From Exclusive to Inclusive: Evolution of the Community Swimming Pool

In 1958, David Isom, 19, broke the color line by using a segregated public pool, which resulted in officials promptly closing the facility. |Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

Why do people go to the community swimming pool? To relax, to have fun, to play, to exercise, to spend time with family, friends, and neighbors. The community swimming pool is a source of enjoyment all summer long. And spending time in and around water has been shown to improve physical, mental, and emotional health, three benefits all of us could use in a post-pandemic world. As a result, we expect to see increased usage at community pools this summer. But community and public pools have not always been accessible to everyone. Let’s take a look back at the history of these pools to see how they’ve evolved over the years, and how you can use your community pool to reunite your community. Swimming pools have been a part of American culture for centuries. In the early days, pools were mostly private, and only the wealthy could afford to use them. As the middle class grew, so did demand for public pools. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, public swimming pools grew in popularity and numbers. Initially they were gender segregated, until about the 1930s or 1940s, when the trend changed to gender integration.

However, as pools became gender integrated, they also became racially segregated. This was the result of Jim Crow laws that were in place in many parts of the country. The Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s led to the desegregation of community pools. However, even after
segregation ended, many minorities did not have access to pools. This was because many pools were located in White neighborhoods, where minorities were not welcome. Racial desegregation of pools started in the northern states and progressed southward. Known as the Highland Park pool incident, one of the most violent protests against desegregation occurred in Pittsburgh in 1949. A group of would-be swimmers (Black and White) marched toward the Highland Park pool, and were met by a group of Whites throwing bottles at them, resulting in a full-blown riot. Similarly, when St. Louis officials changed their park’s policy in 1949 to allow Black swimmers, a White mob that grew over 5,000 assembled and threatened and beat every Black person who attempted to enter or come near Fairground Park pool. The riot was so bloody, city officials returned to segregation policy in the interests of public safety for the remainder of the year. This decision was legally challenged and overturned in 1950, but as a result, this extremely popular pool saw a 97% drop in attendance, and the city closed it just 6 years later.

Some municipalities around the country protested desegregation mandates by draining their pools, making them unusable, or selling them to private entities who could operate them for Whites only. Sadly, the US Supreme Court ratified this approach in Palmer v. Thompson in 1971, stating that closing the facilities affected all equally. But the effects were not evenly felt. As public pools became racially desegregated, often by court order, overall attendance dropped markedly, primarily because many Whites stopped coming. This didn’t mean Whites stopped swimming. Instead they built private clubs and residential pools, where they could control access to Whites only. Why was racial desegregation of swimming pools such a flashpoint for the country? Because of two racist assumptions. First, many Whites thought that Blacks carried more diseases and that Whites would be exposed to these diseases by swimming in the same water. The second, and arguably more prominent, concern had to do with gender roles and race. When pools became racially desegregated, there was a fear among White men that Black men would now have more direct access to White women at such intimate public spaces as a swimming pools, where minimal clothing was worn, and that Black men would use that to their advantage .

On June 18, 1964, Black and White protesters jumped into a Whites-only pool at Manson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida. The White hotel owner was so upset, he poured muriatic acid into the pool – with the swimmers in the pool! Thankfully, no one was injured by the acid. However, the incident received national media coverage, and got the attention of President Lyndon B. Johnson. The following day, the Civil Rights Act was approved in the Senate, after an 83-day filibuster, House approval followed, and President Johnson signed it into law July 2, 1964. However, legal success did not immediately translate into real-world integration. Even though public spaces were legally racially desegregated in 1964, minorities were still denied entry to swimming pools for years afterward. In 1969, Fred Rogers made a simple but meaningful statement on his extremely popular television show Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood. He invited a Black police officer to join him in cooling off his feet in a small plastic swimming pool. They swirled their feet around together in the water and even used the same towel to dry their feet. Fred Rogers’ public gesture broke barriers and helped signal to millions of Americans that Blacks and Whites can share the same spaces peacefully. The two recreated the scene in 1993, this time with Fred drying off Officer Clemons’ feet. Despite considerable progress in racial reconciliation in the latter part of the 20th century and through the present day, municipal pools have continued to decline. More and more have closed, and this trend only accelerated during the pandemic due to budget cuts and staffing shortages.

As middle and upper class Americans moved to communities with pools or joined private clubs with pools, lower income families continued to lose access to public pool facilities. Reduced access to community swimming pools has had a lasting impact on Black and other minority populations. For instance, Blacks drown at a rate of one-and-a-half times that ofWhites. American Indians & Alaskan natives drown at a rate of twice that of Whites. In addition, swim competency in the US is surprisingly low, especially among minorities. Only 36% of Black Americans and just 44% of Latino Americans are competent swimmers, whereas 62% of White Americans can swim. Studies have also shown that minorities are more likely to have traumatic experiences in or around water, and that these experiences prevent them from enjoying the water, and deter them from learning to swim. These experiences and stereotypes have contributed to generations of minority families without the skills to be safe in and around the water. Drowning rates in the US had been steadily declining since the 80s, and then leveled off around the turn of the century. Sadly, during the pandemic, drowning rates rose in the US for the first time in over two decades. This is attributed to reduced access to swimming pools and swim instruction, coupled with increased time spent in and around natural bodies of water, where
most drowning occurs.

In recent years, there has been a growing effort to make community pools more inclusive. Many pools have started offering swim lessons and other programs specifically for minority children. These programs are helping to improve the water competency of minorities and underprivileged families. Today, community swimming pools are more inclusive than ever before. They are a great place for people of all ages, races, and backgrounds to come together and enjoy water and the outdoors. Here are three ways you can make a positive impact: Consider donating to charities that focus on improving access to swim lessons for underprivileged populations. Some specific charities include: PHTA’s Step Into Swim Program, USA Swimming’s Make-A-Splash program, Every Child A Swimmer, Diversity in Aquatics, The American Red Cross Centennial program, or locally through the Greater Atlanta Water Safety Alliance.

Plan community events at your swimming pool, and be sure to include activities that are fun for everyone in your community. Invite underrepresented residents to be on the planning committee for the events. Organize a water safety awareness event at your community pool this summer. GAWSA can provide materials to help. By taking these steps, you can make a positive difference in your surrounding community, and restore your community pool to the fun, inclusive gathering spot it was designed to be!

This article is the intellectual property of SEARS Pool,and we have obtained the necessary permission to share it

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