What do you think when someone says “Let’s go to the pool.” A fun place to meet friends, a peaceful spot to read a good book, take a refreshing swim, or do laps?
Whatever you think, this iconic image of summer rarely brings forth thoughts of race, but that’s exactly what happened to me recently. The racial overtone of swimming pools came to mind when I learned of a play coming to my area called #poolparty. Based on an incident that happened years ago in Mt. Rainier, Maryland, a community just outside of Washington, DC, this play focuses on the unique, and perhaps unexpected, role that swimming pools have played in the history of race in America.
Public pools were off limits for many African-Americans during the years when I grew up. In the late 1950s and 60s, there were none available for black people in Richmond, Virginia, my hometown. City leaders claimed that tight budgets and the fear of the transmittal of diseases, particularly polio at that time, was the basis for this decision. But no one believed that. The real reason, some suggest, was a desire not to mix races in what many felt was the intimacy of a swimming pool. Body-revealing bathing suits and the possibility of touching, even accidentally, brought forth the white community’s historical need to protect white women from black men. Since integration in civic areas was now legally mandated, public pools, at least those in Richmond, and in many other communities, would be closed.
Now, this reality didn’t have too much impact on many whites. There were private community pools and private country clubs. White teenagers still had pool parties, and young white parents took their young ones to pools to learn to swim.
That wasn’t the case in my community. Even though neither of my parents could swim, they both wanted me to learn. I remember them talking about how much fun I could have. It was right before school ended in the 7th grade that these conversations started in my home. Swimming had never come up before. What I didn’t know was that there hadn’t been a place for me to learn to swim until then. The local black Y—separate and unequal—didn’t have a pool like the white Y. At the time, there was no country club for the black community. But that summer a resource became available. A local black physician opened his nearby home to swim instructors from the black Y. They held classes in his backyard pool. That year, the summer between the 7th and 8th grades, I packed my towel and put on shorts over my swimsuit and walked the few blocks to Dr. Jackson’s house to learn to swim. Just as had always been the case, the black community found a way to take care of its own. But for those not fortunate enough to have a Dr. Jackson with a pool in the neighborhood, their grandparents might not have learned to swim. If they didn’t, their mom and dad might not have been encouraged to learn. And the fun and value of learning to swim may not have been transmitted to the current generation.
The lack of access to pools in the ‘50s and ‘60s continues to have an impact today.
Swimming is often seen only as a recreational activity but learning how to swim can, of course, save your life. Even today, the USA Swimming Foundation estimates that 70% of African-Americans cannot swim. Consider that fact against the high percentage of people who lost their lives in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. Most were poor and black… and they drowned.
While swimming pools are no longer the symbol of privilege they once were, access to swimming is still disproportionately more available to the white community. Certainly swimming and access to a pool is not the symbol of racial equity in America. But the next time you sit by the pool to read, or you invite your friends over for a swim, at least acknowledge that this, too, is representative of the racial divide that continues to exist and is emblematic of a much more profound and significant racial disparity in America.