In 2015, a video went viral showing the horrific scene in McKinney, Texas when police responded to a “disturbance” at a community pool. In the video, a white police officer pulled his gun on a group of black teenagers, who were allegedly trespassing on a private neighborhood pool. The officer then shoved a black teenage girl facedown into the grown, pressing his knee into her back. This girl’s screams sparked uproar in the United States surrounding issues of police brutality and race relations (Cole-Frowe, Fausset). Before police arrived at the scene, white adults allegedly told the black teenagers to leave the pool and “return to Section 8 housing” (Bennett). Several days later, a sign was posted outside the pool that read: “Thank you McKinney PD for keeping us safe” (Bennett). The sign praised the police officer for acting as an agent of white adults, keeping them “safe” from black teenagers. In general, this incident reflects how blackness is perceived as a threat in public spaces and how violence is used to protect against this threat.
This paper will focus on the segregation of swimming pools in the United States throughout the 19th, 20th, and 21st centuries. This specific form of segregation highlights a broader civil rights issue: the exclusion of African Americans from access to water. Through the segregation of drinking fountains, toilets, beaches, and swimming pools during the Jim Crow Era, African Americans were effectively excluded from access to public water (Wiltse). This denial of the most basic human right shows the power of white supremacy, which turned even water into a racial issue. Swimming pools are just one example of how the black community has been historically excluded from society and how they continue to be marginalized due to the lasting effects of segregation.
Beginning in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, northern cities in the United States began building municipal swimming pools as a public work (Wiltse). Public swimming pools were established in white neighborhoods of varying economic statuses- including poor, working-class, and immigrant neighborhoods (Wiltse). However, African American neighborhoods were largely excluded from this development process (Wiltse). This strategic placement of swimming pools geographically isolated black communities and deliberately prevented them from socializing with the rest of society. Then, in the 1920s and 1930s, thousands of pools were built, making it easier for African Americans to access them. In response, many cities began to racially segregate pools in order to maintain the separation of white from black (Wiltse).
Swimming pools were segregated using two primary methods (Wiltse). The first method was de jure segregation, which legally banned black people from “white only” swimming pools (Wiltse). Legitimate authority figures, including police officers and city officials, guarded the entrances of pools to prevent black people from entering (Wiltse). The second method was de facto segregation (Wiltse). In cities such as Pittsburgh, where official segregation laws did not pass in court, white swimmers often self-policed pools to keep black swimmers out (Wiltse). White community members acted as unofficial guards at pool entrances- punching, kicking, and beating black swimmers with clubs if they dared to enter (Wiltse). In the summer of 1931, a group of young black men tried to access the Highland Park Pool in Pittsburgh and were repeatedly beaten and punched by white swimmers (Wiltse). Local officials tolerated and often encouraged this violence against African Americans (Wiltse). De facto segregation was far more egregious than de jure segregation, impart due to the statement by law enforcement that black bodies were not protected under the law. White bodies could, in a sense, do whatever they wanted to black bodies with no legal consequences. This method of civilian patrol made swimming pools extremely dangerous for African Americans.
Like other segregated public spaces such as parks and schools, swimming pools were segregated due to a widespread belief that black people were of “a different kind” than white people (Wiltse). In the 1920s and 1930s, many white people believed sharing the same water would expose them to the dirtiness and diseases carried by black people (Wiltse). Additionally, swimming pools were considered an intimate space where racial integration was not appropriate.
Even after public schools were integrated in the landmark decision of Brown v. Board of Education, many federal judges were reluctant to integrate swimming pools, claiming that pools were a more sensitive space than schools (Wiltse). There was a widely-perceived fear that young black males in particular would make unwanted advances towards white women in bathing suits (Wiltse). This fear that young black males would violate white women served as the primary justification for the segregation of swimming pools.
