Racism at American Pools Isn’t New: A Look at a Long History


The poolside confrontations keep coming.

This summer, a white woman was charged with assaulting a black boy. A white man also lost his job after demanding identification from a black woman. And a white manager of an apartment complex was fired after she called the police on a black man wearing socks in the water.

The encounters, some captured on video, have prompted widespread anger, but they are hardly new: The United States has a long history of people of color facing harassment and racism at swimming pools.

Pools are supposed to be places to relax, but ever since they exploded in popularity about a century ago, they have served as flash points for racial conflict — vulnerable spaces where prejudices have intensified and violence has often broken out.

“That’s the most intimate thing,” said Greg Carr, chairman of Howard University’s Afro-American studies department. “I’m in this water, you’re in this water, it’s in me, on me.”

Here’s a look at the resistance black Americans have faced in trying to access pools.

Mixing the sexes and separating by race

In the 1920s and 1930s, pool construction accelerated as cities built lavish public facilities, Jeff Wiltse, a University of Montana history professor and author of “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America,” said in an interview.

In many cities, white and black people historically swam together, separated by sex. But norms began to shift as pools multiplied, with men and women increasingly swimming together, eliciting racist anxieties.

In 1931, Pittsburgh debuted a new facility at the popular Highland Park, featuring a sandy beach with two large pools, according to the book. But, unlike the city’s other pools, men and women could swim together there.

On opening day, thousands showed up, including many black residents who were asked by pool attendants to provide “health certificates” proving they were disease-free. Several later complained to an official, who assured them access going forward.

When about 50 young black men arrived the next day, attendants let them in, but a larger crowd of white poolgoers jeered and attacked them, according to a newspaper report.

That white resistance to integrated swimming was rooted in a fear of interracial contact between men and women, Dr. Wiltse said. The violent opposition continued for weeks, peaking when several hundred white youths severely beat about 40 black swimmers, The New York Times reported.

The opposition persisted for a few summers, spreading even to single-sex facilities, according to the book.

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Fighting for the right to swim

In 1949, a St. Louis official determined the city could no longer segregate pools, concluding that, like other citizens, black residents “have a right to use public property,” according to a Times report.

The next day, about 50 black swimmers showed up at a luxurious facility at Fairgrounds Park and were attacked by almost 200 white teenagers carrying baseball bats and heavy sticks, the report said.

The clashes spread, and Mayor Joseph Darst ordered pools to be resegregated the next day.

The following year, a local N.A.A.C.P. chapter successfully sued the city over the policy, according to reports, previewing the broader civil rights movement.

Mayor Darst, who was white, agreed to comply with a judge’s order to integrate pools, according to “Contested Waters,” but he also decided to resegregate them by sex.

The fight was not limited to pools, either.

In the 1960s, black protesters organized “wade-ins” to demand equal access to the beach in Biloxi, Miss. Fierce resistance led to what an Associated Press article published in April 1960 by The Times described as “the worst racial riot in Mississippi history,” involving “gunfire, stonings and street clashes.” By 1968, though, a federal court would rule the beach must be open to all.

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Images that captured the nation’s attention

In 1964, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference started a campaign in St. Augustine, Fla., to support local protests against discrimination and raise awareness of the civil rights movement.

It included sit-ins, marches and what The Times described as a “dive-in” at the Monson Motor Lodge, where several white and black protesters jumped into a pool, a moment memorialized in famous photographs.

One image, published on The Times’s front page, showed a white police officer jumping into the pool to arrest protesters. Another showed the white motel manager, James Brock, dumping muriatic acid, a cleaning agent, into the water near visibly distressed swimmers.

The images took on near-instant significance. President Lyndon B. Johnson mentioned them in a phone call the following day, according to a recording of the call. The outrage, he said, underscored the need for civil rights action.

“Our whole foreign policy and everything else could go to hell over this,” he said.

The day of the call, the Senate passed a compromise bill prohibiting discrimination in the workplace, at public facilities and polling places, and elsewhere. Within weeks, Mr. Johnson signed the bill into law, enacting the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Mr. Rogers encourages shifting attitudes

Five years later, the television personality Fred Rogers weighed in, in his understated way.

