During much of the 20th century, public swimming pools played a vital role in the life of American communities. At one time, thousands of pools served tens of millions of Americans each year. Philadelphia opened the first outdoor municipal pool in the United States in 1883, however, public pools have also been lightning rods over the fight of who was welcome to swim.
Since the 1920s, the waters of our public pools have reflected the profound racial and economic divisions running through American communities, becoming spaces where cultural values and biases have been contested and disputed—sometimes violently.
“Pool: A Social History of Segregation” (POOL) is a multi-disciplinary museum exhibition exploring the history and contemporary implications of segregated swimming in America. Set to open September 2, 2021 in the former Kelly Pool situated within the National Historic Landmark Fairmount Water Works, POOL will investigate the role of public pools in the United States with the goal of deepening understanding of the connection between water, social justice and public health.
Racial discrimination at swimming pools, coupled with a general shift of funds away from public pools to private clubs and recreational opportunities, have had a significant and lasting impact on Black communities —an impact that continues today.
- According to reports from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Black children and teenagers are almost six times as likely as white children to drown in a swimming pool.
- USA Swimming reports that 69% of Black children have little to no swimming ability, compared with 42% of white children.
Evidence indicates that Philadelphians care about their pools and are willing to fight for them. In 2004, 20 pools were slated to be closed but remained open due to community advocacy. Philadelphia has recently begun progressive initiatives aimed to enliven Philadelphia’s pools through beautification and activation, such as the 2019 $3.7 million Bridesburg pool renovation (originally built in 1954), Swim Philly, PowerCorpsPHL and We Can Swim! programs.
POOL seeks to support these positive efforts by providing a historical perspective through a contemporary lens that explains the importance of these institutions today. According to Karen Young, Executive Director of the Fairmount Water Works Interpretive Center, “This project is a natural extension of our mission to educate the public about the important role of water in our daily lives. Visitors can contribute to a conversation about issues of equality and social justice – all central to global issues around water.” Admission to POOL is free of charge, but timed tickets will be available for audiences limited in size according to current restrictions. A limited-edition commemorative five-postcard set, to own and share (sample shown at top) can be obtained with a donation to The Fund to support continued free admission. More information is at poolphl.com.
Contemporary Voices will be the focal piece of the exhibition, comprised of audio and video vignettes projected on the floor of the entrance to POOL. Visitors will sit around this digital storytelling “pool” will present contemporary swimming icons, activists and scholars talking about how swimming has affected their lives. Featured voices include:
- Famed Philadelphia Swim Coach Jim Ellis, the subject of the feature film Pride starring Terrence Howard as Ellis
- Simone Manuel, the first Black swimmer in Olympic history to win an individual gold medal in swimming (2016)
- Cullen Jones, four-time Olympic U.S.A. swimming medalist and the first African American world record holder
- Maritza Correa McClendon, the first Puerto Rican of African descent to become a member of the U.S.A. Olympic Swim Team
- Stanford and U.S. National Swimmer, Sabir Mohammed
- Dr. Jeff Wiltse, scholar, historian and author of Contested Waters, A Social History of Swimming Pool in America, (and the inspiration of this project)
- Miriam Lynch representing Diversity in Aquatics
- Bruce Wigo and Kevin Dawson, leading historians and archivists of the sport of swimming
PHILADELPHIA AREA ARTISTS
Visitorsto the 4,700 square foot exhibition will be immersed in a curated collection of art installations and experiences, including rarely seen archival film footage and photographs. Project creatorVictoria Prizzia is founder of Habitheque Inc., which developed theFairmount Water Work’s innovative award-winning freshwater Mussel Hatchery, award-winning RiverAlive! at the Independence Seaport Museum, and exhibits for the 2018 Philadelphia Flower Show themed Wonders of Water, garnering a record 17 Pinnacle Awards from the International Festivals and Events Association.“The story of water is a story of social justice,” says Prizzia. “This is true for drinking water, bathing water, and swimming water. Access to water is a right which continues to be challenged. POOL brings this history to light, so that the next generation can continue the push for positive social change.”
