The Forgotten History of Segregated Swimming Pools and Amusement Parks

By Victoria W. Wolcott, Professor of History, University at Buffalo, The State University of New York. First published in The Conversation.

Summers often bring a wave of childhood memories: lounging poolside, trips to the local amusement park, languid, steamy days at the beach.

These nostalgic recollections, however, aren’t held by all Americans.

Municipal swimming pools and urban amusement parks flourished in the 20th century. But too often, their success was based on the exclusion of African Americans.

As a social historian who has written a book on segregated recreation, I have found that the history of recreational segregation is a largely forgotten one. But it has had a lasting significance on modern race relations.

Swimming pools and beaches were among the most segregated and fought over public spaces in the North and the South.

White stereotypes of blacks as diseased and sexually threatening served as the foundation for this segregation. City leaders justifying segregation also pointed to fears of fights breaking out if whites and blacks mingled. Racial separation for them equaled racial peace.

These fears were underscored when white teenagers attacked black swimmers after activists or city officials opened public pools to blacks. For example, whites threw nails at the bottom of pools in Cincinnati, poured bleach and acid in pools with black bathers in St. Augustine, Florida, and beat them up in Philadelphia. In my book, I describe how in the late 1940s there were major swimming pool riots in St. Louis, Baltimore, Washington, D.C. and Los Angeles.

Exclusion based on ‘safety’

Despite civil rights statutes in many states, the law did not come to African Americans’ aid. In Charlotte, North Carolina, for example, the chairman of the Charlotte Park and Recreation Commission in 1960 admitted that “all people have a right under law to use all public facilitates including swimming pools.” But he went on to point out that “of all public facilities, swimming pools put the tolerance of the white people to the test.”

His conclusion: “Public order is more important than rights of Negroes to use public facilities.” In practice, black swimmers were not admitted to pools if the managers felt “disorder will result.” Disorder and order defined accessibility, not the law.

Fears of disorder also justified segregation at amusement parks, which were built at the end of trolley or ferry lines beginning in 1890. This was particularly true at park swimming pools, dance halls and roller-skating rinks, which were common facilities within parks.

These spaces provoked the most intense fears of racial mixing among young men and women. Scantily clad bathers flirting and playing raised the specter of interracial sex and some feared for young white women’s safety.

Image via A Civil Rights Watershed in Biloxi, Mississippi, Smithsonian Magazine.

Image via A Civil Rights Watershed in Biloxi, Mississippi, Smithsonian Magazine.

Some white owners and customers believed that recreation only could be kept virtuous and safe by excluding African Americans and promoting a sanitized and harmonious vision of white leisure. However, my work shows that these restrictions simply perpetuated racial stereotypes and inequality.

This recreational segregation had a heartbreaking impact on African American children. For example, in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” Martin Luther King Jr. described the tears in his daughter’s eyes when “she is told that Funtown is closed to colored children.”

Protests at pools

Major civil rights campaigns targeted amusement park segregation, most notably at Gwynn Oak Park in Baltimore and Glen Echo Park outside of Washington, D.C. And other parks, such as Fontaine Ferry in Louisville, were sites of major racial clashes when African Americans sought entrance.

By the early 1970s, most of America’s urban amusement parks like Cleveland’s Euclid Beach and Chicago’s Riverview were closed for good. Some white consumers perceived the newly integrated parks as unsafeand in turn park owners sold the land for considerable profit. Other urban leisure sites – public swimming pools, bowling alleys and roller-skating rinks – also closed down as white consumers fled cities for the suburbs.

The increase of gated communities and homeowners associations, what the political scientist Evan McKenzie calls “privatopia,” also led to the privatization of recreation. Another factor contributing to the decline of public recreation areas was the Federal Housing Administration, which in the mid-1960s openly discouraged public ownership of recreational facilities. Instead, they promoted private homeowner associations in planned developments with private pools and tennis courts.

Lasting legacy

After the 1964 Civil Rights Act desegregated public accommodations, municipalities followed different strategies intended to keep the racial peace through maintaining segregation. Some simply filled their pools in, leaving more affluent residents the option of putting in backyard pools. Public pools also created membership clubs and began to charge fees, which acted as a barrier to filter out those pool managers felt were “unfit.”

Over time, cities defunded their recreational facilities, leaving many urban dwellers with little access to pools. Ironically, some blamed African Americans for the decline of urban amusements, disregarding the decades of exclusion and violence they had experienced.

The racial stereotypes that justified swimming segregation are not often openly expressed today. However, we still see their impact on our urban and suburban landscapes. Closed public pools and shuttered skating rinks degrade urban centers.

And there are moments when one hears the direct echo of those earlier struggles. In 2009, for example, the owner of a private swim club in Philadelphia excluded black children attending a Philadelphia day care center, saying they would change the “complexion” of the club.

