America used to be full of public pools. So, what happened? Take a wild guess — racism.
As Dulcé Sloan explains on The Daily Show, after World War I, public swimming pools in the U.S. soared in popularity. “Cities across the country started building them and these weren’t just any pools. They had sand, grassy lawns, some were even bigger than football fields and could hold 10,000 people,” says Sloan.
“Unfortunately Black people weren’t allowed into this national pool party,” she continues. “Cities didn’t build pools in Black neighbourhoods and white people didn’t want us in their neighbourhood pools.” Sloan goes on to explain that white people were “concerned about Black men intermingling with white women in such a ‘sexual atmosphere.'” Many communities banned Black people from swimming in white pools.
“In some cities like Pittsburgh, the police just let white swimmers literally beat Black swimmers out of the water. At one pool in St Louis, white people got so violent beating Black people that they eventually closed the whole pool for good,” Sloan says. “Imagine being so racist that you get your own pool shut down.”
With the Civil Rights Movement, people desegregated public pools with protests called wade-ins and dive-ins. With the introduction of the the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Sloan explains, pools were ordered to be desegregated, but things didn’t end there. Because the Civil Rights Act didn’t apply to private pools, racist swimmers flocked to members-only pools that only allowed white people to join as members — and this isn’t something that’s been left behind in history.
From the 1950s onwards, cities closed down many of their public pools while these private pools were created all over the country. This long history of unequal access has lasting impacts today. “Because of a lack of places to swim, Black people don’t swim as much and that means that Black children are at a higher risk of drowning.”