Unwelcome waters: Segregated public pools and the lasting effect they have on the Black community

During Black History Month, with the series 28 Black stories in 28 days, USA TODAY Sports examines the issues, challenges and opportunities Black athletes and sports officials face after the nation’s reckoning on race in 2020.

Raoul Cunningham was hesitant, but he and his friends kept walking anyway.

He thought about their safety as they cut through Louisville's Parkland neighborhood headed toward Algonquin Park. They were going to swim in the formerly whites-only Algonquin pool for the first time.

It was the first week of June in 1956, he recalls, and Louisville Mayor Andrew Broaddus had signed off on an order the year prior to officially end racial segregation of public parks and pools. That year, 1955, the Algonquin pool still operated as a whites-only pool because it had just been built, but this summer that would all change. 

When Cunningham and his friends reached the pool, the objective was clear: “We wanted to make sure we were going to be safe and that nothing was going to happen (to us),” he said. 

Raoul Cunningham, president of the Louisville chapter of the NAACP, reflects on the time he and his friends went to swim at the recently integrated swimming pool at the Algonquin Park in the summer of 1956 in Louisville, Ky. Cunningham stood outside the pool, that is closed for the season, on Feb. 21, 2021. (Photo: Sam Upshaw Jr./Courier Journal)

As pools began to desegregate across the country, many Black swimmers were met with contention. Whites threw nails to the bottom of pools in Cincinnati and poured bleach and acid in pools in St. Augustine, Florida. And in the decade prior, there were major riots at pools in Baltimore, Los Angeles, St. Louis and Washington D.C. as Black swimmers entered unwelcomed waters.

Cunningham, the president of the Louisville branch of NAACP today, doesn’t recall major disturbances when Black swimmers arrived at Algonquin, but “I’m sure not everyone accepted it,” he said, “but we went immediately to the pool,” and at the most “somebody might call you an N-word,” for being there.  

Though Louisville’s move toward the desegregation of municipal pools may have seemed a little more willing than most cities around the country at the time, Cunningham was clear — “segregation is still segregation” no matter the degree and the lasting impact of prejudice and a lack of access to pools, both private and public, stunted the relationship between Black Americans and swimming, both for leisure and competition. 

This persists decades later, as the swimming culture that arose and still exists within the white community today was never able to take root in Black America.

A social legacy: Public swimming pools in America

A 1929 view of the Crescent Hill pool. Photo courtesy of the Louisville Water Co.

Beginning in the 1920s, public swimming pools became accessible like never before. 

Cities nationwide began to build gender-integrated pools to meet the demand for outdoor recreational activities, said Jeff Wiltse, history professor at the University of Montana and author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.

This boom continued until the stock market crashed in 1929 but exploded again after the Great Depression, as the Public Works Administration and the Works Progress Administration funded the construction of roughly 1,000 swimming pools nationally. 

Tens of millions of swimmers visited those pools each year, which spurred a national “learn-to-swim” campaign. The demand for pools was not exclusive to white swimmers, but the government’s response to build them catered to whites as many of the pools constructed were racially segregated.  

In large metropolitan areas, local governments usually relegated Black citizens to run-down pools in a singular location while whites could access a plethora of upscale “resort-like pools,” Wiltse said.

According to University of Louisville historian Tom Owen, circa 1925 and pre-integration, there were roughly four public swimming pool options available for whites in Louisville, while Sheppard Pool, constructed in 1924, was the only option for Black Americans. 

Outside of the municipal swimming options, whites swam in local lakes and quarries, which would be white-only events, Owen said, and had a bevy of other private options including the YMCA, Fontaine Ferry (Amusement) Park and private, social and country clubs. 

“Due to the provision of thousands of large, really appealing swimming pools for white Americans, those enabled the development of a vibrant swimming culture,” Wiltse said. “But no such vibrant-widespread swimming culture developed among Black Americans because they didn’t have access to pools.”

This Nov. 8, 1955, edition of the Courier Journal addresses the eventual end of segregation in Louisville public pools and parks. (Photo: Photo provided)

This birthed stereotypes and myths that Black individuals did not and could not swim — a cliché that still exists today — whereas a lack of access and prejudice are the root cause of slim Black participation in both swimming for leisure and competition. 

It was not that Black individuals did not want to swim. It was a desire. A March 24, 1923, editorial entry from the Louisville Leader, a Black newspaper, chronicled this feeling prior to Sheppard Pool's construction on 17th and Magazine Street:

The swimming pool that is about to be erected for Colored people is one of the things that is a necessity to the life of the boy and girl, and grown folks too for that matter, whether white or black. As a recreational institution the swimming pool is the greatest to the health and happiness of the youth of today

This is the same approach whites took to swimming, the same sentiment preached in learn-to-swim campaigns and the same attitude that was developed and cultivated within white culture, Wiltse said.  

But for Black Americans, the same sentiment was often crushed behind the heavy hand of local government and the fears of racial mixing in these spaces. 

