Storm of outrage vs. swim club’s racism
Published Jul 15, 2009 3:44 PM
The racist treatment and rejection of 65 Black and Latina/o summer camp youth
at a predominantly white, private swim club here in late June has unleashed a
storm of outrage from around the region and across the country, forcing the
club to reverse its stance.
Creative Steps Inc. day camp paid $1,950 to the Valley Swim Club in Huntington
Valley, Pa., a suburb of Philadelphia, so that the school-age
campers—kindergarten through seventh graders—would have a place to
swim on Mondays. Budget cuts that closed several public pools in Philadelphia
forced the camp to seek alternate arrangements.
However, when the African-American and Latina/o campers arrived at the private
pool on June 29 for their first weekly visit, the children were subjected to
overt racism by white members of the club. Children reported overhearing club
members making racial remarks and witnessed at least 20 white parents removing
their children from the pool soon after the campers arrived.
Marcus Wright, one of the young campers, told CNN about hearing remarks
“that we ‘might do something to their children’ or we
‘might try to steal something from them.’ One of the members
shouted out that they would make sure we never returned.” Another Black
youth reported hearing a white woman say, “What are all these Black kids
doing. I’m scared they might do something to my child.” (July
A few days after this incident Creative Steps’ check was returned. Their
legal contract with the club was rescinded by club president John Duesler, who
later told NBC10 television, “There was concern that a lot of kids would
change the complexion and the atmosphere of the club.” (July 9) Contracts
with two other summer camps were also cancelled.
“They didn’t like the color of my skin,” camper Jabriel
Brown, 12, told the Philadelphia Inquirer. “It makes me feel mad. And
sad.” (July 9)
Parents, their children and other concerned community members gathered outside
the padlocked gates of the Valley Swim Club on July 9 to protest the
discrimination. Protesters carried signs reading “Drown racism” and
“Jim Crow swims here.” The swim club claims it has a diverse,
multiethnic membership, but Amy Goldman, a member for two years, said she
couldn’t remember seeing a Black member this year.
Parents and staff at Creative Steps Inc. are considering legal action against
the Valley Club, according to executive director Alethea Wright. The
club’s actions appear to be a violation of section 1981 of the Civil
Rights Act. The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has also launched an
Wright told CNN, “Parents are still outraged. We are trying to
explain racism to the kids. We should not be experiencing this in 2009.
It’s a slap in the face of where we are trying to move. We need to send a
message that this is not acceptable.” (July 11)
“Whether or not any laws were violated, a “whites only” pool
should be something every American condemns,” noted ColorofChange.org in
an email urging action.
Struggle against racism—then and now
Speaking on WHYY’s Radio Times with host Marty Moss-Coane on July 13,
Jeffrey Wiltse, author of “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming
Pools in America,” offered a historic look at desegregation of pools in
In the 1920s and 1930s thousands of municipal pools opened throughout the U.S.
accessible to everyone. But after World War II, municipal pools went into
decline and private club pools proliferated, particularly in predominantly
white suburbs, Wiltse explained.
Around the country civil rights activists were challenging federal laws
restricting access of Black children to use public pools. Black children who
attempted to use municipal public pools were frequently physically beaten by
In 1951, Rev. Harrison DeShields of South Philadelphia sued pool operators
across the city and suburbs, alleging discrimination. Two years later, State
Sen. Charles R. Weiner (R.-Phila.) offered a bill to desegregate all public
When the movements of the 1950s and 1960s eventually led to legislation
prohibiting this type of overt racial bias, many whites with financial means
established private pools. The Valley Club, for example, was established just
outside Philadelphia’s city limits in 1954 when pressure was growing
within the city to integrate municipal pools. The Lansdowne Swim Club outside
Philadelphia was integrated only in 1989 following a federal lawsuit.
“Most Americans today live and recreate in homogeneous social
environments, created in the post WWII period,” Wiltse noted.
“Residentially the U.S. is more segregated now than we were in the
1950s,” Mary Catherine Roper, a staff attorney for the American Civil
Liberties Union of Pennsylvania’s Philadelphia Office, speaking on Radio
Times July 13, concurred.
The storm of controversy has forced club members to vote to retract their
actions and Duesler has re-invited the campers back to the pool, but Roper
pointed out that the apology won’t erase the harm done to the children.
“The club has claimed it wasn’t racial but a safety issue, yet I
understand there was another group of 80 children invited to the pool, and
there weren’t any questions raised about safety,” Roper said.
Creative Steps Inc. has not responded to Duesler’s offer. Alethea Wright
told CNN, “They should have done that before. These children are scarred.
How can I take the children back there?” (July 11)
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