A new exhibition is on display at the old Fairmount Waterworks, a facility that was originally created to pump water to the City of Philadelphia.
The exhibit, “Pool,” details the history of segregation in America’s public pools and the people who broke the barriers.
Through historical timelines, artistic installations, and videos, the exhibit shows that swimming pools were places where people fought for equal rights. It explains that prior to 20th-Century era restrictions, African Americans were swimmers with deep cultural and spiritual connections to water.
For example, the exhibit features 15 video vignettes created by artist Homer Jackson. One highlights Mami Wata, a river spirit venerated by West Africans; and Oshun, a Yoruba river goddess honored annually during Philadelphia’s Odunde festival.
The exhibit was created by Victoria Prizzia, who felt a sense of urgency to bring awareness to the story of how the civil rights movement was fought in swimming pools after reading a book that exposed her to their history of discrimination and segregation.
'Black and brown communities have been excluded purposefully,' Prizzia said.
Inspired by “Contested Waters: A Social History of Segregation” by Jeff Wiltse, the exhibition traces the history of the public pool, and African American access to water generally.
Along the exhibit room’s length, a timeline traces the modern era of African American access to pools. In the early 20th Century, public pools were open to all races, segregated by gender. In the 1930s, pools became co-ed, and when it became understood that Black men and white women would be swimming together, racial segregation became the law of the land.
The timeline includes many widely publicized pool-related incidents. For example, in 1964, Dr. Martin Luther King went to a motel in St. Augustine, Florida, to demonstrate for equal rights and was arrested. A number of Black protestors jumped into the motel pool in support of Dr. King. This prompted the motel manager, James Brock, to pour muriatic acid on them. The news media were present at the time, and the photographs of the incident are still well known.
The lasting impact of denied access to public pools is also detailed, and part of the lesson of the exhibit.
'If you're born Black in this country, you're six times more likely to drown than if you're born white,' said Prizzia.
The exhibit honors African American swimmers who have achieved Olympic medals and broken stereotypes.
Among the many video profiles is Jim Ellis, the legendary Philadelphia swim coach, featured in the 2007 movie “Pride,” starring Terrence Howard.
“It was my way of finding a way to make a difference,” Ellis said. “We were protesting in the ’60s and ’70s. It was a big movement of finding something to do to help African Americans in this country. My contribution was through swimming.”
On Ellis’ heels came other great Black swimmers such as Michael Norment, the first Black swimmer on the U.S. national team; Anthony Ervin, the first Black American to win Olympic medals — the gold and silver; Maritza Correia McClendon, the first Black woman to win an Olympic medal as part of a swim relay team; and Cullen Jones, the first Black American to hold a world record in swimming.
'Pool: A Social History of Segregation' is open at Fairmount Water Works on Wednesdays through Fridays from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. The exhibit will remain open until late September.
James Brock, the manager of the motel, was photographed in 1964 pouring muriatic acid into the pool to get the protesters out. Image Credit, NPR.