I want to stress that when you study history, you also study historiography (or the writing of history). You learn how to cross reference and analyze various obscure (and not-so-obscure) primary sources to paint a picture of the past. You consider bias and validity when working with these materials and you synthesize what you KNOW to be fact with what you interpret. It is one thing to love history and read about it, but when you take on the duty of teaching others or writing about it, YOU MUST check your sources and synthesize them. Too many hoteps and white nationalists don’t get this. There should not be people walking around believing the Holocaust didn’t happen or that the first President was a black man. And yet here we are.
So without going all History 2800 and 4000 on you (s/o to my history majors at OSU), let's investigate the Dorothy Dandridge Pool Incident. I'll walk you through how I fact check popular myths that float around on the web!
1. Verify the sources making the claim & check for any conflicting claims
You have probably heard two slightly conflicting stories surrounding twentieth century black movie star Dorothy Dandridge. In 1953:
- She defiantly stuck her toe in a pool at the Hotel Last Frontier in Las Vegas and the hotel drained the pool (Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, a 1999 movie starring Halle Berry)
- The Hotel Last Frontier drained the pool so that she could not swim in it (per multiple memes and African American Theater: A Cultural Companion)
Already we have TWO conflicting stories about the incident. Did she stick her toe in the pool to deliberately provoke a response, or what? While the details may seem minute, notice that only one of these events can be valid. But of course, there are two other possible outcomes: the incident didn't happen at all or it was conflated completely with another story. But we'll come back to that. First let's check the credibility of Introducing Dorothy Dandridge, the 1999 movie.
Introducing Dorothy Dandridge is NOT a primary source. It is fiction, and based on a true story. What story? The 1999 biography written exclusively to be published as a movie by Dandridge's former manager, Earl Mills. The biography was called Dorothy Dandridge: An Intimate Biography. Is Earl Mills credible? Yes, he was her manager for years... but he never wrote or spoke about the alleged incident until 1999. Dorothy died in 1965. Could it be possible that he wrote the pool incident to add some drama to her story? This leads me to the next step in the investigation.
2. Look For a Secondary Source From The Era That Backs Up The Claim
Because the alleged incident took place in 1953, primary sources-- a video, a diary entry, a photograph, etc-- do not exist. The sole foundation of this claim comes from Earl Mills, who is not credible enough. So, we next scour for secondary sources.
Interpretations of an event as it unfolds (or if it has recently unfolded) via a newspaper or magazine are categorized as secondary sources. I checked for news coverage in Ebony and Jet Magazine from 1953-1998 for any information on Dorothy Dandridge. There were articles about her marriages, her luxurious lifestyle, and her movie roles- but no pool incident. There isn't a SINGLE secondary source from these respected publications before 1999 that claims Dorothy was discriminated at a hotel pool. I considered it possible that neither Ebony or Jet felt it newsworthy to report on the alleged incident. But that doesn't hold up to scrutiny as Dandridge was a major black star and both magazines indulged in celebrity gossip and happenings. So I expanded my search to newspaper archives and similarly came up empty handed.
3. Make Reasonable Inferences & Play Devils Advocate
There are a number of reasons why we CANNOT conclude that Dorothy Dandridge stuck her toe in a pool and sparked a racist drainage. They include:
Causes Reasonable Doubt (So ask a follow up question):
- The first mention of the incident was not until 1999. (But what if Earl Mills was credible?)
- Dorothy Dandridge herself never mentioned the incident (But what if she felt the incident wasn't important to mention or thought it might damage her career?)
Causes MAJOR Doubt:
- Every secondary source I checked was written AFTER 1999.
- The conflicting language between these sources. Some say she stuck her toe in and the pool was drained as a result, others say the pool was drained to keep her from swimming.
4. Synthesize Your Inference With What You Know About The Era
So we know about other racist incidents involving pools, restaurants, and hotels during the mid-twentieth century. It could be possible that Earl Mills conflated Dorothy's life with that of infamous instances of pool racism (like the acid throwing at the Monson Motor Lodge Swimming Pool).
But what more can we reasonable infer? We know that inferior pool technology in the 1950s would make draining a pool a lengthy and intrusive job. One that would likely make other guests upset. Maybe hotel staff threatened to drain the pool if Dorothy tried to swim, but it is highly unlikely (when weighing the complete lack of primary and secondary evidence) that the pool was drained because of a toe, or even a swim. Instead, it is much more likely that the staff made a dramatic threat and/or Earl Mills just wanted to add some pizzazz to Dorothy's life story. The facts make this story a legend, or historical in nature but unauthenticated.
And that often is the outcome of studying history. Offering a nuanced interpretation of the past. So you may be wondering, "Who gives a fuck if they really didn't drain the pool?! They were really racist back then! White supremacy is real!"
They were. They are. It is.
But if something like this fictional story (based on an unsubstantiated claim made in an HBO movie) can travel like wildfire in our community, it's clear that we have a problem with VERIFYING SOURCES and FACT CHECKING. When it comes down to discussing real issues, events, or traumas-- it has become all too easy for people who don't agree with something to claim that the history has been manipulated. But if all of us have the knowledge on how to verify validity and credibility, our discussions-- and therefore solutions, would be much better.
Like this series? Let me know what you think!