Racism in the Water
I love to swim. I learned at around six years old at the Baptist Center Camp in Gainesville, VA. My best friend’s uncle was the camp lifeguard. At that age, I was only allowed to visit the camp with my friend when her grandfather came to service the pool on weekends. I naturally “took” to the water and over a few visits in the summer, I learned how to swim.
I recently began to regularly workout at the Arlington Aquatic Centers at the two Arlington high school facilities near my home, Washington-Liberty, and Yorktown. It’s great exercise and it also allows me to have a way to meditate, thereby killing two birds with one stone.
As I counted my sets in the water yesterday evening, I began to think about the fact that I didn’t learn to swim in my hometown of Arlington. Racism and discrimination permeated every facet of Black children’s access to recreation facilities, whether playgrounds, amusement parks, or pony rides. But as I began to read more about our access to pools, I was surprised by the level of hate and violence Black people endured just because they wanted to enjoy a dip in the pool. The effects of this racism endure today.
There was one public pool in Arlington where Black people could swim when I was a child, and that was the Veterans Memorial YMCA Pool in Green Valley. The “Y” opened in 1949. The building had a Community Room where they had dances and showed movies for the neighborhood youth. But because we lived on Halls Hill and didn’t have any relatives in that neighborhood, I only went swimming at the “Y” during Arlington Recreation summer camp day trips.
The first pool in Arlington was opened in 1924 at the Army-Navy Country Club off of South Glebe Road. As Charlie Clark details in his Falls Church News-Press column, Our Man in Arlington, “Arlington’s postwar boom brought subdivision membership associations. Arlington Forest got there first in 1954, with its handsome pool nestled below the Carlin Springs Road. Dominion Hills Pool on Wilson Blvd. wrote its bylaws in 1955 and built on the site of the 19th-century Powhatan Springs. My own Overlee Community Association formed on Lee Highway in 1957.” These private pools did not allow Black people to join when I was a child.
Pools in D.C. provided an alternate option for Black youth to swim. The Negro Recreation Section of Arlington County used to take children to the East Potomac Park swimming pool at Hains Point on day trips in the 1950s. In communities across America, pools were just another example of discrimination that Black people endured just trying to enjoy life.
I was stunned to read about the desegregation of pools being the cause of the first “Race Riot” in Washington, DC! In 1949 after the Anacostia Pool was desegregated Black swimmers were attacked by Whites. The aftermath of these uprisings across the country against Black people trying to swim in pools with White people was described in the book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, “millions of white Americans who once swam in public for free began to pay rather than swim for free with Black people; desegregation in the mid-fifties coincided with a surge in backyard pools and members-only swim clubs. In Washington, D.C., for example, 125 new private swim clubs were opened in less than a decade following pool desegregation in 1953
In 1973 Arlington opened its first public pools at the three high schools. It took a long time for the County government to approve the new pool system, and I’m sure in the early years when it was considered, interracial swimming was one reason to delay. I am proud to say I was an employee at W-L pool under the late Don Quesada, the pool manager, for quite a few years as a teenager. Although I didn’t learn to swim in an Arlington pool, I am happy to be able to get my swim on today in the public pool.