Post in Which the Vulgar Historian Treads the Treacherous Waters of Pool Politics

Chances are, unless you live under a rock or don’t own a computer, you’ve at least seen a reference to the video of a Texas police officer (with some super-sweet ninja moves) making sure some black teens at a pool party WILL RESPECT HIS AUTHORITAH by throwing one to the ground and waving his gun around at others.  If you haven’t seen the video, you can watch it below.  It’s about six minutes long.

From many accounts, the altercation started when several of the (mostly black) neighborhood kids had a pool party and some of the (white) neighbors began yelling racial slurs at the kids, telling them to go back to Section 8.  I mean, most of them lived there and stuff, but let’s not let facts get in the way of ragehate or anything.  Then one of the women slapped one of the teenagers, a scuffle ensued, and the cops were called.

While watching and reading about all this, I couldn’t help but think about recreation segregation.  Probably because I just finished re-reading Victoria W. Wolcott’s Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle Over Segregated Recreation in America.  It’s a really good book if you are into reading about recreation segregation, which I totally am, but it might be a bit dense for the casual reader. I would wager that most folks who have studied 20th century US history in any kind of depth probably thought about the same thing when watching or reading about what happened in Texas earlier this week.  So I thought it might be an interesting thing to talk about.  Because I do think that what happened in the past affects our attitudes and our behaviors today.  And I think that nothing has just one, and only one, contributing factor. And I really get my rocks off on thinking about all the little things that influence our thoughts and our attitudes and our decisions.

Figure 1: McKinney wasn't the first time a young black person was thrown to the ground because of pool politics.  St. Louis, 1949

Figure 1: McKinney wasn’t the first time a young black person was thrown to the ground because of pool politics.  St. Louis, 1949.

If you don’t really know that much about recreation segregation, Gene Demby wrote a really good article over at NPR called “Who Gets to Hang Out at the Pool?”  You can read it here.  But basically, a lot of the early Civil Rights Movement was focused on Jim Crow laws and voting rights in the south.  But that doesn’t mean that there weren’t completely effed up things happening elsewhere.  In the South, and in the rest of the country, recreation segregation was the norm. And segregated pools were only one kind of recreation segregation.  Amusement parks, roller rinks, dance halls, beaches, and all kinds of other fun things were also segregated.

As Demby points out in his NPR article, swimming pool segregation was pretty much a thing, pretty much everywhere.  Prior to WWII, anybody who wasn’t super-rich used a public pool because nobody had pools in their backyards.  Cleanliness was a huge concern at public pools, and black people were considered by racist fuckheads to be, well, dirty.  And there was this sexual fear of having black men too close to white women, especially in recreation settings which were linked to dating and courtship. So most public pools were whites only.  Even though they were built and maintained by tax money that everybody had to pay.  Black people still had no access to them.  It was a huge struggle to desegregate pools.  And the completely fucked up thing about it is that, after public pools were desegregated, white people stopped using them, and most of them were closed. White folks just moved out to their suburbs and built their own pools, or formed clubs and made their pools “members only,” and black folks were s.o.l.  Again.  And yes, I know I used the f-word twice in one paragraph.  Pool segregation really gets my dander up.


Figure 2. Williams St. YWCA, drawing from dedication program, Portland, OR, 1926,

But wait, there’s more. Pool segregation didn’t just affect whether black people could go swimming or not.  It affected other stuff too.  There are even theories that swimming pool segregation is part of why African-Americans are less likely to learn to swim and more likely to drown. When I was researching my thesis, I found a bunch of old letters and documents from black women in Portland, OR who wanted a YWCA in the early 1900’s.  Back then, the YWCA was segregated, but black women could get permission to form their own YWCA branches.  In 1916, when Beatrice Morrow Cannady, a newspaper editor, lawyer, and all around badass tried to get a “colored branch” started through the Portland YWCA, she was denied in part because they were unwilling to give black members the pool privileges that membership implied(1). At the time YWCA’s were hugely important to black women. Not only did they offer things like job placement, homemaking skills, and social opportunities for women in industrialized cities, but black working women who were new in town used YWCA’s as lodging while they found work. It was totally not respectable for women to stay at boarding-houses or hotels.  So not having a black YWCA was kind of a big deal.  Portland finally did get a black YWCA branch in 1921 and their own building in 1926, but hey still had to share a pool with the main YWCA.  At first, black members were only allowed to use the pool on Saturday nights right before the pool was cleaned.  When they complained, they were allowed to use the pool on Wednesday instead of Saturday night, but then white people stopped using the pool from Thursday – Saturday. So eventually black members lost their pool privileges all together.

