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.

Waiting For A Perfect Protest? Op-Ed Argues I Am The Problem, Not Antifa

Clergy facing white nationalists in Charlottesville.

Clergy facing white nationalists in Charlottesville.

Waiting for a Perfect Protest? New York Times

Anne's comment: "Your op-ed sanitizes the reality of the antifa protest in Berkeley, claiming that my white woman 'perfect march' moderation (I see myself as very progressive) is a greater problem for you than antifa's right to promote anarchy -- breaking windows, shutting down businesses, creating chaos and hurting people -- because a white nationalist wants to speak on campus.

Many antifa members are as committed to overturning our govt and creating anarchy to support their vision of justice as are the white nationalists, from all I've read. Your op-ed says clearly that I -- who sued the NYPD over events in Harlem and won -- am a greater problem for social justice -- than antifa.

Those claims are 1) absurd and 2) counter-productive to the cause of social justice. I am happy to stand (and have stood ALWAYS) for BLM, as an example.

But if you also demand that I agree to no free speech for the dreadful Ann Coulter, that Condoleezza Rice is not permitted to speak on any university campus, and that I speak proudly on behalf of black-shirt violence that breaks windows and clubs people for NO obvious reason but creating chaos and overturning our economic system, then you must explain to me 1) why this is necessary; 2) how it will succeed and 3) exactly what kind of America you imagine creating in your so-called just country. " {End comment}

On AOC yesterday, I did discuss this issue and also posted the polls referenced in this op-ed. I posted a link to the clergy group that organized the counter-protests in Charlottesville and have absolutely no issue with them. But if they are arguing -- as they seem to be -- that I must support a host of other actions, like antifa in Berkeley, I cannot support that violence. I do not support anarchy and the total overturning of capitalism in America, as antifa seeks (not that I think it's even possible). ~ Anne

 {Op-Ed}: "Our complaint here is not about the right-wing media outlets that we know will continue to delegitimize anti-racist protest in any form — whether it’s peacefully sitting during the national anthem, marching in the streets, staging boycotts or simply making the apparently radical claim that “black lives matter.” Rather, our concern at this moment is with our moderate brothers and sisters who voice support for the cause of racial justice but simultaneously cling to paralyzingly unrealistic standards when it comes to what protest should look like.

As Christian clergy members, we place a high value on nonviolence. We are part of a national campaign that promotes proven solutions to reducing gun violence in our cities, and each of us has worked to achieve peace in our neighborhoods. But we know there has never been a time in American history in which movements for justice have been devoid of violent outbreaks."

{. . . }

The civil rights movement was messy, disorderly, confrontational and yes, sometimes violent. Those standing on the sidelines of the current racial-justice movement, waiting for a pristine or flawless exercise of righteous protest, will have a long wait. They, we suspect, will be this generation’s version of the millions who claim that they were one of the thousands who marched with Dr. King. Each of us should realize that what we do now is most likely what we would have done during those celebrated protests 50 years ago. Rather than critique from afar, come out of your homes, follow those who are closest to the pain, and help us to redeem this country, and yourselves, in the process."

Michael McBride is a pastor and the director of PICO National Network’s “Live Free” campaign. Traci Blackmon is the United Church of Christ’s executive minister of justice and witness.
Frank Reid is the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s bishop of ecumenical affairs and social action. Barbara Williams Skinner is a co-convener of the National African American Clergy Network.