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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 11)

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 Their legal contract with the club was rescinded by club president John Duesler, who later told NBC10 television, “There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion and the atmosphere of the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 investigation.

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 the U.S.

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 whites.

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 pools.

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)