Swimming at The Kelly Pool, Fairmount Water Works, Philadelphia, 1962
Fairmount Water Works & The Philadelphia Water Department Collection

POOL: A Social History of Segregation

by Victoria Prizzia, Pool Creator

During much of the 20th century, public swimming pools played a vital role in the life of American communities. Cities and towns across the country opened thousands of pools that attracted tens of millions of swimmers each year. As Dr. Jeff Wiltse explains in Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, these public pools served as important social spaces, where families and neighbors could bond and connect as a community, and where young and old could learn to swim and cool themselves on hot summer days.

However, these social spaces have also been platforms to fight over who was welcome to swim. Since the 1920s, the waters of our public pools have reflected the profound racial and economic divisions running through American communities, becoming spaces where communal life and cultural values and biases have been contested and disputed—sometimes violently.

Municipal pools are unique public spaces that reveal much about the character of community life because of the intimacy inherent in swimming together. They offer environments and experiences for extended social contact, with people spending hours or entire days recreating and communing together.

Public swimming pools are important sites of racial segregation and desegregation struggles throughout the United States, and reveal much about the nation’s handling of race and racial difference throughout the twentieth century. Even before the Supreme Court’s landmark Brown v. Board of Education decision in 1954, federal judges had already issued rulings declaring swimming pool segregation unconstitutional, and injunctions forcing cities to desegregate public pools.

Past racial discrimination at swimming pools, coupled with a general shift of funds away from public pools to private swimming and recreational opportunities, have had a significant and lasting impact on Black communities—an impact that continues today.

A Black swim club meets at the Christian Street YMCA in Philadelphia during the 1950s. Although some YMCA branches allowed Black members, others were used by communities throughout the U.S. to create segregated recreation facilities under the guise of “private clubs.” City governments funneled money that should have been spent on public recreation facilities to these private facilities through tax exemptions, free utilities, cheap land, and other benefits.


• According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black children and teenagers are almost six times as likely as white children to drown in a swimming pool.

• USA Swimming reports that 69% of Black children have little to no swimming ability, compared with 42% of white children.

For many Black individuals and families, the answer to these growing disparities has been to avoid the water altogether, to stay in the shallow end, or to pretend to be able to swim when forced into the water. But these self-protections fall short when the unexpected, and sometimes tragic, happens.

To change this cycle, people such as swimming champions Maritza Correia McClendon, Cullen Jones, Sabir Muhammad and Simone Manuel, and aquatic activists, researchers and scholars such as Ed Accura, Naji Ali, Kevin Colquitt, Dr. Kevin Dawson, Coach Jim Ellis, Rhonda Harper, Anthony Patterson Sr. and Diversity in Aquatics, Inc. (our featured swimming voices throughout this exhibition) believe the answer to correcting these disparities can be found in making the lifesaving skill of swimming available to all.

“So many people are so terrified of the water. Where they say, well, I'll stay away from it. But the world is 75% water. At some point you're going to go near it. There's no way of getting around that, not your whole life. You cannot pull that off. And when you are near it, whether you go in or not, you should know how to swim. And not just survival swimming, I'm talking where you are comfortable in the water. For me when I talk about the need for swimming, I always emphasize it as a life skill. It's a sport second, always a sport second. It can be something that you can do for enjoyment, for fun for the rest of your life. It's easy to learn how to do, but you have to learn it.”


POOL was made possible by generous support from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage and the Philadelphia Water Department. We would also like to thank leadership of the FUND for the Fairmount Water Works and Philadelphia Parks and Recreation for their ongoing support for this project.

Much of the historic content of POOL was provided by and/or written in collaboration with Dr. Jeff Wiltse, who generously made his extensive research available to the makers of POOL.