“A story of social justice”: a story of racial segregation and swimming | Art
AWater safety advocate Angela Beale-Tawfeeq grew up swimming at the public pool in her predominantly black neighborhood. “We always say, ‘In North Philadelphia, born and bred, the pool is where we spent most of our days,'” she recites, referencing the colloquial lyrics of The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air theme song.
Now Director of Education and Research at Aquatic diversity (one of the only national organizations of black and brown aquatic professionals), Beale-Tawfeeq is one of many convincing voices contribute to Pool: a social history of segregation, a major new exhibition on the history of separate swimming in the United States and its connection to today’s alarming drowning rates in black communities. Encompassing history, artwork and storytelling across a wide range of media, the immersive presentation uses public swimming pools as a lens through which to think about social justice and public health.
The 4,700 square foot exhibit is now on display in historic Philadelphia Fairmount Aqueduct, a neoclassical monument adjoining the Schuylkill River which pumped water into the city until the early 20th century and later became an aquarium and then one of the city’s first built-in swimming pools, supported by the father of the actor Grace Kelly. After decades of preservation efforts, most of the building reopened in 2003 as an environmental education center, but the three-lane cement pool area was never restored lack of funding, according to Victoria Prizcia, the organizer of the exhibition.
“It felt very important to have this sacred space – a historic site and former public swimming pool that had been neglected and captured in an arrested state of disrepair,” says Prizcia, a former lifeguard and competitive swimmer who has been leading since 2009. many projects on water and environmental issues. “When you walk in, you’re really transported. It’s a reclaiming of that space, to tell the story in a different way.
The projections of the exhibition give life to the walls of the space. Near the entrance is a digital water pool that visitors are encouraged to sit down and virtually dip their feet while listening to excerpts from interviews with athletes, activists and academics. “I like when architectural elements speak for themselves, and in this case they really become another character,” notes Prizcia. (And this character has had its share of flooding due to its riverside location: the exhibit was supposed to open in September, but Hurricane Ida swept away just hours after opening reception; the space was flooded, but miraculously nothing was damaged.)
Public swimming pools have long been contested sites that reflect America’s racial and economic divisions, dating back to the 1920s when swimming pools began to be segregated by race rather than, as before, by gender or class. A deep anxiety arose during this time about people of different races and genders sharing such intimate spaces. In the south, segregation was enforced by municipal ordinances and other official rules of exclusion; in northern states, de facto segregation has occurred as a result of building public swimming pools in white neighborhoods or, more frequently, through intimidation, harassment, and violence.
A digital animation commission by famed Philadelphia playwright James Ijames titled Portraits in motion interweaves separate swimming history with the accomplishments of black swimming heroes. Mounted on the historic Water Works facade opposite custom stadium seating evoking the golden age of public swimming pools, it is a highlight of the exhibition, according to Prizzia: “We are not just showing the tragedy, but we also reveal this other current – the achievements have been forgotten, in parallel, by black swimmers.
The fact that many non-European peoples were proficient swimmers until the late 1800s is also largely ignored, when a burgeoning culture of white beaches and pools drove people of color away from these spaces. In the Pool, this essential and little-known historical context passes through archival images and stories from Kevin Dawsonauthor of the book 2018 The Undercurrents of Power: Aquatic Culture in the African Diaspora. “The exposure is really important in that it helps encourage black people to get back into the water,” Dawson told the Guardian. “Many see swimming as a kind of historical heritage that Jim Crow racism has denied them.”
The legacy of this shameful history, compounded by cuts to funds for public swimming pools, is evident in today’s grim drowning disparities: In Pennsylvania, black children have a 50% higher rate of accidental drowning than children whites. Nationally, black youth are almost six times more likely than white children to drown in a pool, and 69% of black children have little or no swimming ability, compared to 42% of white children. “The story of water is really a story of social justice,” says Prizzia, pointing to inequalities in land use, infrastructure and pollution in addition to access to bathing spaces.
Philadelphia has a exceptionally rich public swimming pool culture, opening the first outdoor municipal swimming pool in the United States in 1883 (which functioned as a public bath for poor and immigrant communities that lacked indoor plumbing) and, with over 70 pools, still boasting the most public pools per capita of any major US city. In response to an outcry over drownings in nearby rivers and streams, seven swimming clubs sprang up around mid-century to serve urban and suburban black swimmers. (Many are still going strong today, including the nation first black-owned swimming club.) “Philadelphians love their swimming pools,” says Prizzia. “They are really important to the fabric of local neighborhoods. They are like your extended family.
Beale-Tawfeeq knows this well: “I grew up understanding that learning to swim can actually save lives in many ways.” She joined the Philadelphia Parks and Recreation scuba team when she was 10, then was coached by visionary Jim Ellis (who trained the national team first black swim team and was the subject of the 2007 film Pride), and eventually attended Howard University on an athletic scholarship. Now a physical education educator, she praises the health benefits of swimming: “It’s a physical activity that can be practiced from the age of 6 months to the age of 100 years.
Beale-Tawfeeq notes that there is trauma in the exhibit’s narratives, but an exuberant wall at the entrance to the exhibition hopes to balance this. Created by El Salvador-born, Philadelphia-based artist Calo Rosa, and depicting an offering to a Yoruba water goddess, the piece urges visitors to “dive in.” “We wanted to create an invitation to enter and enjoy too,” says Prizcia. “By excluding people from bathing, you are also excluding them from a very natural joy. People are drawn to water; everyone wants to play it. I hope the exhibition is a way for people to learn to swim and have access to something that will bring them joy.