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.

The “Usable” Past: Historians, Op-eds & Public Perceptions of History

How do historians communicate history?  Today, historians have more ways and platforms to communicate than ever before—podcasts, social media, blogs, etc.  Additionally, in recent years, historians have been increasingly in demand to bring history into dialogue with contemporary events in the form of op-eds.  Historians use op-eds to raise awareness around largely overlooked events in the past or to connect current political events to their historical roots.  In our current 24-hour news cycle, it is crucial to understand the context of the news and information we are consuming.  News media outlets including CNN, USA Today, and the New York Times routinely publish op-eds authored by historians. The Smithsonian Magazine, TIME, and several history blogs—Society of U.S. Intellectual History Blog and the Age of Revolution Blog, to name a few—also feature posts written by historians.  One of the most compelling op-ed sections, however, is the Washington Post‘s Made By History blog. 

The blog’s name, Made By History, was inspired by an MLK quote: “Instead of making History, we are made by history.”

Made By History is a political history blog section of the Washington Post.  The blog was launched in 2017 by Brian Rosenwald, historian at the University of Pennsylvania, and Nicole Hemmer, professor and writer at the University of Virginia.  The co-editors-in-chief are joined by co-editor Kathryn Cramer Brownell, assistant professor of history at Purdue University.  Made By History features a wide range of historical content and subjects including current political events, historical origins of policy, and the problems with history education.  Titles range from “The historical roots of the security failure at the Capitol” to “What the 1798 Sedition Act got right—and what it means today” to “Ethnic studies can’t make up for whitewashed history in classrooms.” 

Description of the Made By History blog on AHA Today.

I am proposing an in-depth analysis of the Made By History section of the Post.  I am thinking that the best way to approach this would be to choose a timeframe of articles to analyze—considering who the authoring historians are, how they use the past to contextualize the present, and using comments to gauge how the public engages with the articles and historical information.  It will be important to keep in mind that the audience is targeted—Washington Post subscribers and readers who are most likely politically left-leaning and news conscious.  It is also interesting to mention the interdisciplinary nature of op-ed writing—working across the disciplines of history, politics, journalism, and, of course, digital humanities.  Additionally, the method and structure of writing op-eds is a widely different approach to communicating history than the more long-winded and scholarly style we may be used to—the Made By History posts are 600-1000 words on average.

Example of this week’s feed.

Writing op-eds provides historians with an opportunity to engage with the public in an unconventional and meaningful way.  The widely read and respected platform—The Washington Post—allows historians to present and share quality history that reaches people.  The blog’s mission, using historical analysis to contextualize the present, sheds light on why history and historians matter, and how the past is usable and relevant.  Made By History draws a line from the past to the present, stimulates historical reflection and consciousness, encourages readers to connect with history, and reflects the prescience of the past. I am excited to think about how this new way of engaging with the public impacts public perceptions of history and public political memory.

Description of the Made By History blog on AHA Today.

Hi, I’m Rebecca Kaliff!

Hello fellow historians!  My name is Rebecca Kaliff.  I am from Enfield, Connecticut and I am a first-year Public History graduate student.  I received my BA in History with a minor in Philosophy from American University in 2019.  During my undergraduate career, I was a member of AU’s Swimming & Diving team.  I also studied abroad in London where I took a full course load of British history classes and interned at a large criminal law firm.  My undergraduate thesis on the poppy—the international symbol of remembrance of the First World War—was inspired by my time in London during the Centennial of Armistice Day.

I currently work as a Teaching Assistant at an elementary school.  I also coach a competitive swim team—athletics have always been a big part of my life and I try to stay connected to the sport that shaped so much of who I am.  Outside of the classroom, I love traveling, hiking, and spending time with my family.  I also just got a puppy—Benji! I have never had a pet before, so it has been so much fun!


My historical interests include public memory and commemoration, U.S. Foreign Relations, and social movements.  I am passionate about history and education and hope to pursue a career in museum education, exhibit design, or government.

I am looking forward to Digital History Methods because I am not very knowledgeable of or experienced with the plethora of digital tools that are changing the way we do and experience history—I struggled to get into class last week on Zoom so that pretty much sums up my digital skills.   I am excited to get to know everyone throughout the semester and am excited to expand my skill set and learn how to engage and communicate with more people. Please feel free to reach out! 

My sisters and I admiring the Grand Canyon!