Black History Month and Swimming Pools

“My father built a swimming pool in Charlotte in the 1950s and let Black people swim there.” White Church Leader explaining to me why his family wasn’t racist at an anti-racism event in 2018

This post is perhaps better suited for swimming pool weather – especially in the summer months when two significant stories about Black history occurred in 1951 and 1964. But maybe these stories will sink in just as well in February 2023.

The most gut-wrenching story from Isabel Wilkerson’s extraordinary book Caste: The Origens of our Discontents involves a young Black boy, his mostly White Little League team, and a municipal swimming pool in Youngstown, Ohio in 1951. The Donnell Ford Little League team had won the city’s championship with a game winning hit by the only Black child on the team – Al Bright. The team celebrated with a pool party and picnic, except they (the White coaches) forgot that young Mr. Bright would not be allowed to join his teammates in the swimming pool and his parents would not be allowed on the picnic grounds. Al Bright was eleven years old.*

While the White children swam, the pool was padlocked to ensure that Al Bright would not be able to join them. Eventually, the pool supervisor was convinced to allow Al to swim but first, all the White kids would have to get out of the pool. From Ms. Wilkerson’s book, a story told by Al’s friend Mel Watkins:

Al was led to the pool and placed in a small rubber raft. A lifeguard got into the water and pushed the raft with Al in it for a single turn around the pool, as a hundred or so teammates, coaches, parents, and onlookers watched from the sidelines. After the agonizing few minutes that it took to complete the circle, Al was then escorted to his assigned spot on the other side of the fence. During his short time in the raft, as it glided on the surface, the lifeguard warned him over and over again of one important rule “Just don’t touch the water,” the lifeguard said, as he pushed the rubber float. “Whatever you do, don’t touch the water.

Although young Al was offered a ride home by his White teammates’ families after the party, he chose to walk home. Sources here.

Thirteen years later, on June 11, 1964 Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr was arrested for trespassing after trying to eat lunch at the Monson Motor Inn in St. Augustine, Florida. While in jail, Dr. wrote his friend New Jersey Rabbi Israel Dresner who convinced 16 other rabbis to join him in protesting the Monson Motor Inn. They were also arrested in what would be the largest mass arrest of rabbis in the United States.

Later the same day Black and White protesters all jumped into the Monson Motor Inn “Whites Only” swimming pool and the motel’s owner responded by pouring muriatic acid into the pool. Muriatic acid (a diluted solution of hydrochloric acid) burns human skin and can cause vision loss in the event of eye contact. Sources here.

I imagine that many of my friends and family are reading this and thinking “this is just the way things were” That is truthfully correct.

And yet – and yet – knowing the truth doesn’t excuse us or relieve us of confessing past sins and lamenting decades of injustice – especially when we have claimed to be followers of Jesus. It’s on us – White People – to know these stories and to work against such injustice every day. It’s not just the right thing to do; it’s what Jesus teaches us to do.

Instead of writing off these not-so-ancient stories, we are called to be aware that such hatefulness continues to occur today. And then we fight that hatefulness with God’s love.

*Dr. Alfred L. Bright (1940-2019) grew up to be an artist and teacher who was the first full-time African American to serve on the faculty of his alma mater Youngstown State University.

One response to “Black History Month and Swimming Pools

  1. I grew up in a farming community where the town, made up of mostly white people, in the 1950s. The town had a sundowner law that I learned about as a child in Sunday School at our Southern Baptist church. Our teacher, the pastor’s daughter, was telling us this and telling us how wrong it was. I couldn’t even understand why there would be such a law. My dad had a friend, Mr. Price, whom I believe he met while doing farm work for others. Mr. Price lived in a larger city and drove to this small community to farm. He often had lunch at our house and we would stop at his home when we went shopping in the bigger city to have lunch or an afternoon snack. My dad and Mr. Price helped each other in many ways. When it came time to buy seed or fertilizer, which farmers had to buy on credit and pay for when their crops came in, Mr. Price was refused that credit service. You see, he was Black, or as my parents would say, Negro. My dad had the supplies put on his bill and then the feed store refused to deliver them except to the address on the account. All those sacks of seed and fertilizer would be unloaded in our front yard and I would watch from the front window as Daddy and Mr. Price reloaded the sacks into their pickups to take it two miles farther west to Mr. Price’s farm. Oh, and Mr. Price had one arm, and it was only in hindsight as I remembered this situation, that I remembered he had but one arm. What a time I grew up in, even in California where my parents had come for a better life.

    Liked by 1 person

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