Researching my last post, I came across this really interesting article on npr.com about the history of public swimming pools. It included this passage:
When black Americans gained equal access to municipal pools, white swimmers generally abandoned them for private pools. Desegregation was a primary cause of the proliferation of private swimming pools that occurred after the mid-1950s. By the 1970s and 1980s, tens of millions of mostly white middle-class Americans swam in their backyards or at suburban club pools, while mostly African and Latino Americans swam at inner-city municipal pools. America’s history of socially segregated swimming pools thus became its legacy.
I’d never, ever thought of that. I do recall, as a kid growing up in Florida, that I was told by young friends that “Black people smell funny in the swimming pool,” and as an adult realizing that what they were talking about was coconut oil reacting with the chlorine in the swimming pool. Someone who didn’t use coconut oil wouldn’t have that smell in chlorinated water; and as I learned to my moderate discomfort a while back, coconut oil is still a hair-care product marketed to African-Americans.
I also recall that some of my parents’ friends had homes with private swimming pools in back and it was quite the big deal to be invited to a pool party. Now, I don’t know if it was as big a deal for my parents and it was just me being all excited to go to a pool party because I was, after all, a kid and going to somewhere that there was a swimming pool was an inherently exciting thing for a kid. I can’t recall the racial makeup of those pool parties today, though. There must have been some Black people there, right? My parents were always progressive on matters of race and they would never have tolerated the idea that they were going to an implicitly “Whites-Only” party.
But I’d never really given much thought to the fact that swimming pools were a particularly sore spot in America’s troubled history of race relations. Certainly I’d never thought that getting your own private swimming pool would have been a retreat from a world being forced into racial integration. I’d always kind of figured that it was a convenience, a luxury, and a status symbol. But if racism is a real part of why people started getting their own private pools in their own back yards, that really makes me want a pool of my own less.
Hot tubs*, on the other hand, seem to lack any such association or secret history.
* (Mouse over for NSFW old joke):