As Lia Neal, Cullen Jones, and Anthony Irvin compete in the the 2012 Olympic Games, they are not simply battling the best in the world; they are helping to close the book on a sad chapter in American history. With each start, each stroke, and each flip-turn, the trio of African-American swimmers are putting the historic (and occasionally more recent) exclusion of African-Americans from America’s pools further behind us. Their presence on this year’s Olympic team and their place among the larger history of black Olympic swimmers (they join Maritza Correia, who won a silver medal in 2004) reminds us of a larger history of racism and exclusion.
Indeed, to witness three black Olympians competing as swimmers represents the continued struggle against the longstanding efforts to keep pools white.
“Sports reflect a larger quandary in the land of opportunity, that so many sports have been resistant to inclusion for all races,” writes William C. Rhoden. And for decades, African-Americans were denied access to swimming pools and other municipal activities: and not only in the south. In Pittsburgh at the turn of the 20th century, whites attacked blacks in the name of swimming segregation.
Richard Allietta describes the level of violence and harassment directed at African-Americans within a segregated swimming culture: “As a youngster in Bellaire, Ohio in the early 1950’s, we would go to the public swimming pool on Mondays, ‘colored day,’ and sit in the observer stands and jeer at the colored swimmers.” Similarly, Ted Gaskins’ memories of his childhood in New Mexico, as described to American RadioWorks, illustrates the longstanding connections between American racism and swimming:
During my early childhood days in Alamogordo, New Mexico, in the early-to-mid 1950s, my grandparents owned and operated the local municipal swimming pool. This was before filtering systems were required and the pool had to be treated with chlorine and other chemicals to maintain the cleanliness of the water. It was also drained once a week and refilled with fresh water.
The sign on the outside of the pool read: “hours 10am to 6 pm Tuesday— Sat. Colored: Sunday from 1 pm – 5 pm.’
After 5:00 on Sunday, my grandfather would drain the pool (125,000 gallons of water) — and on Monday everyone would grab buckets of liquid chlorine and scrub the entire pool.
I asked my grandfather why we did this, and he said that the colored people were unclean and this would kill any bacteria that they would bring in. I also would ask my grandmother if I could go swimming on Sunday, and she would always tell me no, because that was the time when the “colored folks” could swim and I wasn’t allowed to swim with them. This went on till 1957 and at that time the state required the new filtering system and my grandparents closed the pool because of the cost of the new equipment. This was an accepted practice during my early childhood.
Reflecting entrenched ideologies, many white residents resisted efforts to integrate pools in the northern and western U.S. during the 1940s and early 1950s. As these municipal pools, which were largely constructed during the Progressive Era (yes, government creating jobs), began to integrate, many whites fled to suburban and private pools, resulting in systemic divestment from the urban spaces.
Jim Crow, meanwhile, remained a stark reality throughout the South. By the 1960s, however, activists demanded integration in every aspect of American life, including swimming pools and beaches. In St. Augustine, Florida, the owner of Monson Motor Lodge poured acid into the pool after a black man and white women entered the water together.
In other instances, white leaders responded to the calls for integration by closing pools altogether, a tactic that was given cover from the Supreme Court, which ruled in Palmer v. Thompson that a decision by the Jackson, Mississippi City Council to close all of its pools rather than desegregate them did not violate the 14th Amendment. “Swimming pools and golf courses were closed down in response to integration. These racist municipalities would rather close the facilities for everyone rather than integrate,” notes Olympic gold medalist and lawyer, Nancy Hogshead-Makar.
“History lessons reveal that white hostility to black swimming (pool or beach) was internalized by blacks as avoidance and a fear of water. Consequently, black children didn’t learn how to swim, resulting in these high, disproportionate numbers of deaths from African-American kids.”