Men protesting segregated pools in Pittsburgh, PA in 1949.

Figure 3: Men protesting segregated pools in Pittsburgh, PA in 1949.

At any rate, pool segregation is some heavy shit.  And the ideas behind pool segregation (and recreation segregation, and segregation in general) affect the way that we, as a society, view black people in public places – attitudes like how “they” don’t belong in our neighborhoods, or our pools, or even our streets.  I used to belong to a neighborhood watch facebook page (I got kicked off for not being racist enough) and every other post was about “suspicious” black men or kids doing nothing more suspicious than walking on the dog trail, or talking on their cell phone, or wearing business casual clothes.  I shit you not.  There was a post about a black guy walking down a main road, and how he was sketchy because he was wearing business casual clothing and obviously not out for a jog.

Now, I’m not saying that recreation segregation is what caused the Texas throw down by Officer Douchecanoe. But I do think his actions might have been influenced by ideas he had about race.  And I do think that it is important to examine ourselves and where our attitudes come from.  I will never forget one time when I was a teenager selling tickets for a school play and a group of four black kids came through a side door, walking towards my booth.  I remember being scared that they were gonna take my cash box and run with it.  And I remember in that moment stopping and thinking like – what the hell am I thinking?  I’ve never been robbed.  I’ve never had a bad experience with black kids (or any kids).  Why did I react that way?  Where did that fear come from?  And I felt pretty crappy about it, to be honest with you.  And I think I’m not alone in having those thoughts.  And I don’t think that having those thoughts defines you – I think it’s what you do about it that defines you.

When I see things like a cop kneeing a black teenager in the back or pointing a gun at unarmed boys, I get mad.  And I want to do something about it, but I don’t know what to do.  And that is super-freaking-frustrating.  But there are two really important things I can do about it.  The first is to realize that I don’t know shit.  Or as Ygritte would say, “You know nothing, Jon Snow.”  I recently read a blog post by Pastor John Pavlovitz, who writes, “I am the only person about whose heart I am completely qualified to speak about. As much as I hate to admit it, the jurisdiction of my authority and expertise ends abruptly at my own epidermis.”  That’s powerful stuff, right there.  Beyond my own skin, I don’t know a damn thing.  And that’s OK.  Because the second thing that I can do about it is just to listen.  I can never experience someone else’s experiences, but I can listen to them.  I can hear them talk about how they feel, and how racism affects them, and what they have been through because of it.  I can do that, and I’m going to.  I invite you to do the same.

This morning, a friend of mine sent me a link to a blog I’d never read called Mommy Nani Booboo, which featured a post by guest blogger and slam poet Fannon Holland, titled “Forgive Me If I Do Not Believe You.”  He writes:

All lives matter is not a solution
It is a rebuttal
Black lives matter is an awareness of the struggle
A remembrance of stolen bodies and lost lineage
All lives matter is a white washing of heritage
Against the blackboard of history
This is history
This is history
This is history
This is history
This is history
This is history repeating itself
We are the sons and daughters of history

Go to the blog.  Read the post.  Listen.  And then pay attention to the result of history repeating itself.  Here’s the link again if you don’t want to scroll up:

Tomorrow I’ll keep it light.  Pinkie-promise.  We’ll talk about the New Deal, and I might cook something.

(Note: I used “black” instead of “African-American” throughout this post because my husband, who is black, prefers that term.)


1. Lina Belis James, General Secretary Portland Branch YWCA, Letter to Eva D. Bowles, Director of Colored Work, YWCA National, October 25, 1916, Lewis and Clark College Special Collections, Young Women’s Christian Association of Portland, Oregon papers, Box 5, Folder 11.

Image Credits:

Most of the images in this post were found through a search of the Civil Rights Digital Library, which can be accessed through this link: There are all kinds of Civil Rights primary sources digitized and available for your historogasmic viewing pleasure.  It is abso-freaking-lutely amazing.

Figure 1. “Race riot at the Fairgrounds swimming pool, St. Louis, Missouri, June 21, 1949,” Stetson Kennedy papers, Special Collections and Archives, Georgia State University library.

Figure 2. Young Women’s Christian Association Williams Avenue Center Records: 1926-1961, MSS 2384, Oregon Historical Society Research Library.

Figure 3. Teenie Harris, “Men protesting swimming pool segregation with signs reading “We want democracy at Highland Park Pool, Mayor Lawrence, what do you want?” and “We fought together, why can’t we swim together,” Grant Street, Downtown,” Documenting our Past, the Teenie Harris Archive Project, Carnegie museum of Art.

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