In a 1969 episode of “Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood,” he invited Officer Clemmons, a recurring character played by the black actor François Clemmons, to join him in soaking his feet in a wading pool.

“They didn’t want black people to come and swim in their swimming pools,” Mr. Clemmons said in “Won’t You Be My Neighbor?,” a 2018 documentary about Mr. Rogers. “My being on the program was a statement for Fred.”

The two recreated the scene when Mr. Clemmons returned to the show in 1993. In that episode, Mr. Rogers, an ordained Presbyterian minister, helped Mr. Clemmons dry off his feet, evoking a biblical gesture.

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Taking the fight to the Supreme Court

As segregationist policies unraveled, many white Americans in cities retreated to suburbs with private or community-managed pools. But prejudices persisted.

In 1962, T. R. Freeman Jr., a black economist for the Agriculture Department, rented a home in Fairfax County, Va., which included swimming club access. After Mr. Freeman’s membership application was denied, the white man who rented him the home, Paul E. Sullivan, protested on Mr. Freeman’s behalf, and had his own membership revoked, according to The Times.

Both men sued and the matter reached the Supreme Court, which found in 1969 that pool access was a property right that could not be limited by race.

From the 1970s to 1990s, cities faced with shrinking populations and rising budget deficits stopped building new pools or maintaining existing ones, Dr. Wiltse said. Public pool attendance dropped, and private pool construction increased drastically.

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A city camp’s thwarted summer plans

In 2009, a northeast Philadelphia youth camp struck an agreement to bring a group of predominantly black and Hispanic children to a swimming club pool in a mostly white suburb.

On their first visit, several children and the camp’s director reported hearing “disparaging” remarks, according to a lawsuit filed at the time, including from a white woman who said: “What are all these black kids doing here? They might do something to my child.” Before a return trip, the camp’s contract was revoked, according to The Times.

The club said the pool had become unsafe with so many children in it, but the camp argued racism was to blame.

Simone Manuel wins the gold in 2016

When Simone Manuel, at 20, became the first African-American woman to win an individual event in Olympic swimming, the significance was not lost on her.

“I’m super glad with the fact I can be an inspiration to others and hopefully diversify the sport,” she said then. But “I would like there to be a day where there are more of us and it’s not Simone, the black swimmer.”

Last year, U.S.A. Swimming, the sport’s national governing body, found that 64 percent of African-American children have no or low swimming ability, compared with 45 percent of Hispanic children and 40 percent of Caucasian children.

“Just imagine all the untapped potential,” Lia Neal, an American swimmer of African and Chinese descent who has won bronze and silver Olympic medals, said in an interview.

“It’s great that we can use our platform and inspire kids who look up to us because they see themselves in us,” she said. “But we’re also not an easy fix for racism.”

In an interview, Ms. Manuel said she experienced prejudice when she was 6 years old and a swimming teammate told her that he would not play with her on the playground after practice because she was black. Years passed before she told her parents.

“I think I was protecting them from any negativity about their raising an accomplished black swimmer,” she said. “I guess for me, I didn’t really think I was different. It’s just a very innocent age. To think that someone that age could think like that is very disturbing to me now.”

Poolside confrontations continue

In 2015, Dajerria Becton, a 15-year-old black girl, was at a pool party in McKinney, Tex., when a white police officer responded to a fight and disturbance. The officer grabbed her by the hair, pointed his gun at others in attendance and shoved her to the ground as she called for her mother.

The episode, captured on video, drew national attention and sparked protests and a lawsuit. The officer resigned and the city paid Dajerria and her family nearly $185,000.

This summer, in South Carolina, a white woman, 38, was charged with assaulting a black boy, 15, at a neighborhood pool, telling him and his friends to “get out.” In North Carolina, a white man lost his job after calling the police on a black woman who refused to show him identification at a private pool where she had an access card.

And white female managers at apartment complexes in Memphis and Indianapolis were disciplined after they confronted black male poolgoers. In one incident, the poolgoer was wearing socks and dipped his feet in the pool. In the other, he refused to provide his address to prove his residency, though he displayed a pool access key.

[Read more about other recent, high-profile incidents where black people engaging in everyday activities have had the police called on them for the thinnest of suspicions.]

Karen Crouse contributed reporting, and Doris Burke contributed research.



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