Class, race, segregation, and why you should swim in a public pool this summer

NPR’s Radio Times ran an interesting segment last week: “Fifty years of the University City Swim Club; history of swimming pool segregation in America.”

The University City Swim Club, near 48th and Spruce in West Philadelphia, is a private membership club with four swimming pools that stay open 10am-10pm from late May to early September. There is a waiting list to pay $2000 (plus annual dues of $600+) to join.

The first time I heard of the UCSC was about ten years ago when my friend Desi was working as a nanny for a family with a membership. I remember her telling me one day that she and the little girl she cared for were headed to the pool when they passed some other kids playing on the street. “You going swimming?” the kids asked them. “Yep,” they replied. “Wish we could go swimming,” the kids said, shuffling their feet and looking down at the hot sidewalk.

With that as my primary association with the place, I was interested to hear that when the UCSC opened in 1964, at a time when nearly all public and private pools were racially segregated, it did so as an intentionally racially integrated swimming pool. One of the guests on the show, Dr. Lynda Murray Jackson, a member since the UCSC opened, spoke glowingly of the familial atmosphere and joy of swimming there, and callers echoed her sentiments. (As did a caller from Yeadon’s Nile Swim Club, an historically African American swimming pool that opened in 1959 a few miles away.) And while many water-lovers would probably profess similarly fond memories of their childhood swims, having a racially integrated swimming pool in 1964 was in fact a very, very special thing.

Another of the guests on the program was Contested Waters author Jeff Wiltse, who shares some fascinating history of pool segregation nationwide, starting around minute 25:11 of the recording. Here’s what I learned on the topic from reading his book:

  • The earliest public pools were established as baths for the urban poor at a time when many people did not have a way to bathe at home. Philadelphia built three such baths in the Delaware River before opening South Philadelphia’s Wharton Street Bath in 1884 (and five others by 1892). Poor and working class men and boys of all races swam there together without incident or even comment. By 1920, Philadelphia had opened 20 public swimming pools. The rationale for them had shifted from providing baths to improving lives, curbing delinquency, alleviating tensions, inspiring patriotism, and otherwise “socializing” immigrant and working-class children – but the demographics of who swam in them (poor and working-class men and boys) remained the same. As Wiltse explains, “Pool use divided along class lines – but not ethnic or racial lines – because city officials, reformers, and the middle-class public viewed the working classes en masse as ‘the great unwashed.’ …Middle-class Americans at the time perceived immigrants, laborers, and blacks as equally dirty and prone to carry communicable diseases. As a result, they avoided swimming in the same pool with the working classes no matter their race or ethnicity.” (p. 76)
  • Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston were early believers in the value of municipal pools (my hometown of NYC, by contrast, hadn’t opened a single public pool by 1920). In the 1920s and 30s, public pools’ popularity widened as over 1000 cities and towns built new ones. It was also during this time that pools became less segregated along class and gender lines and more segregated along racial lines. Wiltse cites a number of different factors in this shift, including a decline in working-class identity (propelled by consumerism and assimilation), an increase in white identity (fueled in the northern US by the Great Migration), and a fear – as more women started swimming – of Black men being so close to white women’s bodies. Accordingly, the health and cleanliness prejudices that had previously been levied against the working class were now levied against African Americans. (The Radio Times piece talks about how at the time the UCSC was founded, many pools that were not officially segregated would drain and scrub their facility after African Americans had swum.)
  • Black-led pool desegregation struggles began as early as the late 1930s, with the NAACP suing more and more cities and towns after 1945. Yet even after Brown v. Board of Education declared school segregation unconstitutional in 1954, a Baltimore court upheld segregation at their city’s pools. Wiltse writes, “In reconciling his decision with Brown, [Judge Roszel] Thomsen explained that swimming pools were ‘more sensitive than schools’ because of the visual and physical intimacy that accompanied their use.” (p. 156) The Baltimore court’s ruling was overturned in federal court, but there, as across the country, “pool desegregation” didn’t mean that Blacks and whites started swimming together. It meant that whites abandoned public pools, with those who could afford to building private club and residential ones instead. (And as we know in this area, not all of those have moved beyond segregation even today.)

In the final chapter of Contested Waters, Wiltse writes:

The privatization of swimming pools during the second half of the twentieth century degraded the quality of community life in America… Hundreds and even thousands of people at a time interacted and socialized at these public spaces… Community life was fostered, monitored, and disputed. After racial desegregation, millions of Americans consciously chose to stop swimming at municipal pools and chose instead to organize and join swim clubs. Collectively, these choices represented mass abandonment of public space and effectively resegregated swimming along class lines…

Poor and working-class Americans suffered most directly from the privatizing of swimming pools. When middle-class Americans abandoned municipal pools in favor of private pools, cities downgraded the public importance of swimming pools. They built relatively few new pools, neglected maintenance on existing pools, and eventually closed dilapidated pools rather than pay for costly repairs. As a result, those Americans who could not afford to join a swim club or install a backyard pool had less access to swimming and recreation facilities than did previous generations. By the end of the twentieth century, many poor and working-class neighborhoods in American cities lacked appealing public spaces where residents could gather to socialize, exercise, relax, play, and forge community bonds.

Some of this is and has been true here of course, but the bottom line is that Philadelphia still has 74 public pools! I have swum in nearly half of them and can attest that they are indeed ideal places to socialize, exercise, relax, play, and forge community bonds. They don’t have the bells and whistles of private swim clubs, the midnight swims and snack bars and special memberships for your family nanny to attend only with member children ($795 this summer at the Lombard Swim Club). But they are equally cool and wet on a hot summer day, and if you live in the city you can probably walk to one from your house. They open (on a staggered schedule) in late June and stay open Monday-Friday 11am-7pm and weekends 12-5pm until late August. Most have free swim lessons for kids, special family swim times, and an adult/lap swim the last hour of every day. They can get crowded for sure, but overall they are underused (in the summer of 1937, Philadelphians swam in our pools 4.3 million times; last summer, we swam 820,012 times). Any concern that they are not clean is completely unfounded and – as Wiltse’s history makes clear – grounded in race and class prejudice.

So I say to all my fellow Philadelphians – no matter if you’re languishing on a private swim-club waitlist or standing outside one shuffling your feet and looking down at the hot sidewalk, huddled inside in the air-conditioning or sitting on your stoop trying to catch a breeze – you too can come swimming this summer! I hope you do.

Here’s the Department of Parks & Recreation list of all the pools.

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3 thoughts on “Class, race, segregation, and why you should swim in a public pool this summer

  1. Mica, I think this is a beautiful idea for a blog and very motivational. I know that I can probably google the information, but could you provide a link to an official site (listing or mapping pool locations, etc.) in every post? Then readers like me would have NO EXCUSES.

    • Awesome idea, Katie! Just added the link to this post and will add in the future as well. Unfortunately, it’s not the most accessible listing (no map, incomplete info, etc) — trying to make the key details (as well as some not-so-key but interesting details) more accessible is part of the reason I started this blog.

  2. Pingback: Policing America's Swimming Pools — an Old, Troubling Story « CauseHub

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