In 2015 in a wealthy subdivision outside of Dallas, police targeted black teenagers attending a pool party.

These incidents, and our collective memories, are explicable only in the context of a rarely acknowledged history.

New Study Confirms Communities of Color Are Hardest Hit By Growing Wealth Inequality

Wynwood, Miami. Photo by  Meriç Dağlı  on  Unsplash

Wynwood, Miami. Photo by Meriç Dağlı on Unsplash

By Chuck Collins, a director of the Program on Inequality at the Institute for Policy Studies. Originally published on Yes! Magazine.

The story of the growing inequality in the United States has many dimensions.

There is the overarching story of the last four decades of polarizing income, wealth, and opportunity. But the many ways these inequalities manifest depend on people’s gender, race, age, immigration status, and other experience.

One piece of the story is to understand how 40 years of public policies have worsened the racial wealth divide and enriched the top 1 percent.

Wealth is where the past shows up in the present, both in terms of historical advantages and barriers. Measures of wealth—what you own minus what you owe—reflect the multigenerational story of White supremacy in asset-building.

For example, the median White family now has 41 times more wealth than the median Black family and 22 times more wealth than the median Latino family. These are among our findings in “Dreams Deferred,” a new study on the racial wealth divide that I co-authored for the Institute for Policy Studies.

Overall, inequality has grown as wages for almost half of all U.S. workers have been flatlined since the late 1970s. Meanwhile, expenses for housing, health care, and other basic needs have risen. This has touched people of all races, fueling some of the discontent of both regressive and progressive populism.

But while wealth at the middle falters, it’s soaring at the top. The Forbes 400 group of billionaires now have as much wealth combined as the entire Black population and a quarter of the Latino population combined. And the three richest billionaires—Jeff Bezos, Warren Buffett, and Bill Gates—have as much wealth as the entire bottom half of U.S. households.

Photo by  Jon Tyson  on  Unsplash

Photo by Jon Tyson on Unsplash

Since the early 1980s, median wealth among Black and Latino families has been stalled at less than $10,000. The median Black family today owns $3,600—just 2 percent of the $147,000 of wealth the median White family owns. The median Latino family has assets worth $6,600—just 4 percent of the median White family.

Since 1983, median wealth for all U.S. households declined by 3 percent, adjusting for inflation. Over this same period, the median Black family saw their wealth drop by more than half.

If the trajectory of the past three decades continues, by 2050 the median White family will have $174,000 of wealth, while Latino median wealth will be just $8,600—and Black median wealth will head downward to $600. In fact, the median Black family is on track to reach zero wealth by 2082.

While the middle class stagnates and the very richest leave everyone behind, there’s also growing precariousness at the bottom end of the spectrum. A growing number of households are “underwater” when it comes to wealth. The proportion of all U.S. households of any race with zero or “negative” wealth (meaning their debts exceed the value of their assets) has grown from one in six in 1983 to one in five households today.

Families of color are much likelier to be in this precarious financial situation: 37 percent of Black families and 33 percent of Latino families have zero or negative wealth, compared with just 15.5 percent of White families.

These racial wealth divisions are damaging to the economy as a whole. Low levels of Black and Latino wealth, combined with their growing proportion of the population, are a significant contributor to the overall decline in American median household wealth. By 2060, the combined Black and Latino percentage of the population is expected to rise from 30 percent to 42.5 percent.

Public policies aimed at reducing both overall inequality and the racial wealth divide in particular will be critical to creating a more equitable economic system.

Such policies could include the expansion of first-time homeownership for those who were denied access to home mortgage financing, both in the decades after World War II and up to the present day. This could include low-interest loans and down payment assistance.

Additional initiatives could remove barriers to higher education. Student debt now exceeds $1.5 trillion and discourages younger people from being able to save, build wealth and purchase homes.

U.S. Sen. Cory Booker has proposed the creation of a “baby bond” program that would seed an asset account for every newborn.

According to one study, had such a program been in place in 1979, the wealth gap between Latinos and Whites would have been entirely closed by now, and the wealth gap between Blacks and Whites would have shrunk 82 percent in young adult households.

Fishtown, Philadelphia Photo by  Ashim D’Silva  on  Unsplash

Fishtown, Philadelphia Photo by Ashim D’Silva on Unsplash

Such proposals could be universally applied to those with no or low wealth, or be part of a more targeted reparations program linked to the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and White supremacy. Substantial funds could be raised by a progressive tax on wealth, similar to one proposed recently by U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren.

By taking these measures, we would close the racial wealth gap. But we also must address the overall challenges of inequality with policies to raise the minimum wage and expand health care, while taxing the 1 percent to fund education and infrastructure that create an economy that works for everyone, not just the superrich.

Chuck Collins is also the author of Born on Third Base: A One Percenter Makes the Case for Tackling Inequality, Bringing Wealth Home, and Committing to the Common Good.