Segregated Swimming Pools, the Privatization of Recreation, Leisure, & Sport and its Legacy

When most people think of swimming pools, they think of fun, summer, or vacation—probably not of protest, fear, and exclusion. Recreational segregation in the U.S. intensified in the twentieth century as the number of public swimming pools and local amusement parks significantly increased.  African Americans were excluded from these sites of recreation and leisure in order to maintain “public order”—based on discriminatory “sanitary myths,” an intense fear of racial mixing, and stereotypical notions of sexual danger.  

NYT article from August 2018. Image of the Monson Motor Lodge protest.

In 1964, Martin Luther King was arrested at Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida. A group of Black and white protesters jumped into the motel’s “white only” pool to protest his arrest and segregated recreation.  The motel manager, in an effort to scare protesters off, poured a bottle of muriatic acid into the pool. Beginning in the late 1940s, public swimming pools became sites of protest. “Swim-ins” or “wade-ins” took place at public pools across the country—in St Louis, Baltimore, Washington, D.C., and Los Angeles.  Even after the 1964 Civil Rights Act, however, many public pools were closed as the rapid growth of gated communities and homeowners associations led to the privatization of recreation.  Wealthier families built private pools in their backyards and public pools established membership programs that charged fees and created barriers. The legacy of historically limited access to swimming pools is visible today in the racial disparities in leisurely and competitive swimming and drowning.

Graphic posted on Instagram account of Diversity in Aquatics

I propose developing a digital resource—most likely a series of blog posts on a WordPress—that outlines the history and legacy of segregated swimming pools.  I’m currently thinking that I would dedicate individual posts to 1) contextualization/general background of the history of recreational segregation at swimming pools, 2) swimming pool protests—including the Anacostia Pool Protest and the St. Augustine “wade-ins,” 3) privatization of swimming pools, and recreation and sport more broadly, 4) the legacy of historically limited access to swimming pools—racial drowning disparity and the lack of diversity and inclusion in the sport of swimming, and 5) current vie for representation and reform within organizations like USA Swimming, the emergence of nonprofits dedicated to eliminating the drowning disparity among historically underrepresented populations by educating, promoting, and supporting water safety/aquatics—work done by Diversity in Aquatics and the Michael Phelps Foundation, for example—and activist movements on social media—hashtags such as #AfroSwimmer.

Message from Noelle F. Singleton, founder of Afroswimmers, on diversity and inclusion in swimming

I am leaning towards a series of blog posts, rather than mapping or even doing this as a print project because I think the most compelling way to capture this history is through a mix of text, images, and mapping.  A blog format will allow me to put forward the message and text I think is necessary while also allowing me to incorporate powerful photographs or even a map of the protests. Additionally, some interesting potential secondary sources include Kevin Dawson’s Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora, Jeff Wiltse’s Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, and Victoria Wolcott’s Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America

Example of activism on social media–this was reposted by Olympians such as Simone Manuel

In terms of other projects, I was drawn to this idea because I have recently seen numerous articles—in the Boston Globe, the New York Times, NPR, USA TODAY Sports, and the Washington Post—related to this topic.  I think it is a less documented component of the Civil Rights Movement and presenting this history and information in a more comprehensive manner could be beneficial.  Some relevant projects include Prologue D.C.’s Mapping Segregation initiative—an ongoing digital public history project that involves mapping segregation in housing, school, playgrounds, etc. in Washington D.C.  There are also various blogs, annotated google maps, or heritage tours that involve mapping protests and the Civil Rights Movement.  Lastly, the audience could be vast—historians, activists, hobbyists, those interested in the Civil Rights Movement, or athletics.  There is also potential to draw in the larger swimming community.

3 Replies to “Segregated Swimming Pools, the Privatization of Recreation, Leisure, & Sport and its Legacy”

  1. Rebecca, this is a great idea. One of your posts could focus on segregation in the North as well because often people assume segregation only took place in Southern states.

  2. This is great. I think your idea of creating a blog and writing a series of posts is a great way to approach creating approachable and engaging content. As you noted, your topic has direct relationships to ongoing activism, so you have some great potential connections to audience and readers and I think you are right to note that additional historical context could be useful in supporting these social justice movements. In that context, I think it would be really good to be thinking about a communications plan along side the plan for the content of your posts. For example, I think you could create a twitter account and look for what hashtags to share info out about your project and identify key folks out there might be interested in amplifying your content.

  3. I am very interested in a map of the segregated pools in this country. Being an artist (who has a passion for swimming), the thought of taking my recent painting series about white privilege on the road and incorporating these actual sites where pools were drained, filled in or privatized is intriguing. Making even more art at these places? Please include me on updates on this project. The reality of how this segregation has played out is jaw dropping. The breadth is shameful. Thanks!

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