Segment from Tapped Out

Public Pools, Contested Waters

Historian Jeff Wiltse speaks with host Ed Ayers about how public pools have gone from a place to get clean to a place for recreation, and exposed class and racial tensions along the way.

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*** The following transcript reflects an earlier broadcast of this episode. Some language may differ from the rebroadcast version. ***

ED AYERS: Now for a lot of Americans, the most spiritual experience they have with water is at the local swimming pool. In typical BackStory fashion, we found that swimming pools have a surprising history. In a book called Contested Waters, Jeff Wiltse takes on that history.

His account begins in the mid-1800s, not with the recreational pools we’re familiar with today, but with their ancestors, basically, places to scrub down.

JEFF WILTSE: And the best way to think of them are as literally as public bathtubs, in which the working class, immigrants, children living in the slums, would go to the pool, strip naked. And then, plunge their dirty bodies into the pool of water, scrub themselves clean, and then leave the dirt and whatever else came off them in the body of water.

ED AYERS: Now, you’re probably thinking, this is pretty gross. And in fact, it was. But it wasn’t until the 1890s that science made it clear that these public bathtubs were a great way to spread germs. Soon, showers, water filtration, and chlorine were introduced to swimming pools.

JEFF WILTSE: And then finally, in the 1920s, public officials once again initiated a redefinition of the function of pools, when they began to build large resort-like pools in centralized parks, and other locations that were easily accessible.

These pools were enormous. Many of them were larger than football fields, they were surrounded by grassy lawns, and these pools drew thousands and thousands of people to them, and really became the center of the summertime social life in many American communities.

ED AYERS: So we have this pretty remarkable story of just in 20 or 30 years, widespread appearance of these enormous swimming pools catering to a broad swath of American people, men and women, of lots of different ethnicities. But that changes. What happens to make that very appealing sort of picture change into something less so?

JEFF WILTSE: So at the same time that municipal pools become this democratized space that attracts males and females, young and old, working class and middle class, that’s offset by the onset of racial segregation and racial exclusion. Racial segregation arose literally at the moment that cities began to allow males and females to swim together.

And a particularly good example of this is the Highland Park swimming pool in Pittsburgh, and this was the first municipal pool in Pittsburgh that was open to both males and females.

And so when Highland Park Pool opened in 1931, on the first day that it was open, thousands and thousands of people from throughout Pittsburgh come to use it, including both whites and blacks.

Now on that day, each and every identifiably black person was pulled out of the line, and asked to produce his or her health certificate. Well, none of the prospective black swimmers had the health certificate, and so all of them were denied admission to the pool.

The next day, 50 prospective black swimmers show up. Once they entered the water, groups of white swimmers gathered around them, shouted threats at them, and then started punching them and dunking them underneath the water.

The next day, four young black men, ages 14 to 16, come to try to swim at the pool. But this time, they’re met by a gang of white toughs, who beat them with sticks and clubs.

Now, the police that are located at the pool largely ignored the beating. But then, once the beating had concluded, they actually arrested the black swimmers, and charged them with the speciously apt charge of inciting to riot.

ED AYERS: I think it this is a pattern across the North, that blacks and whites are not swimming together whenever men and women are swimming together?

JEFF WILTSE: Yeah. The pattern happens in pool after pool after pool. In Elizabeth, New Jersey, in Pittsburgh, in Saint Louis. In many, many cities, once a swimming pool becomes gender-integrated, it then becomes racially segregated.

Now, in some cities, in Washington, DC, in Baltimore, in Saint Louis, cities on the southern tier of Northern states, the racial segregation was official policy.

In cities further north, in places like Pittsburgh, the racial segregation that gets imposed is a de facto form of segregation, in which white swimmers and white community members use violence and the threat of violence to intimidate blacks from attempting to use pools that have been earmarked for whites.

ED AYERS: So is there something about pools, about water, that makes them especially charged about gender and race?

JEFF WILTSE: Yeah. Pools are unusually or uniquely intimate spaces. If you go to a pool today, one of the things that stands out is that people are grabbing one another. They’re trying to toss one another in the air. They’re wrestling in the water.

For whatever reason, water dissolves the sort of boundary between people that exists normally, and it just causes people to touch and contact one another.