As creative director and lead designer of POOL, Prizziais working with several Philadelphia-based artists to create original site-specific work, including a large-scale mural series that welcomes audiences with colorful, sensual wateryimagery printed on acrylic by street artist Calo Rosathat promise to evoke the feeling of being one with the element of water.
Playwright, director and educator James Ijameswill present a new play titled Moving Portraits, which will be staged throughout the former pool lanes and filmed, then projected on the historic structure so visitors will be able to experience it throughout the run of the exhibition. James’ plays have been produced by Philadelphia’s Wilma Theatre, Orbiter 3, Theatre Horizon, Flashpoint Theater Company, The National Black Theatre (NYC), Steppenwolf Theatre (Chicago IL), and Shotgun Players (Berkeley, CA). James is a 2015 Pew Fellow for Playwriting, the 2015 winner of the Terrance McNally New Play Award for WHITE, the 2015 Kesselring Honorable Mention Prize winner for ….Miz Martha, a 2017 recipient of the Whiting Award and a 2019 Kesselring Prize for Kill Move Paradise.
Whispers from the Deep is a commissioned art work by Homer Jackson, a storytelling canvas of 15 unique stories told across a combination of video, animations and poetry vignettes.Jackson is a talented interdisciplinary artist, currently serving as the director of the Philadelphia Jazz Project. He hosted a weekly radio program on Temple University’s jazz station WRTI, and has collaborated with numerous musicians including The Roots. His work with youth-at-risk led to special recognition in 1996 from the President’s Committee on Arts & Humanities. Jackson has received support for his work from the Wyncote Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, Pew Fellowships in the Arts, CivitellaRainieri Foundation, Pew Charitable Trusts, Pennsylvania Radio Theatre, Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, National Endowment for the Arts, The Playwrights Center, Pennsylvania Humanities Council, The Funding Exchange, Art Matters, and Franklin Furnace Fund For Performance Art.
Commissioned artwork titled Water Born, by animation artist Lowell Boston. This work will explorereflections, shape and saturation of water on a textured surfaces, and animating the shape of real objects – swim goggles, bathing suits, bathing caps – whilea body inhabits them. This series will also incorporate the recordings of interviews of people of all ages on the Black experience with swimming. Boston is a professor at University of the Arts, where he has taught for 29 years. He has also taught animation, design and production courses at the Art Institute of Philadelphia, Drexel University, Jefferson University, Moore College of Art and Design, and Scribe Video Center, all in Philadelphia, as well as at the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) in Baltimore.
Graphic Novel and comic book artist Dylan B. Caleho (BFA, Moore College of Art& Design) was commissioned to create Threshold Hallway, made up of large graphic illustrative panels, cable-mounted floor to ceiling, exploring key moments in the history of segregated swimming. At Moore, Calehowas on the Dean’s list and was the recipient of a Moore Presidential Scholarship, and Visionary Woman scholarship.
ModupeolaFadugba (born 1985 in Lomé, Togo) is a multimedia artist working in painting, drawing, and socially-engaged installation. With a background in engineering, education and economics, she comfortably inhabits the nexus of many disciplines. Her works explore cultural identity, social justice, game theory, and the art world within the socio-political landscape of Nigeria and our greater global economy. Her most recent exhibition, Dream from the Deep End, depicts swimmers exploring collaborative ways of being in the water together, set against the bleak backdrop of America’s racialized — and oftentimes tragic — swimming history. The People’s Algorithm — a game installation that fosters debate about how to improve Nigeria’s education system — was awarded El Anatsui’s Outstanding Production Prize and a 2016 Dakar Biennale Grand Prize from Senegal’s Minister of Communication.Fadugba holds a Bachelors in Chemical Engineering from the University of Delaware, a Masters in Economics from the University of Delaware, and a Masters in Education from Harvard University. She lives and works in between Abuja, Nigeria and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
For more than 200 years, the Fairmount Water Works has told the story of our connection with water. Located on historic Boat House Row at 640 Waterworks Drive, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, it operated as a pumping station from 1815 to 1909, an aquarium from 1911 to 1962, as the Kelly Pool until 1972, and today serves as Philadelphia Water’s public education destination, housing an award-winning urban environmental education center. Major support for POOL has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage,with additional support from the Philadelphia Water Department.