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.