Everyone Into The Pool

It is hard to believe summer is on the way and for some
of us, it’ll mean time spent around the neighborhood or
community pool. For many this brings good memories of
childhood. But for others there is a different story. It is the
story for some of racial discrimination which was reflected
in and today reflects tensions in our society that need to be
recognized so they may be dealt with. For many of us being at the water in
the summer meant going to the beach. Often this was a more egalitarian
environment. Beach blanket space and boardwalks somehow seemed to be
for all. There was often an informal sense of who settled where, but in post desegregation years, no hard and fast rules, at least we thought so. The
pool was a different reality altogether.
The following article casts a light on the issue of racial discrimination at
the pool in the past and today.
By Jeff Wiltse, June 10, 2015 , The Washington Post
America’s swimming pools have a long, sad, racist history
They’ve long been contested spaces where we express prejudices that
otherwise remain unspoken.
Last weekend, a harrowing scene unfolded at a private community
swimming pool in McKinney, TX. Several white adults taunted a group of
black teens, telling them to “go back to your Section 8 homes.” Another
reportedly referred to one of the teens as a “black effer.” The police were
eventually called in, responding with aggressive and unreasonable force.
Americans were shocked by the scene, which was caught by camera
phones. But I wasn’t surprised.
Swimming pools have long been contested spaces where Americans
express social prejudices that otherwise remain publicly unspoken. (Though
the McKinney pool isn’t open to the general public, it was being used by a
resident to host a party with friends from outside the neighborhood, like
someone might do at their own neighborhood pool.) They provide insight
into the state of social relations in America, both past and present.
The earliest public pools were built in large northern cities during the late
19th and early 20th centuries. They served mostly poor and working-class
boys (both black and white), and reveal the class prejudices of the time. In
1910, for example, the proposal to build a large municipal pool in New
York’s Central Park generated intense opposition from the city’s middle and
upper classes, because it would attract large numbers of immigrant and
working-class kids into their oasis of genteel recreation. “I should consider it
disastrous if the only swimming pool belonging to the city was put [in
Central Park],” one critic told the New York Times. “It would attract all sorts
of undesirable people.” The paper agreed and recommended that municipal
pools be located underneath the Manhattan and Queensboro bridges.
These locations would have effectively secluded working-class swimmers,
protecting the city’s class-segregated social geography.
The design of pools and the social composition of swimmers changed
during the 1920s and ’30s, when cities across the country built large, resortlike swimming pools and allowed males and females to use them together
for the first time. In northern cities such as Chicago, New York and
Pittsburgh, gender integration brought about racial segregation. Public
officials and white swimmers now objected to the presence of black
Americans because they did not want black men interacting with white
women at such visually and physically intimate spaces. And so, throughout
the North, public pools became racially segregated during the interwar
In some cases, white swimmers imposed de facto segregation through
violence and intimidation. At Pittsburgh’s Highland Park Pool, for
example, white swimmers attacked black swimmers —
sometimes with rocks and clubs — to prevent them from
entering the pool. Police officers encouraged these attacks and
typically arrested the black victims, charging them with “inciting
to riot.” In attempting to explain why black swimmers were
being attacked at Highland Park Pool but not at other city pools,
the Pittsburgh Courier wrote: “The whole trouble seems to be
due to the way Highland Park Pool is operated. It is the only city
pool where men and women, girls and boys swim together. This
brings the sex question into t he pool and trouble is bound to
arise between the races.
The same type of trouble had no chance to arise at public
swimming pools in the South and Mason-Dixon line cities such as
St. Louis and Baltimore, because public officials mandated racial
segregation, explicitly barring blacks from entering “whites-only”
Across the country, public swimming pools were racially
desegregated after World War II, but that was met with
widespread opposition from whites that again exposed their
social prejudices. Southern cities typically shut down their public
pools rather than allow mixed-race swimming. In the North,
whites generally abandoned pools that became accessible to
blacks and retreated to ones located in thoroughly white
neighborhoods or established private club pools, where racial
discrimination was still legal.
Warren, Ohio, for example, was forced by a pending court
order to desegregate its municipal pool in 1948. The local
newspaper covered the first day of interracial swimming by
printing a front-page photo showing a dozen children waiting to
enter. The last two children in line were black; the caption read:
“Last one in the water is a monkey.” The racial antipathy
expressed in the newspaper was shared by many local whites,
who stopped using the pool when they realized black residents
intended to use it. Similarly, in 1962, several years after
Pittsburgh’s municipal pools were desegregated, a sign posted
outside a city pool still used exclusively by whites read “No dogs
or niggers allowed.” Public pools were racially desegregated, but
that did not mean blacks and whites started swimming together.
Even today, there are examples that things haven’t changed
that much. In 2009, 65 black and Latino campers from the
Creative Steps day camp in North Philadelphia arrived at the
Valley Swim Club in suburban Montgomery County to play for an
hour and a half. Camp director Althea Wright had paid the
private club $1,950 to use the facility Monday afternoons
throughout the summer. As the campers entered the water,
some club members reportedly pulled their children from the
pool and wondered aloud what all these black and Latino kids
were doing there. A few days later, the Valley Swim Club
canceled the lease agreement. When pressed to explain, the club
president stated, “there was concern [among the members] that
a lot of kids would change the complexion … and the atmosphere
of the club.
We do not see this type of behavior in other public spaces
such as parks. Why do swimming pools bring out the worst in
Part of the answer has to do with the uniqueness of swimming pools as physical spaces. They are visually and socially intimate.
Swimmers gaze upon one another’s nearly naked bodies, lie in the sun next
to one another, navigate through crowded water and flirt. This type of
contact and interaction piques social anxieties and exposes the lack of trust
and understanding between people of different social classes.
Swimming pools have also been intensely contested because they are
places at which people build community and define the social boundaries of
community life. Swimming pools are primary summertime gathering places,
where many people come together (often for several hours), socialize, and
share a common space. Swimming with others in a pool means accepting
them as part of the same community precisely because the interaction is so
intimate and sociable. Conversely, excluding someone or some group from a
pool effectively defines them as social others—as excluded from the
For these reasons, swimming pools serve as useful barometers of social
relations. If we as a nation want to know how we relate to one another
across social lines, how we structure our communities socially, and how we
think about people who are socially different from ourselves, just look at our
swimming pools. The answer will be obvious.
In sum, the lazy hazy days of summer have been and are more
complicated than we may realize. Have a happy and inclusive summer.
Fondly submitted for the Diversity Committee

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