This predatory characterization of black males is prevalent in many facets of society today, the most significant example being the criminal justice system. Black males are disproportionately incarcerated at more than five times the rate of white males (NAACP), suggesting a racial bias in the criminal justice system that views black males as inherently dangerous. Additionally, there is a general lack of trust and respect for black males, including authority figures. In 2014, three young white women were rescued from a house where they were held captive for a decade in what became notoriously known as the Cleveland abductions (Sullivan). Charles Ramsay, a middle-aged black man who aided in the rescue, commented to reporters: “I knew something was wrong when a little pretty white girl ran into a black man’s arms. Something is wrong here.” Ramsay’s comment portrays how racism is learned in the United States: white women are taught to fear black men, even when they hold positions of authority. This same stigma justified the exclusion of black people, and black males in particular from swimming pools during the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, swimming pools in the northern and western parts of the United States were desegregated (Wiltse). Despite the legal strides towards integration, it became clear that anti-black sentiments were still a prevalent force (Wiltse). On the first day that swimming pools were integrated, a local newspaper in Warren, Ohio printed a photo of a line of children waiting to enter the pool, with two black children standing at the back of the line. The photo was captioned “Last one in the water is a monkey” (Wiltse). This news piece represented the anti-black sentiments of many white people, who saw African Americans as a different “kind,” even animal-like. Another incident occurred in 1964 at a hotel in St. Augustine, Florida (Morris). In order to protest the whites-only pool at the hotel, black and white people jumped in the pool together (Morris). The hotel owner forced out swimmers by pouring acid directly into the pool water (Morris). This incident shows that anti-black sentiments regarding swimming pools persisted more than a decade after integration was legalized. In response to integration, many white people retreated to private swimming pools (Wiltse). Many built private pools in their backyards or joined private club pools, which were legally allowed to discriminate based on race. (Wiltse). Additionally, more residential swimming pools were built in predominantly wealthy, white neighborhoods and were only available to members of those neighborhoods (Wiltse). This trend of white people switching to private swimming pools in response to desegregation can be described by the phenomenon “white flight” (Wiltse). The term is typically used to describe the movement of white people out of a certain residential area due to the entrance of black people into the community (Pettigrew, Green). However, white flight can also be applied to the desegregation of swimming pools: when African Americans gained legal access to municipal swimming pools, white people switched to private swimming pools to avoid contact with African Americans.
In recent years, the number of municipal pools has declined (Wiltse). As white swimmers abandoned municipal pools for private ones, municipal pools received far less attention from city governments. Pools were often neglected necessary repairs and began to deteriorate. Eventually, the cost of these repairs were too great and cities chose to close swimming pools (Wiltse). The closing of municipal pools has not significantly affected the upper middle class, the majority of whom are white, because they have the financial resources to join private swimming facilities (Wiltse). However, it has left many low-income Americans, who are disproportionately people of color, without access to swimming pools because they cannot afford a private pool membership (Wiltse). Of Americans between the ages of 40 and 50, white people comprise 62% of the entire population, but 72% of the upper-middle class (Reeves, Joo). The statistics are quite different for Hispanics and African Americans, who comprise 17% and 12% of the population respectively, but only 9% and 7% of the upper-middle class respectively (Reeves, Joo). Although swimming pools are no longer segregated, African Americans continue to be excluded from pools because they are made economically and geographically unattainable for low-income Americans, who are disproportionately African American and hispanic. Overall, the decline of municipal pools is an example of how the government works in favor of white people by strategically choosing to fund public works that benefit white people. Consequently, the government pushes aside the needs of the black community and further marginalizes them.
For centuries, the segregation of public spaces has enabled white people to exclude and oppress black people (Russell, Stewart). Public swimming pools have played a paramount role in alienating African Americans from the rest of a society (Wiltse). Swimming pools represent just one of the countless ways black people have been marginalized in a society that was constructed by white people, for white people. Through analyzing the segregation of swimming pools over three centuries, it became clear that segregation has made swimming an inherently racialized practice in the United States. More significantly, the lasting effects of segregation are evident today, with white Americans twice as likely to know to swim as black Americans (Hackman). Additionally, 58% of black children ages 5 to 14 cannot swim and they are nearly 3x more likely to drown that white children (USA Swimming). These statistics reflect the power of racial sentiments to transcend generational lines. Although segregation has been outlawed in the United States, swimming pools have yet to be integrated due to the lasting effects of segregation.
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