The Racist History of Private and Public Pools

In the aftermath of the fracas in McKinney, Texas over a group of black teens at a birthday party at a public pool getting the white folk all riled up, it’s important to note that this is not a new subject. As The Atlantic points out, public pools used to be the norm — right up until the law let black people swim in them.

Craig Ranch North is the oldest residential portion of a 2,200 acre master-planned community. “The neighborhood is made up of single-family homes,” says the developer’s website, “and includes a community center with two pools, a park and a playground.” Private developments like Craig Ranch now routinely include pools, often paid for by dues to homeowners’ associations, and governed by their rules. But that, in itself, represents a remarkable shift.

At their inception, communal swimming pools were public, egalitarian spaces. Most early public pools in America aimed more for hygiene than relaxation, open on alternate days to men and women. In the North, at least, they served bathers without regard for race. But in the 1920s, as public swimming pools proliferated, they became sites of leisure and recreation. Alarmed at the sight of women and men of different races swimming together, public officials moved to impose rigid segregation.

As African Americans fought for desegregation in the 1950s, public pools became frequent battlefields. In Marshall, Texas, for example, in 1957, a young man backed by the NAACP sued to force the integration of a brand-new swimming pool. When the judge made it clear the city would lose, citizens voted 1,758-89 to have the city sell all of its recreational facilities rather than integrate them. The pool was sold to a local Lions’ Club, which was able to operate it as a whites-only private facility.

The decisions of other communities were rarely so transparent, but the trend was unmistakable. Before 1950, Americans went swimming as often as they went to the movies, but they did so in public pools. There were relatively few club pools, and private pools were markers of extraordinary wealth. Over the next half-century, though, the number of private in-ground pools increased from roughly 2,500 to more than four million. The declining cost of pool construction, improved technology, and suburbanization all played important roles. But then, so did desegregation. As historian Jeff Wiltse argues in his 2007 book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America:

Although many whites abandoned desegregated public pools, most did not stop swimming. Instead, they built private pools, both club and residential, and swam in them …. Suburbanites organized private club pools rather than fund public pools because club pools enabled them to control the class and racial composition of swimmers, whereas public pools did not.

Today, that complicated legacy persists across the United States. The public pools of mid-century—with their sandy beaches, manicured lawns, and well-tended facilities—are vanishingly rare. Those sorts of amenities are now generally found behind closed gates, funded by club fees or homeowners’ dues, and not by tax dollars. And they are open to those who can afford to live in such subdivisions, but not to their neighbors just down the road.

This was a classic case of racist panic. In the old days, white people freaked out about blacks in their public pools for two reasons: First, because they were afraid those black guys would take all their white women; second, because they actually believed that blacks were dirty and that you could get infected with…blackness, I guess… just by swimming with them. It seems that absurd and racist attitude has not yet disappeared.

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  • John Pieret

    The more things change …

  • Modusoperandi

    …because they actually believed that blacks were dirty and that you could get infected with…blackness, I guess… just by swimming with them.

    But it’s true! What do you think freckles are?

  • Alverant

    I see parallels between this and schools forbidding all clubs rather than let LGBTQ or secular student clubs in.

  • theschwa

    “second, because they actually believed that blacks were dirty and that you could get infected with…blackness, I guess… just by swimming with them.”

    HA ha! How silly. Glad we know better now: that it is only homosexuality that you can catch by swimming with teh gays. (Or letting them get married)

  • dingojack

    Not just in the US, of course.


  • marcus

    The article in Atlantic references this book which I believe is a very worthy book on the subject. Contested Waters, A Social History of Swimming Pools in America

    I remember in the late 60s (in Alabama) our (very popular) town pool was closed suddenly and I had no idea why until many years later.

  • marcus

    Italics *sigh*

  • CJO, egregious by any standard

    I grew up in Lawrence, Kansas, “The Berkeley of the Plains” a (for Kansas) cosmopolitan university town, and one that is very proud of its role in the fight to keep Kansas a free territory before and during the Civil War. I learned as a kid that the municipal pool had been segregated until 1970, the year before I was born. I was shocked, but I’m glad I knew it. Really, it was one of those facts that opened my eyes to the kind of racism that doesn’t necessarily manifest in everyday prejudiced behavior. I mean, I knew real, unrepentant racists. But I thought my community in aggregate was this enlightened liberal place where bigots had to hide their feelings in polite company. But the public pool was whites-only until 1970.*

    *Typing that now makes me wonder all over again how that could be so. But the town never had a very large black population, and so it just may be that there was no push for legal action by NAACP et al, and it was just allowed despite its clear violation of civil rights law.

  • Erp

    It seems it took some time for the YMCAs (another source for reasonably available pools) to desegregate also. Though the organization made it a goal in 1946 it still had some segregated facilities in 1968 ( I wonder how many Y pools vanished to avoid mixing. I’m not sure whether my current town’s pool (built around 1940) was ever officially segregated; the town (Palo Alto) certainly had housing covenants in various neighborhoods and there was an attempt to have (1920) a law passed for a “segregated district for the Oriental and colored people of the city’ ; it failed.