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When you think about desegregation, do you think about schools? Buses? Lunch counters? How about that most innocent, necessary, and often taken for granted of summer recreation spots for hot kids and their parents—the public pool?
Yet pools were, and are, a public facility, and because of that were segregated by race—and often well beyond the Jim Crow South. Pool: A Social History of Segregation, an exhibit at Philadelphia’s Fairmount Water Works, wants to rectify this: its aim is to deepen the public’s “understanding of the connection between water, social justice, and public health.” It succeeds, offering a masterful history of swimming and race in Philadelphia, and across the nation, over the past 150 years. A powerful, must-see exhibit, curator and creator Victoria Prizzia has incorporated photographs, films, audio clips, and the stunning work of nine socially engaged artists to evoke the public pool as a socially contested site.
Much of the historical analysis draws from Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (UNC Press, 2010.) The book inspired the exhibit for which Wiltse served as an advisor. Organized chronologically, the exhibit begins by explaining that municipal swimming pools grew out of a nineteenth-century social service mission: providing public bathhouses for residents without bathing facilities. By the early twentieth century, when indoor plumbing was mandated by law in many cities, bathhouses became transformed into sex-segregated recreational facilities for working-class youth. Two of the most arresting photographs are from this moment. In one, young girls line up outside a bathhouse. In a second, older boys are frolicking or swimming in the water.
In 1926, the federal government mandated segregation at swimming pools in the nation’s capital. While facilities in northern cities did not explicitly limit access by race, their locations–largely in segregated neighborhoods defended by white residents—drastically limited opportunities for African American children to learn to swim and cool down in the summer.
But when swimming pools became gender-integrated in the mid-twentieth century, explicit racial segregation followed. The exhibit text explains it bluntly: “public anxiety about sexuality and gender shifted to public anxiety about sexuality and race, particularly white antagonism toward Black men sharing sexualized spaces with white women.”
Fashion also played a role in this shift. As women’s bathing suits became smaller, white racial anxiety grew, and municipal recreation authorities and lawmakers acted to ensure that public swimming pools were segregated by race. Segregation was enforced not just by law, but through vicious attacks on Black swimmers. It was the murder by drowning of a Black teenager on a beach in Chicago in 1919 that sparked one of the deadliest race riots of the post-war period.
After World War II, legal efforts to desegregate swimming pools, as did civil rights protests around access to public and private pools. Exhibit goers can see footage of the 1964 swim-in in St. Augustine, Florida, when a racially integrated group entered a motel swimming pool only to have the manager pour acid into the water, a clip featured in the documentary, “Eyes on the Prize” and in the 2018 documentary about Mr. Rogers, “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” The campaign also inspired Fred Rogers’s 1969 episode, in which he shares a wading pool with the character Officer Clemmons, played by African American actor Francois Clemmons.
Captured on film, in all its ugliness, the St. Augustine action was a powerful symbol of the racial politics of space at swimming sites. But integration battles went on in the courts as well as poolside in the second half of the twentieth century. The segregation of community pools supported by taxpayers ended in 1973, in the Supreme Court case Tillman v Wheaton-Haven Recreation Association. when the U.S. Supreme Court found race-based exclusion at private swim clubs illegal.
Yet, despite the prohibitions they faced, black children and adults found opportunities to swim. All-Black swim teams developed in the north following the Great Migration of the World War I era, and private black clubs offered middle- and upper-class families access to the water. The exhibit highlights a few of these, including the Nile Club, founded outside of Philadelphia in 1958 and still going strong. Segregated athletic organizations also hosted competitions in the years before national sports organizations became integrated. The exhibit, and its website, present interviews with several African American coaches and swimmers that document this vibrant aquatic subculture, among them champions Sabir Muhammad and Maritza Correia McClendon, and Rhonda Harper, founder of Black Girls Surf.
Pool brings us up to the present day with a disquieting message about racial and gender disparities: disproportionately, Black children still do not learn to swim, and boys are less capable swimmers than girls. This can be a matter of life and death. “In Pennsylvania, Black children have a 50% higher rate of accidental drowning than white children,” one narrative informs us, “1.2 deaths per 100,000 population for Blacks vs. O.8 deaths per 100,000 for whites. This disparity has remained unchanged for more than 20 years. White boys are 3.5 times more likely to drown than white girls, while Black boys are 4.5 times more likely to drown than Black girls.”
Having praised the exhibit for what it does, it is worth noting what it does not do: take up the issue of disability access to swimming pools as a form of segregation that lingers today. Philadelphia, with over 70 public swimming pools, the largest number per resident of any major American city, has only two with wheelchair lifts. Five YMCA pools (which require membership for access) also have lifts. Ironically, even the exhibit is not fully accessible. In part, this is because the building that hosts it is over 200 years old. While there is an elevator, visitors with mobility issues will find that portions of the exhibit can only be reached with steps.
In other words, swimming segregation has a long legacy that isn’t over: it must be addressed as a matter of not just fun and athleticism, but also public health.
People with access to Philadelphia should come and see Pool; everyone else can enjoy the website The exhibit is free and open Wednesdays through Saturdays until late September.
Janet Golden is History Professor Emerita at Rutgers University, Camden.