In this Now I Know piece about Fred Rogers, Dan Lewis quoted Greg Carr. “That’s the most intimate thing,” the chairman of Howard University’s Afro-American studies department noted. “I’m in this water, you’re in this water, it’s in me, on me.”
What are we talking about? Swimming together, wading in the water together, black and white. In a New York Times article – behind a paywall – there’s a relevant 2018 article. “Racism at American Pools Isn’t New: A Look at a Long History.”
And the issue isn’t limited to pools. There has been a contentious history even of public beach access. “Well into the 20th century, northern municipalities in the US treated beaches as spaces for enforcing the kind of Jim Crow segregation commonly associated with the post-Reconstruction South… Municipal shoreline policies were directed towards racial and class exclusion, yet often used ‘ostensibly race-neutral laws’ to achieve their aims.
“Sometimes, Black beachgoers were explicitly told they could not access a beach or were confined to an undesirable area. Other times, municipalities used elaborate means to enforce Jim Crow on the shoreline while obscuring their racist intentions.
“One New Jersey town, for example, required beachgoers to buy a ticket to access one of its four beaches. But when Black beachgoers bought tickets, they were given tickets to Beach 3 only. ‘Across America, this was how many black children first encountered the color line: during summer and at the beach.'”
Read about the St. Augustine, Florida wade-in, June 1964. The photo above is from that event.
The Windy City area provides a striking example. “Though never segregated by law, Chicago’s beaches were long segregated in practice. With the start of the Great Migration during World War I, Chicago’s growing African American population confronted sharp limits in access to beaches, enforced by violent responses from whites.
“In 1912, for example, a Black child was attacked after attempting to bathe at the white 39th Street Beach, nearly causing a riot. Into the 1950s and 60s, African Americans visiting white beaches met conflict and violence upon entering – and apathy from park police.”
The 2020 article notes that change is difficult and slow. “Today, methods of regulating beach access in metropolitan Chicago are subtler, but they continue to produce discriminatory outcomes and beaches largely segregated by class and race.”
The couplet within a song performed by Pete Seeger in 1963 called If You Miss Me at the Back of the Bus is relevant here:
If you miss me at the Mississippi River, and you can’t find me nowhere.
Come on over to the swimmin’ pool, I’ll be swimmin’ over there.
Plays a cop on TV
Which brings us back to Mr. Rogers. He notes that François Clemmons, an actor and opera singer, played “Officer Clemmons, a recurring character on the television show… Every once in a while, Clemmons would visit his neighbor. There shouldn’t be anything even remotely noteworthy [about them wading in a small pool together in 1969], except maybe for how high they rolled up their pants relative to the water level.
“For the kids watching, there may not have appeared to be anything out of the ordinary… But for the adults, it was borderline scandalous — or perhaps would have been, had they been watching.
“The vestiges of such discrimination were still present… Just weeks before the Civil Rights Act of 1964 went into effect, for example, a motel manager infamously dumped cleaning supplies into a pool, intending to get swimmers — black and white together — to exit the pool.”
Clemmons notes in the documentary Won’t You Be My Neighbor? xenophobes “didn’t want black people to come and swim in their swimming pools. My being on the program was a statement for Fred,” and one they both hoped kids would pick up on.
Don’t Go Near the Water
In 2015, Jessica Williams reported for The Daily Show with Jon Stewart a satirical piece. “Assault Swim – Progress in Community Policing,” noting the risk of Swimming While Black.
Thus, this recent story resonated very much with me. N.C. swim team brings Black women to the pool for competition and camaraderie. “How often do you see this? You don’t ever see Black women swimming in a pool together,” said one member of the Mahogany Mermaids.
“I’m in this water, you’re in this water, it’s in me, on me.” Wade in the Water, children.