Now, the other facet of the intimacy of pools is obviously the water itself. Entering into a pool, in the minds of most people, historically, at least, was tantamount to physical contact.

And so once males and females were together, using the same space, it really, really peaked the racial prejudices that existed at the time. That one, many whites believed, or most whites believed that black Americans were unusually dirty.

And there was also the prevalent racial prejudice at the time, that black men were at the very least sexually undisciplined, and would try to act on their sexual aggression at pools, and would do so towards white women.

ED AYERS: So when did this end, Jeff?

JEFF WILTSE: Racial desegregation at pools in the North occurs in the wake of World War II. And really by the mid-1950s, all the pools in the Northern United States had been officially desegregated. That doesn’t, however, mean that they, in fact, became integrated.

So one of the things that typically happened when a particular pool became desegregated, is that once black swimmers started to use the pool, whites vacated it, abandoned it, really en masse. And there were typically two places that white swimmers went.

One is they retreated to public pools that were located in thoroughly white neighborhoods, that were much less accessible to black swimmers. The other storyline is obviously the flourishing of private club pools, out in the suburbs.

And pool use today has not only become sort of narrowed and segmented on a variety of social lines, much of the use that people make today is very individual. Putting your head into water and swimming laps back and forth and back and forth, rather than playing, and socializing, and interacting with their neighbors and other people in the community.

ED AYERS: And it seems to me, there’s been a return to the enclosed indoor pool, the natatorium idea. Have we kind of tamed water, so that water used to seem like a threat to us, and now by chlorinating it, and filtering it, and enclosing it indoors, that water has a different relationship to people than it did for millennia before our own time?

JEFF WILTSE: Yeah. One of the things that was surprising to me was how few Americans knew how to swim during the 19th century and the early 20th century. And it wasn’t until the 1920s and 1930s that swimming became a common activity, and swimming knowledge really broadened and became democratized.

And much of that occurred at pools, swim lessons at YMCA pools, and also lessons at municipal pools during the 1920s and 1930s. But to say that our relationship with water, and our fear of water, and the proficiency of swimming has changed, it’s true, but it really divides along social lines.

Within the last four or five years, there’s been enormous publicity that has highlighted the disparities along racial and along class lines, between both swimming proficiency and also, tragically, drowning.

And what studies have shown is that black Americans are half as likely to know how to swim as white Americans. And black children, in particular, are three times as likely to drown as our white children. And to my mind, that is in large part a legacy of the discrimination that occurred in the past at pools.

Whites didn’t just have easy access to pools. It was also the case that whites had more access to swim lessons, and blacks had more limited access to swim lessons. And a legacy of that is the current swimming and drowning disparity.

ED AYERS: Jeff Wiltse is a historian at the University of Montana. His book is Contested Waters: a Social History of Swimming Pools in America.

VETIVER: [SINGING] This summer, I swam in the ocean, and I swam in a swimming pool. Salt in my wounds, chlorine in my eyes, I’m a self-destructive fool. A self-destructive pool.

That’s going to do it for us today, but we’d like to hear from you. Has access to water been at the heart of any big drama in your own family history? Let us know at And while you’re there, please consider sharing your stories and questions for two shows we have in the works, one on political corruption, and another on World War I.

And whatever you do, don’t be a stranger.

VETIVER: [SINGING] This summer, I did the backstroke, and you know that that’s not all. I did the breaststroke, and the butterfly, and the old Australian crawl. The old Australian crawl.

PETER ONUF: Today’s episode of BackStory was produced by Tony Field, Nina Earnest, Andrew Parsons, Kelly Jones, Emily Gadek, Bruce Wallace, and Sam Ulmschneider. Jamal Millner is our engineer. Special thanks this week to Brad Udall, Carl Smith, and John Grabowsky. BackStory’s executive producer is Andrew Wyndham.

BRIAN BALOGH: Major support for BackStory is provided by an anonymous donor, the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the Joseph and Robert Cornell Memorial Foundation.

Additional funding is provided by Weinstein Properties, by the Tomato Fund, cultivating fresh ideas in the arts, the humanities, and the environment, and by History Channel, history made every day.

SPEAKER 2: Brian Balogh is professor of history at the University of Virginia. Peter Onuf is professor of history emeritus at UVA, and senior research fellow at Monticello. Ed Ayers is president and professor of history at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndham, for the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.