Philly-Area Pool Rejects Black Swimmers, Stirs Anger
MICHEL MARTIN, host:
We're going to move now to a story that has sparked much commentary in recent days and no shortage of outrage. The Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley, Pennsylvania has been flooded with accusations of racism after it revoked an agreement with Creative Steps Day Care Center to let the center's children swim there after the children had visited once.
Valley Club denied that race was a factor. They said there were too many kids and not enough lifeguards. But the club director also issued a statement declaring that he rescinded the agreement because the children quote, "changed the complexion and atmosphere of the pool," end quote. And several Creative Steps children said they overheard club members making racist comments.
Here's Marcus Allen of the Creative Steps Day Care Center speaking last week to CNN.
Mr. MARCUS ALLEN: ...oh why are these black kids here? And then they were saying, oh I'm afraid they might do something to my children because I don't know if they might steal - might try to steal some of my stuff or might try to like harm my children. And I like I was like amazed that they would think something like this because we're like just like you. Like we're just like your kids.
MARTIN: Well, after much media attention and the opening of an investigation by Pennsylvania's Human Rights Commission, Swim Club officials say they want to work things out.
But we wanted to talk more about the history of clashes over access to the nation's pools. Joining us now is Jeff Wiltse. He's the author of "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America." He's also an associate professor of History at the University of Montana. Also with us is Jim Ellis. He's a retired educator, a swim coach, and the subject of the 2007 movie, "Pride." That film tells the story of a swim coach and youth mentor who built a successful swimming program in one of Philadelphia's poorest neighborhoods in the 1970s.
And I welcome you both.
Professor JEFF WILTSE (Author of "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America"; History Professor, University of Montana): It's nice to be with you.
Mr. JIM ELLIS (Retired Educator and Swim Instructor): Pleasure to be here. Thanks for having me.
MARTIN: Jeff, let's play devil's advocate here. Some say this is a private club. They could do what they want. What do you say to that?
Prof. WILTSE: That's not exactly what the Supreme Court ruled back in 1973 with regard to not exactly the same situation but at least a similar situation. In 1968 - and this was a private swim club that was in Wheaton, Maryland, right outside of Washington, D.C. - there was an African-American cardiologist at Howard University who bought a home near the swimming pool. His family applied to be members and they denied his membership application. Eventually, it went before the Supreme Court. And in 1973, in a case called Tillman versus Wheaton-Haven Recreation Association, the Supreme Court held that as far as the law was concerned, this private swim club was in fact a public accommodation because the only reason why it was public - or excuse me, the only reason why it was private was to exclude non-whites from being able to use it.
MARTIN: And what role has race played in the history of access to pools like this? I think people associate, fairly or unfairly, and I'm sure many people would say unfairly. They associate the kind of public, this kind of intense desire to segregate oneself with the South. So talk about the history of the -what role has race played in the history of pools in the region. And I haven't forgotten you Mr. Ellis. I just want Jeff to set the table for us.
Prof. WILTSE: Sure. It's actually changed over time. During the late 19th and early 20th century in northern cities blacks and whites swam together in relative harmony. And yet, pools at that time were segregated along gender lines and also de facto segregated along class lines. And so it was really gender and class that were the key social divisions in the use of pools early on.
During the 1920s and 1930s, when pools became gender integrated, that's when pools became racial battlegrounds. And cities throughout the northern United States segregated and excluded African-Americans from pools that were earmarked for whites. And in many instances this sparked violence that the onset of segregation was oftentimes brought about through the use of violence by white swimmers. And so in doing the research for my book, I found examples in Elizabeth, New Jersey, Pittsburg, Pennsylvania...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Prof. WILTSE: ...Washington, D.C. even in which violence was used as the means of intimidating African-Americans from swimming at pools.
MARTIN: Well, Jim...
Prof. WILTSE: When...
MARTIN: ...let's bring Jim Ellis in at this point because I want to hear from him about what kinds of challenges you faced in getting access to pools for your kids.
