a decorated war hero was considered unworthy of club membership because he was Black.

After the plaintiffs had called their witnesses, the judge summoned all the lawyers forward. In an unorthodox move, he read a prepared statement. Though Judge Brooks had yet to make any legal decision, he warned the club’s lawyer that based on the evidence provided by Reuben and DeLaney, the club would lose big time should the proceedings continue.

In the end, it wasn’t the years of petitions, sermons, pickets, or even a child’s death that changed the hearts of The Riviera Club’s management. It was Judge Brooks’ stern words that forced their hands.

Terms for a settlement that satisfied both parties were quickly drawn up. Among the immediate changes was the ousting of several members of the club’s membership committee and board of directors. Many people who were previously denied membership joined the club, and some, like Holmes, filled the newly open spots on its various boards. In exchange, Rivi was allowed to keep its status as a private club.

“Learning from past racial and cultural inequalities is the only way to move forward,” insists Jimm Moody, current club general manager. “It’s because of this that Rivi members elected a more diverse board this past February, bringing on Bryan Bradford and retaining Barb Fasbinder and Kat Moynihan Gray, each longtime female members and volunteers who continue to serve Rivi.”

Bates v. Riviera Club, Inc. is a testament to the power of community. No single person can be credited with dismantling the unjust membership policy. The collective efforts of The Riviera Club Task Force, those who picketed, the witnesses who testified in court, the lawyers who demanded justice, and many other supportive community members who refused to allow discrimination to thrive in their neighborhood bear that honor. Although the hard-won victories of Bates v. Riviera Club, Inc. couldn’t erase the damage done by decades of antisemitism and racism, they paved the way for the more just future that The Riviera Club embodies today.

Editor’s note: Lawrence Reuben was the author’s father.