Sunday, May 6, 2007

Reviewed: Wiltse, Contested Waters, on race and social policy in the history of swimming pools

CONTESTED WATERS: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, by Jeff Wiltse (Univ. of North Carolina Press) is reviewed in the Washington Post by John L. Jackson Jr., University of Pennsylvania. Jackson writes:

In Contested Waters, historian Jeff Wiltse argues that the nation's contentious history of racism, class conflict and gender inequality can be captured by chronicling the rise and fall of municipal pools in northern American cities. And he makes a compelling case.

Contested Waters begins in the 19th century, when poor immigrants (many living in homes without running water) bathed naked in local rivers and lakes. The first public pools were a calculated response to this exhibitionism....
Wiltse emphasizes that the earliest public pools were racially mixed places. Blacks and whites swam together with few clashes and little popular disapproval....Once men and women (as parents and children) started swimming together, African American swimmers (now saddled with the accusations of bio-pathology and disease-carrying earlier attributed to all poor urbanites) were perceived as a threat....Most opponents of miscegenation considered pools even more dangerous than schools....

Wiltse claims that it was America's mid-20th century defeat of legalized segregation that rang the death knell for public pools in major American cities. Though whites had once swum alongside African Americans without comment or concern, they were no longer willing to do so. Several cities even tried to avoid race riots by reverting to gender-segregated pools, but it didn't work. Whites continued their retreat to private clubs and residential pools safely tucked away behind picket fences.

For the rest, click here.