A history of unwelcome waters

Segregated public pools had lasting effect on Black America

- Andre Toran

During Black History Month, with the series 28 Black stories in 28 days, USA TODAY Sports examines the issues, challenges and opportunit­ies Black athletes and sports officials face after the nation’s reckoning on race in 2020.

LOUISVILLE, Ky. – Raoul Cunningham was hesitant, but he and his friends kept walking anyway.

He thought about their safety as they cut through Louisville’s Parkland neighborho­od headed toward Algonquin Park. They were going to swim in the formerly whites-only Algonquin pool for the first time.

It was the first week of June in 1956, he recalls, and Louisville Mayor Andrew Broaddus had signed off on an order the year prior to officially end racial segregatio­n of public parks and pools. That year, 1955, the Algonquin pool still operated as a whites-only pool because it had just been built, but this summer that would all change.

When Cunningham and his friends reached the pool, the objective was clear: “We wanted to make sure we were going to be safe and that nothing was going to happen (to us),” he said.

As pools began to desegregat­e across the country, many Black swimmers were met with contention. Whites threw nails to the bottom of pools in Cincinnati and poured bleach and acid in pools in St. Augustine, Florida. In the decade prior, there were major riots at pools in Baltimore, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., as Black swimmers entered unwelcomed waters.

Cunningham, the president of the Louisville branch of the NAACP today, doesn’t recall major disturbanc­es when Black swimmers arrived at Algonquin, but “I’m sure not everyone accepted it,” he said, “but we went immediatel­y to the pool,” and at the most “somebody might call you an N-word” for being there.

Although Louisville’s move toward the desegregat­ion of municipal pools might have seemed a little more willing than most cities across the country at the time, Cunningham was clear – “segregatio­n is still segregatio­n” no matter the degree, and the lasting impact of prejudice and a lack of access to pools, both private and public, stunted the relationsh­ip between Black Americans and swimming, both for leisure and competitio­n.

This persists decades later, as the swimming culture that arose and still exists within the white community today was never able to take root in Black America.

Social legacy

Beginning in the 1920s, public swimming pools became accessible like never before.

Cities nationwide began to build gender-integrated pools to meet the demand for outdoor recreation­al activities, said Jeff Wiltse, history professor at the University of Montana and author of “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.”

This boom continued until the stock market crashed in 1929 but exploded again after the Great Depression, as the Public Works Administra­tion and the Works Progress Administra­tion funded the constructi­on of roughly 1,000 swimming pools nationally.

Tens of millions of swimmers visited those pools each year, which spurred a national “learn-to-swim” campaign. The demand for pools was not exclusive to white swimmers, but the government’s response to build them catered to whites as many of the pools constructe­d were racially segregated.

In large metropolit­an areas, local government­s usually relegated Black citizens to rundown pools in a singular location while whites could access a plethora of upscale “resortlike pools,” Wiltse said.

According to University of Louisville historian Tom Owen, circa 1925 and preintegra­tion, there were roughly four public swimming pool options available for whites in Louisville, while Sheppard Pool, constructe­d in 1924, was the only option for Black Americans.

Outside of municipal swimming options, whites swam in local lakes and quarries, which would be white-only events, Owen said, and had a bevy of other private options including the YMCA, Fontaine Ferry (Amusement) Park and private, social and country clubs.

“Due to the provision of thousands of large, really appealing swimming pools for white Americans, those enabled the developmen­t of a vibrant swimming culture,” Wiltse said. “But no such vibrant-widespread swimming culture developed among Black Americans because they didn’t have access to pools.”

This birthed stereotype­s and myths that Black individual­s did not and could not swim – a cliche that still exists today – whereas a lack of access and prejudice are the root cause of slim Black participat­ion in both swimming for leisure and competitio­n.

It was not that Black individual­s did not want to swim. It was a desire. A March 24, 1923, editorial entry from the Louisville Leader, a Black newspaper, chronicled this feeling prior to Sheppard Pool’s constructi­on on 17th and Magazine Street:

“The swimming pool that is about to be erected for Colored people is one of the things that is a necessity to the life of the boy and girl, and grown folks too for that matter, whether white or black. As a recreation­al institutio­n the swimming pool is the greatest to the health and happiness of the youth of today.”

This is the same approach whites took to swimming, the same sentiment preached in learn-to-swim campaigns and the same attitude that was developed and cultivated within white culture, Wiltse said.

But for Blacks, the same sentiment was often crushed behind the heavy hand of local government and the fears of racial mixing in these spaces.

According to the research of Victoria W. Wolcott, professor and chair of the history department at the University of Buffalo, white city leaders preintegra­tion justified segregatio­n for two primary reasons: the fear of violence between whites and Blacks and “Scantily clad bathers flirting and playing raised the specter of interracia­l sex and some feared for young white women’s safety,” she wrote.

Furthermor­e, some assumed that Black Americans carried communicab­le diseases and sharing the water put them at-risk. When cities began to integrate, Wiltse said the same process repeated itself in the 1950s and ’60s, but this time it took the form of white flight. Whites began to erect private club pools away from urban areas as part of suburban developmen­t.

The privatizat­ion of the pool reached new heights with an increase of gated communitie­s and homeowners associatio­ns, limiting access to recreation­al spaces through prejudice membership policies and residentia­l segregatio­n.

