Public Swimming Pools' Divisive Past

Community swimming pools have not always been open to everyone. Jeff Wiltse discusses the history of controversy surrounding America's "public" pools, documented in his new book, Contested Waters.

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MICHEL MARTIN, host:

We want to go back to the pool. What about you? Did you grow up going to the pool? Do you remember scorching hot days with the sun calling your name, when you thought you'd melt if you took one more step and the public pool was a saving grace?

The Mocha Moms talked about some of the reasons minority kids may not learn how to swim. Author Jeff Wiltse has the story behind the story. His new book, "Contested Waters," examines how public pools have been the setting for fierce debates in this country about everything from gender roles to race and immigration. And he talks about why the public pool may become a thing of the past. Jeff Wiltse joins us from member station KUFN in Missoula, Montana.

Jeff, thanks for joining us.

Mr. JEFF WILTSE (Author, "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming in America"): Oh, thank you. It's my pleasure.

MARTIN: Where was the first public pool opened in America?

Mr. WILTSE: In Boston, Massachusetts. It was the Cabot Street Bath, 1868, and as the name suggests, it was intended not to function as a swimming pool. It was located in a poor immigrant working-class neighborhood in which the surrounding homes didn't have bathing facilities, and public officials wanted the immigrants and working-class residents to bathe themselves. They had to provide this large public bathtub for them.

MARTIN: You make the argument in this book that pools have always been reflective of social divisions. Talk to me a little bit about that.

Mr. WILTSE: Yeah. The social lines or divisions that have existed at pools have changed over time. Between the late 19th and early 20th century, municipal pools were strictly segregated along sex lines. Men and women, males and females did not swim together.

Furthermore, they were de facto segregated along class lines, in that most of the municipal pools during the late 19th and early 20th century were located in, as I say, poor immigrant neighborhoods, and they attracted only the local residents. And so that middle-class Americans who were increasingly moving out to suburbs didn't come in to swim at these pools. And yet pool use during the late 19th and early 20th centuries did not divide along racial lines.

MARTIN: St. Louis opened a swimming pool in the Fairgrounds Park in 1913. Apparently that was the first pool that was integrated by gender that men and women swam together, but it was racially segregated. Why was that?

Mr. WILTSE: Gender integration, in short, was the most direct and crucial cause of racial segregation because white swimmers at the time and public officials did not want black men having the opportunity to interact with white women at such visually and physically intimate public spaces.

MARTIN: Why?

Mr. WILTSE: Well, the pools built in the 1920s and 1930s were large resort pools. There were sandy beaches where people laid out and sunbathed, where they exhibited their bodies, and it was also the time in which swimsuits were shrinking in size.

And so the concern among white swimmers and public officials that if blacks and whites swam together at these resort pools in which the culture was highly sexualized, that black men would assault white women with romantic advances, that they would try to make physical contact with them, and that this was unacceptable to most northern whites.

MARTIN: I guess the revelation to me was not that there was all this anxiety around integrating the pools, but that they had ever been integrated. I guess that's the part that I found most interesting. You have - your chapter six is called "More Sensitive Than Schools." You make the argument that it was actually harder to integrate the pools after Brown v. Board of Ed, the Supreme Court decision that desegregated the schools.

Mr. WILTSE: Yeah. There was a court case that emerged added an attempt by the local NAACP to desegregate the municipal pools in Baltimore. And this was right after Brown v. Board of Education. And so the local attorney argued that, well, schools may be being desegregated, but we can't have swimming pools be desegregated because swimmers come in potentially intimate contact with one another.

And so a federal judge upholding racial segregation of Baltimore pools reconciled his decision with the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision by claiming that pools were more sensitive than schools, and that to integrate a swimming pool would not just potentially, likely lead to race riots and all sorts of violence.

And so in the interest of the public good it was reasonable to keep swimming pools segregated along racial lines, even though the Supreme Court had ruled separate but equal was unconstitutional at schools.

MARTIN: Why are municipal pools declining? I mean, you point out that between 1920 and 1940, there were almost 2,000 municipal pools built across the country. That just certainly is not the case today. Why is it that the number of municipal pools being built is on the wane?

Mr. WILTSE: When federal courts desegregated municipal pools in the late 1940s and early 1950s, white swimmers generally abandoned municipal pools. They did not build as many new pools as they had previously, they neglected maintenance on existing pools, and eventually chose to close down dilapidated pools rather than pay for costly repairs.

MARTIN: I mean, is this - the analogy here, some of school districts in the South which shut the schools rather than integrate them? Is that the analogy here?

Mr. WILTSE: Oh, yeah. That happened in many communities.

MARTIN: What about in urban areas where people of color started achieving political power? Why didn't that stop the decline?

Mr. WILTSE: My sense is that based on a long history of discrimination against black Americans in the provision of pools, and so dating all the way back to the late 19th century, they very conspicuously did not provide pools in the primary black neighborhoods.

As a result of that pattern of discrimination, swimming did not really become a significant part of sort of black culture. And thus when black voters began to gain increasing political power, especially during the 1960s and the 1970s, swimming facilities was not high on their priority list because it was not a significant part of sort of the recreation culture within black communities.

MARTIN: So the cycle perpetuated itself. These kids…

Mr. WILTSE: Oh, absolutely.

MARTIN: …kids never learned how to swim. And we talked earlier in the program about the fact that a disproportionate number of drowning deaths continue to be minority children. And you're saying that by the time folks got into a position of power where they could have changed this, it wasn't part of their lives. They didn't really think about it.

Mr. WILTSE: Yeah. I think that's exactly right.

MARTIN: Do you think that's going to change now that African-Americans and Latinos are moving out into suburbs? Do you think that the next generation might see an integration of this sport and this kind of - this recreational activity in the same way that golf has become a little bit more diverse than it used to be?

Mr. WILTSE: I think that there's the possibility for that, but it's going to divide very clearly along class lines, and that I do not expect that as Latinos and black Americans move out in increasing numbers, that they're going to spearhead an effort to build public pools. Rather, they're going to follow the path that had been laid beginning in the 1950s. The pattern is to build is to build private club pools or backyard residential pools, which, in both cases, are not accessible necessarily to the larger community.

MARTIN: The era where you just sit around a pool for hours, meeting your friends, waiting for the Good Humor truck to swing by on the hour - are those days gone?

Mr. WILTSE: Yeah. For most people, yeah. And that's what's sad. That was what my life was during the summer growing up in the 1970s. And that was certainly what times were like back in the 1920s and the 1930s. Swimming pools were really a central part of community life. And now they're really marginalized in American life.

MARTIN: Jeff Wiltse is the author of "Contested Waters." He joined us from member station KUFN is Missoula, Montana. Jeff, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. WILTSE: Thank you.

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