“POOL: A Social History of Segregation”
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.”
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.
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
Major support for POOL has been provided by The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, with additional support from the Philadelphia Water Department.
Philadelphia Area Artists
Visitors to 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.
Creative director and lead designer of POOL, Victoria Prizzia of Habitheque Inc., which developed the Fairmount Water Works’ innovative award-winning freshwater Mussel Hatchery, is working with several Philadelphia-based artists to create original site-specific work, including a large-scale mural series that welcomes audiences with colorful, sensual watery imagery printed on acrylic by street artist Calo Rosa that promise to evoke the feeling of being one with the element of water.
Give to the POOL Project!
We have produced a limited series of commemorative postcards showcasing images and facts featured in the POOL exhibition.
- With a contribution of $50.00 or more to the POOL project, you will receive a commemorative set of postcards celebrating the exhibition.
- With a contribution of $75.00 or more you will receive two sets of the limited-edition postcards.
We encourage you to keep a card (or cards) for yourself, and to pass the history of POOL forward, by gifting cards to family members, friends, educators and those who you believe will benefit from the knowledge of our past.
- The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage recently announced the Fairmount Water Work’s POOL project as one of 39 project grants and fellowships for 2019 in support of Philadelphia’s cultural organizations and artists.