A kid jumps off a diving board into a public swimming pool.

The Lasting Impact of America’s Segregated Public Pools

Last week, a Baltimore radio station reported that a group of Black boys broke into a public swimming pool facility. Video footage—which seems to be taken by drone or helicopter—shows four Black kids hopping the fence and happily frolicking in the water. People quickly criticized the report, noting that it was 93 degrees on that day, and it was clear that the kids caused no harm (Huffington Post). Some noted that if the children were white, there would likely be a different spin on the situation. Others questioned why resources were used for video surveillance to capture live footage of this otherwise innocuous incident. This year, Baltimore has struggled with keeping its public pools open. Despite previous investments by the local city council, at least three are slated not to reopen for the rest of the summer (Fox). This story touches on a long and troubling history of banning Black people from participating in aquatic activities.


Watch the documentary “Passage at St. Augustine: The 1964 Black Lives Matter Movement That Transformed America” to learn more about wade-ins during the Civil Rights Movement.

• Donate to Tank Proof, a nonprofit organization that provides free swim classes to historically excluded youth.

• Consider: How does the local beach, pool, or other recreational space in your community prioritize diversity and inclusion?

Before World War I, municipal pools acted as public bathhouses frequented by people from all backgrounds, social classes, and races (although men and women were required to swim on different days). But after the war, the rise of recreational spaces in the U.S. shifted the concept of pools from utility to leisure. Swimming became more of a luxury than a necessity. Rules changed so men and women could swim together, drawing families and creating a new social activity for mingling. By 1933, Americans spent as much time in pools as at movie theaters (NPR).

But as swimming as a leisure activity grew, so did racial discrimination against Black people at pools. White people worried about having Black men swimming with white women. Some fears drew on racial tropes that Black men were sexually violent. Others were concerned that co-mingling would encourage interracial relationships. White elites also perceived Black, Asian, and Latino people—even working-class white people—as dirty and prone to carry communicable diseases (National Geographic). As a result, many swimming pools had “whites-only” days, pools were often sequestered in white neighborhoods, and individuals and local governments alike would reinforce who “belonged” in public swimming spaces (NPR).

And it wasn’t just pools. Similar discriminatory practices affected how Black people and other people of color could access any public recreational spaces, including movie theaters, dance halls, amusement parks, and beaches.

These public spaces became the center of demonstrations for racial equity. Organized protests, referred to as “wade-ins,” were held at beaches and pools, where Black people and allies would get in the water where they were not allowed (History). In one highly publicized incident in 1964, Black and white protestors jumped into the Monson Motor Lodge pool in St. Augustine, Florida. Infuriated, the manager dumped acid into the pool while the protestors were swimming (St. Augustine). Photos from the incident accelerated the Civil Rights Movement and pushed President Johnson to get the Civil Rights Act passed. View photos from the protest, and read a reflection on how the St. Augustine local paper covered the Civil Rights Movement.

In theory, the passing of the act should have ended racially segregated public spaces. Instead, many public pools closed. Others charged high fees, only allowed people that lived close by and implemented “referral-only” policies to keep the space exclusive (National Geographic). This also sparked the rise of the backyard pool trend, as wealthy white people decided to have a pool space all to themselves instead. Public pools, already a costly investment for initial installation and upkeep, received less funding overall as a result. Many shut down (National Geographic).

This discrimination has lasting implications. According to a 2017 report from the USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of African American children had no or low swimming ability, compared to 40% of white children (Swimming World Magazine). More importantly, the study indicates that if a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 13% chance that their child will learn how to swim. Unsurprisingly, not learning how to swim greatly increases one’s risk of drowning. According to the YMCA, swim lessons for children ages 1-4 reduce the risk of drowning by 88% (YMCA). The CDC reported that, between 1999 and 2010, Black children drowned in swimming pools at a rate of up to 10 times higher than their white peers (CDC). It will take conscious effort to undo the harm of the past and make aquatics feel more accessible to all.


• A group of Black boys were criminalized for breaking into a public pool facility and swimming on a hot day.

• Black people have long been banned from aquatic spaces through explicit policies, referral and fee-based exclusion, and even the closure of public in favor of private pools.

• As a result, Black people have much lower rates of swimming ability than white people, leading to a dramatically higher risk of death by drowning.

2384 1340 Nicole Cardoza

Nicole Cardoza

Nicole is an entrepreneur, author, investor, speaker and magician passionate about reclaiming our right to be well.

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