A Brief History on the Segregation of Swimming
by Neena Arndt
On May 9, 1969, children tuned in to Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood to see their favorite sweater-clad host entertain a special guest: Officer Clemmons, a Black police officer. Against a backdrop of the artificial greenery of his “yard,” Mr. Rogers remarks on the hot weather, and then invites Officer Clemmons to join him in cooling his feet in a small plastic wading pool. As the camera focuses on their feet—two white feet and two Black, inches away from each other—the men converse casually before drying off with a shared towel and going on with their days. The simplicity of this summertime pleasure belies its historical context: in the late 1960s, many Americans still objected to Black and white people sharing swimming pools. In the ripple, the wave that carried me home, Christina Anderson explores one fictional Kansas town’s mid-century struggles with segregated pools—and the ways in which those struggles echoed through the following decades. But the story of America’s swimming pools, and who was allowed to use them, begins decades earlier.
In the late 19th century, many cities built public bathing facilities, not so much for recreation as for cleanliness. As scientists began to connect dirtiness to disease, many people began to bathe more often—and wanted others to do so as well, in order to keep the population healthier. German professor Simon Baruch began a campaign in the late 1880s to build baths in order to create “civic civilization” out of “urban barbarism.” Americans took the cue from Europe, building baths and encouraging citizens to use them. Many people needed little encouragement. With plumbing still scarce, they used the baths not only to clean themselves, but also to stay cool in the summer. These baths also gave children a safer place to swim than piers or swimming holes, where there might be rougher waters and little adult supervision.
At the turn of the 20th century, most public bathing facilities in the Northern United States were segregated not by race, but by gender. In some places, men and women had separate facilities; in others, they bathed on alternating days. By the 1920s, however, bathing in America had begun to change. As more people gained access to baths and showers at home, and as labor laws gave more Americans time for fun, pools served three main purposes: recreation, exercise and learning to swim. With these new priorities, gender norms around water relaxed, and boys and girls took swimming lessons together while their adult counterparts swam laps, goofed off and sometimes flirted. Suddenly, swimming pools—where scantily clad people engage in physical exertion in close proximity to one another—became a place where one could pick up a date. The possibility of a Black man wooing a white woman proved too much for white authorities to bear. This, combined with other racist beliefs, prompted many cities and towns to forbid Blacks from swimming in whites-only pools. Although many towns built separate facilities for Black swimmers, these pools lacked funding. Like many 20th century situations that purported to be “separate but equal,” swimming pools were separate, but certainly not equal.
In his 2007 book Contested Waters, Jeff Wiltse describes a scene at a public pool in Youngstown, Ohio in the early 1950s:
“A Little League baseball team had won the 1951 city championship and decided to celebrate at the local pool. The large facility was situated within the sylvan beauty of the city’s Southside park to celebrate their baseball victory, coaches, players, parents, and sibling showed up at the pool, but not all were admitted. One player, Al Bright, was denied entrance because he was Black. After an hour had passed, several parents pleaded with the guards to let Al into the pool for at least a couple of minutes. Finally, the supervisor relented: Al could ‘enter’ the pool as long as everyone else got out and he sat inside a rubber raft. As his teammates and other bystanders looked on, a lifeguard pushed him once around the pool. ‘Just don’t touch the water,’ the guard constantly reminded him.”
As Wiltse’s powerful anecdote illustrates, midcentury whites used perceived cleanliness as a rationale for excluding Blacks from swimming pools, even in communities where a Black child like Al Bright could play baseball with white teammates. This exclusion resulted in disparities in swimming ability between races that persist today. According to a 2021 study conducted by the USA Swimming Foundation, Black children drown at three times the rate of their white counterparts, and 64% of Black children have little to no swimming ability, compared to 40% of white children who cannot swim. The organization also notes that formal swimming lessons can reduce the risk of drowning by 88% among young children. Access to swimming pools, therefore, gives citizens more than summer fun: it enables them to learn a potentially life-saving skill.
Mr. Rogers, born near Pittsburgh in 1928, witnessed segregation firsthand. When he was three years old, white swimmers violently imposed racial segregation at Pittsburgh’s first gender-integrated pool. Growing up white, he learned to swim on family vacations, and later became a dedicated lap swimmer at the Pittsburgh Athletic Association. When he invited a Black man to share a pool with him, he hoped to teach a generation of children—of all races—that everyone is welcome in the water. But as the ripple, the wave that carried me home illustrates—and statistics prove—even in 2023, we have yet to achieve racial parity in aquatics.
Neena Arndt is the Resident Dramaturg for Goodman Theatre.
Join us for this FREE event!
Arts in Action: Contested Waters
Sunday, February 5 at 4:30pm
Lake Michigan’s beautiful beachfront became the scene of one of the worst race riots in Illinois history on July 27, 1919. Join us as we delve deep into the Red Summer, the history of segregation in Chicago, and how riots serve as the origin story that impact us today.