By 1959, the National Swimming Pool Institute counted 10,550 private swim clubs – that ballooned to more than 23,000 in 1962. The creation of these clubs catalyzed the popularity of swimming not only for a summertime social life, but in the form of swimming lessons and swim teams.

As a result, white-only swim clubs became factories for producing high-level competitiv­e swimmers, while lack of resources boxed Black Americans out of the sport. And while swim clubs gained popularity, city government­s began to pull funding from public pools, Wiltse said.

Seeds of segregatio­n

Between the 1920s when the public swimming craze began and its second boom in the ’50s and ’60s, more Black Americans learned to swim but there were very few Black pools that were well-kept.

But the convenient access the white community had to pools and the developmen­t of their swimming skills led to “successive generation­s” of white parents teaching their kids to swim and to be competitiv­e whereas the inverse unfolded in the Black community, Wiltse said.

There are statistics to back the claim. According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of Black Americans have little to no swimming ability (compared to 40% in whites). Furthermor­e, the foundation found that when an adult does not know how to swim, the children in that household only have a 19% chance of learning to swim themselves.

This helps explain why Black children 5-19 drowned at rates 5.5 times higher than their white counterpar­ts between 1990 and 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The legacy of segregatio­n white-washed the activity and told Black people that swimming is just not for them. After a while, this stigma was widely accepted – by both sides.

“Sociopolit­ical discrimina­tion leads to a lack of access which leads to whites swimming in much higher numbers than Blacks swimming,” Wiltse said. “Then it becomes cultural perception­s, then perception­s of physiologi­cal difference. It’s watching the process of racism work.”

The solution to change the lasting impact of pool segregatio­n and to diversify the waters of competitiv­e swim teams is to create more access for Black bodies, said University of Louisville head swim coach Arthur Albiero.

The three Black swimmers on his team – Olivia Livingston, Tristen Ulett and Caleb Duncan – serve as examples.

Livingston remembers learning to swim around the age of 6, ironically through the YMCA’s learn-to-swim program in her hometown outside of Pittsburgh. After that, her mother’s friend suggested that she sign Olivia up for a summer league swim team when she was 8.

At the time she didn’t give much thought to being one of the only Black swimmers on her team nor did she think she could be great at the sport.

It wasn’t until she was 12 and saw Simone Manuel make history at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, as the first Black woman to win an individual medal in swimming, that Livingston realized someone who looked like her could be successful in swimming, she said.

When Livingston, 19, thinks of the history of the “learn-toswim movement” and how it failed to permeate the culture of her community she asks herself: What if I had never gotten the opportunit­y to swim?

“Just to think that people that look like me were deprived of (the opportunit­y to swim) makes me really upset because it had such a big effect,” said Livingston. “Now, so many African

Americans do not know how to swim and it’s such a big deal. It’s survival basically.”

Once Black individual­s learn to swim, it must be passed down to the next generation so it can be introduced as a new piece of Black culture, said Patricia Mathison, 55 – a Louisville resident who learned to swim at the age of 50 with Central Adult Learn-to-Swim.

That’s at least part of the solution, she says.

Mathison, who is now an instructor with Central Adult Learn-to-Swim, is teaching her grandchild­ren what she believes to be a life skill. And when pools locally are hard to access, she takes her grandchild­ren to a hotel once a week so they can have contact with the water.

Learning to swim became the most “liberating thing” Mathison has ever done for herself, and she feels obligated to share the wealth with her community in West Louisville, where a majority of the city’s Black population lives.

“It is not just apprehensi­on” that explains why Black people don’t traditiona­lly swim, Mathison said. “People are not just apprehensi­ve about anything. Sometimes the apprehensi­on comes as a result of not having access and vice versa.”

The co-founder of Central Adult Learn-to-Swim William Kolb, a 25-year-old white man, said he and his organizati­on have done extensive research on the demographi­cs of the students they serve and where his students reside in Louisville.

In May 2020, Kolb discovered that since 2018 the organizati­on taught 250 people to swim with the average age being 52. What is striking about this data set is that 87% of his students were Black and 60% of them lived in the West or Southwest Louisville ZIP codes, which at the time had no active public swimming facilities due to city budget cuts. Access is still an issue. “You build it, they will come,” Albeiro said. “We have to make a concerted effort as a community to not just look at pools as just for fun and recreation. No, pools provide life skills.”

Because even today – years removed from integratio­n – as pools still interact with few Black American bodies and as only 1% of roughly 400,000 swimmers registered under USA Swimming are Black:

Segregatio­n is still segregatio­n.

 ?? SAM UPSHAW JR./ THE COURIER-JOURNAL ?? Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP, reflects on the time he and his friends went to swim at the recently integrated swimming pool at the Algonquin Park in the summer of 1956.
SAM UPSHAW JR./ THE COURIER-JOURNAL Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP, reflects on the time he and his friends went to swim at the recently integrated swimming pool at the Algonquin Park in the summer of 1956.
 ?? LOUISVILLE WATER CO. ?? A 1929 view of the Crescent Hill pool in Louisville, Kentucky.
LOUISVILLE WATER CO. A 1929 view of the Crescent Hill pool in Louisville, Kentucky.

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