Rhonda Harper remembers strolling up to the group swimming pool two blocks from her home, hand in hand along with her mother. It was the early ’70s, and she or he was just a bit Black woman keen to cool off within the warmth of Kansas Metropolis, Missouri, summer time. “I keep in mind them telling my mother I couldn’t go,” she says.
Throughout a lot of the twentieth century, public swimming swimming pools performed a key position in American communities. Harper, who’s now an activist, surfer, and founding father of Black Ladies Surf, says she realized how to swim as a result of her father was within the U.S. Coast Guard, however few swimming swimming pools had been accessible to Black individuals—and the results of this racial discrimination proceed to be felt right this moment.
A brand new exhibition in Philadelphia’s Fairmount Water Works shines a lightweight on the segregated historical past of swimming swimming pools in America. Titled Pool: A Social Historical past of Segregation, it portrays the lasting affect that racial discrimination in swimming pools has had on Black communities. In accordance to a 2017 research commissioned by the USA Swimming Foundation and achieved by researchers on the College of Memphis, 64% of Black children in america can’t swim (in contrast to 40% for white children), they usually are virtually six times more likely to drown in a swimming pool than white children. Pool seeks to convey consciousness to that disparity.
Philadelphia opened the primary out of doors municipal pool in america in 1883, and it has the biggest variety of public swimming pools per particular person (more than 70) of any main American metropolis. The brand new exhibition is positioned within the former Kelly Pool—in-built 1961 by John B. Kelly Sr., father of famed actress Grace Kelly, and a three-time Olympic gold medalist. The exhibition was set to open firstly of September, however the day earlier than, the constructing was flooded throughout Hurricane Ida. Fortunately, a digital iteration has been created to increase consciousness, whereas the inside is being restored (it’s set to reopen in late December).
The waters of America’s public swimming pools have lengthy mirrored the nation’s deep racial divide. The historical past of that racial segregation begins within the Twenties, and performs an necessary position within the exhibition. (A graphic timeline portrays the revolting second when, in 1964, a white lodge supervisor in St. Augustine, Florida, poured acid in a pool the place Black and white activists had been swimming collectively in protest.)
The exhibition juxtaposes this historical past by a bunch of up to date artworks highlighting unimaginable achievements by Black swimmers, just like the Harlem Honeys & Bears—an all-Black synchronized swimming staff that was based within the late ’70s to educate seniors water survival abilities and therapeutic water workout routines. Or teenage sisters Rachel and Brianna Holmes, two Black creative swimmers who had been captured by underwater photographer Liz Corman. “A part of Pool was to present lovely Black our bodies swimming,” says exhibition curator Victoria Prizzia.
One of many swimming lanes of the previous Kelly Pool is additionally bathed in projections of sunshine mirroring the impact of water. Created by artist Azikiwe Mohammed, the set up is framed by two Black lifeguard sculptures sitting on diving boards on both finish. “Lots of his work is targeted on reclaiming areas,” says Prizzia, noting Mohammed struggled to discover ebony-colored mannequins.
Whereas it’s true that Black children are more in danger within the water than white children, the hackneyed concept that “Black individuals can’t swim” has been bolstered by a scarcity of entry and illustration in sporting occasions from Olympic swimming to browsing. “I wished to counter these stereotypes and myths that persist by inviting artists to come and interpret some facets of this story for themselves,” says Prizzia, who introduced in voices like Miriam Lynch of Diversity in Aquatics, and Angela Beale-Tawfeeq, a professor who began a program that teaches water security and social accountability to metropolis children in minority populations.
A kind of voices is Rhonda Harper, who was an advisor for the exhibition. Harper has skilled the consequences of pool segregation firsthand. When her household moved from Kansas Metropolis to San Jose, California, within the Nineteen Seventies, she says her mother and father seemed for a house with a pool, so the youngsters wouldn’t be subjected to the “exterior aggression” that they had skilled again dwelling. “We didn’t need to have that very same feeling of being totally different or being outcasted,” Harper says.
Finally, Harper found the ocean and fell in love with browsing. After years spent using waves, she observed she was typically the one Black particular person—not to mention the one Black lady—within the ocean. In 2014, she based Black Girls Surf to diversify a white-dominated sport and assist women and younger ladies of shade develop into elite surfers and compete on an expert degree. “Let’s create one thing to showcase Black expertise,” she thought. She has since coached over 400 ladies, together with Khadjou Sambe, who went on to develop into Senegal’s first feminine skilled surfer.
For Harper, the truth that browsing stays a white-dominated sport—and that fewer Black children understand how to swim in contrast to white children—is a direct consequence of segregated swimming pools in America. “Once I was in highschool, you had to take a swim class. They took that away,” she says.
Proper now, swimming will not be necessary in American faculties (New York lawmakers proposed a invoice that will make swimming and water-safety schooling a compulsory a part of the state’s Ok-12 curriculum, however the invoice by no means reached the ground for a vote.) “The youthful technology wants to take into consideration going to the college’s district and placing swimming again into the curriculum of faculties which have swimming pools,” Harper says.
In some ways, the objective of Pool is similar. Racial segregation has perpetuated for generations the stereotype that Black individuals can’t swim. “So many points we don’t have solutions to,” says Prizzia. “This one? We all know what the reply is. Train them how to swim.”