According to the research of Victoria W. Wolcott, professor and chair of the history department at the University of Buffalo, white city leaders pre-integration justified segregation for two primary reasons: The fear of violence between whites and Blacks and “Scantily clad bathers flirting and playing raised the specter of interracial sex and some feared for young white women’s safety,” she wrote.

A photo taken from the June 30, 1963, edition of the Courier Journal shows an integrated public swimming pool at Crescent Hill in 1955. (Photo: Photo provided)

Furthermore, some assumed that Black Americans carried communicable diseases and sharing the water put them at-risk. When cities began to integrate, Wiltse said the same process repeated itself in the 1950s and 60s, but this time it took the form of white flight. Whites began to erect private club pools away from urban areas as part of suburban development. 

The privatization of the pool reached new heights with an increase of gated communities and homeowners associations, limiting access to recreational spaces through prejudice membership policies and residential segregation. 

By 1959, the National Swimming Pool Institute counted 10,550 private swim clubs — that ballooned to more than 23,000 in 1962. The creation of these clubs catalyzed the popularity of swimming not only for a summertime social life, but in the form of swimming lessons and swim teams.

As a result, white-only swim clubs became factories for producing high-level competitive swimmers, while lack of resources boxed Black Americans out of the sport. And while swim clubs gained popularity, city governments began to pull funding from public pools, Wiltse said.

In Louisville, private clubs such as Lakeside and Plantation Swim Club arose and began to produce elite swimmers such as Alice Wright-Belknap, 70, who won gold in the 100-yard Breaststroke at the 1967 Canadian-American Dual Meet, holds multiple national titles with US Masters Swimming and still teaches swimming today in Louisville.

Her father Ralph Wright founded Plantation in 1956, and it was an all-white club. Alice said she remembers asking her father, who was a progressive man born in Northern California, why her Black girlfriends, who she went to the recently integrated Westport High School with, could not swim at the club with her.

His response was that he wanted integration at his club but he knew the white membership would not permit it.

That reality “sickened me,” she said. 

The seeds of segregation bloom

Between the 1920s when the public swimming craze began and its second boom in the 50s and 60s, more Black Americans learned to swim but there were very few Black pools that were well-kept.

But the convenient access the white community had to pools and the development of their swimming skills led to “successive generations” of white parents teaching their kids to swim and to be competitive whereas the inverse unfolded in the Black community, Wiltse said.

And there are statistics to back the claim. 

According to the USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of Black Americans have little to no swimming ability (compared to 40% in whites). Furthermore, the foundation found that when an adult does not know how to swim, the children in that household only have a 19% chance of learning to swim themselves.  

This helps explain why Black children ages 5-19 drowned at rates 5.5 times higher than their white counterparts between 1990 and 2010, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

““Socio-political discrimination leads to a lack of access which leads to whites swimming in much higher numbers than Blacks swimming. Then it becomes cultural perceptions, then perceptions of physiological difference. It’s watching the process of racism work.””

The legacy of segregation white-washed the activity and told Black people that swimming is just not for them. After a while, this stigma was widely accepted — by both sides.

“Socio-political discrimination leads to a lack of access which leads to whites swimming in much higher numbers than Blacks swimming,” Wiltse said. “Then it becomes cultural perceptions, then perceptions of physiological difference. It’s watching the process of racism work.”

The solution to change the lasting impact of pool segregation and to diversify the waters of competitive swim teams is to create more access for Black bodies, said University of Louisville head swim coach Arthur Albiero. 

And the three Black swimmers on his team — Olivia Livingston, Tristen Ulett and Caleb Duncan — serve as examples.

Olivia Livingston, a 19-year-old freshman swimmer at the University of Louisville, is one of three Black swimmers on the Cardinals swim and dive team. When she looks back over the lack of access African Americans have had in swimming she asks herself: "What if I had never gotten the opportunity to swim?" (Photo: Adam Creech/ Louisville Athletics)

Livingston remembers learning to swim around the age of 6, ironically through the YMCA’s learn-to-swim program in her hometown outside of Pittsburgh. After that, her mother’s friend suggested that she sign Olivia up for a summer league swim team when she was 8. 

At the time, she didn’t give much thought to being one of the only Black swimmers on her team nor did she think she could be great at the sport. 

It wasn’t until she was 12 and saw Simone Manuel make history at the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio, as the first black woman to win an individual medal in swimming, that Livingston realized someone that looked like her could be successful in swimming, she said.

““Just to think that people that look like me were deprived of (the opportunity to swim) makes me really upset because it had such a big effect. Now, so many African Americans do not know how to swim and it’s such a big deal. It’s survival basically.””

When Livingston thinks of the history of the “learn-to-swim movement” and how it failed to permeate the culture of her community she asks herself: What if I had never gotten the opportunity to swim?

“Just to think that people that look like me were deprived of (the opportunity to swim) makes me really upset because it had such a big effect,” Livingston, 19, said. “Now, so many African Americans do not know how to swim and it’s such a big deal. It’s survival basically.”

‘You build it, they will come’

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