Mr. ELLIS: In the early '70s I chose to take my swimmers - I started a swim team in West Philadelphia and to get them some competition I decided to go outside of Philadelphia, because Philadelphia was one of the top four areas in the country for competitive swimming. So I wanted to go out to an area that was a little less competitive and I could build my swimmers' self esteem. So I went outside the city and my kids heard the same kind of remarks. A lot of people used the N word and my swimmers heard parents tell their younger children, whatever you do, don't let those so-and-so's beat you. And the kids were kind of upset about that.
But, we kind of built and got and gathered strength from those types of attitudes. And that was in the early '70s and once our level of competition improved and we started swimming at a higher level, everything turned around 360. But in the early days we did experience some of the things that these young people experience in northeast Philadelphia.
MARTIN: One of the things that I was curious about though is, were there no public pools available for the kids to swim in? I mean, it seemed like this was a nice pool but Jeff or, perhaps Mr. Ellis, you know the answer to this. Why are there no public pools that they could swim in?
Mr. ELLIS: That's one thing I've said to several people that ask me about this and I feel that the issue of the Valley - the Huntingdon Valley situation is kind of two-fold. It's a shame that the young people in northeast Philadelphia had to go find a private facility to swim in when they could have went or should've been able to go to a recreational pool in and around the city of Philadelphia. But as most people have known over the last few years, Philadelphia has closed down a lot of its swimming pools.
My pool, in particular after the movie came out was closed down. It's been closed a year and a half. A brand new facility, it was open in 1980, needs two and a half million dollars worth of repairs and it's shutdown today to a whole community. So people are forced to go other places to rent pools. My swim team is no longer functioning at this time because we have no facility to swim in.
Mr. ELLIS: And if the universities don't rent or let us use their pools then we're hard pressed to find a facility to swim in.
MARTIN: Jeff, is there a connection between the rise of these suburban swim clubs and the desegregation of public swimming pools? Because on the one hand one could say well, they're just following the population. If the population moved to the suburbs that's where the pools are going to be. But did you find in your research a connection between opening...
Prof. WILTSE: Oh...
MARTIN: ...the pools and the opening of these suburban swim clubs and the desegregation of the public pools in the city?
Prof. WILTSE: Absolutely. And I think the question to ask is why did suburbanites in suburban communities choose to organize private swim clubs rather than do what generations of Americans have done previously, which was to use public money to fund public pools? And the answer is, at the same time in which suburban communities were being developed in the late 1940s and in the early 1950s, that's precisely when municipal pools throughout the northern United States were being desegregated.
And so suburbanites recognized that if they wanted to protect the social environment of their pools - in particular, if they wanted to exclude non-whites - they had to create a private club which they could then still legally exclude non-whites whereas, if they opened up a public pool, they wouldn't be able to do so.
MARTIN: Oh well...
Prof. WILTSE: And if I can make...
MARTIN: I'm sorry. We're almost out of time. I just needed to hear one more word from Jim Ellis. So Jim Ellis, you have no place to swim.
Mr. ELLIS: Currently I don't. But I've partnered with the Salvation Army, who received a large grant from the Ray and Joan Kroc Foundation, the people who owned and run McDonald's, which gave Philadelphia Salvation Army seventy two million dollars to build a community center in Nicetown, North Philadelphia, five blocks from our last pool. And we partnered up and I convinced them to build a state of an art aquatic center which will be opened possibly this time next year. And we probably won't be hearing of problems like this of any groups in Philadelphia because we hope to teach and expose everybody in the Philadelphia area to swimming at a very high level at a state of the art facility.
MARTIN: All right. Well keep us posted.
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MARTIN: Jim Ellis is a retired educator and swim instructor. His story inspired the 2007 film, "Pride." He joined us from Philadelphia. We were also joined by Jeff Wiltse. He's an associate professor of History at the University of Montana and the author of "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America," and he joined us from the studios of Montana Public Radio on campus.
Thank you both so much.
Prof. WILTSE: Thank you.
Mr. ELLIS: Thank you.
MARTIN: Coming up, in our weekly "Behind Closed Doors conversation, young men are often the victims of sexual abuse, but does the shame stop them from speaking out about it?
Ms. SYLVIA COLEMAN (Journalist): There is still a lot of stigma and misconception in society that men are not sexually abused.
MARTIN: Why young men remain silent? That's just ahead on TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Michel Martin.
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