Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Contested Waters

During segregation, African Americans in Alexandria were not permitted to use the municipal swimming pool on Cameron Street. Children seeking recreation and relief from the heat swam in local waterways including the Potomac River, Four Mile Run, Hunting Creek and Cameron Run. Pollution, debris, and lack of supervision posed serious dangers to those swimming in these bodies of water.  Several young people drowned in these runs and rivers during Jim Crow before the City of Alexandria opened a pool for African Americans in 1952.  Located at First and North Payne streets (and seen near a water tower in this aerial image),  it was named in honor of the Johnson brothers, two boys who had drowned the year before. In the early 1960s, city facilities were desegregated and the Cameron Street pool was opened to all swimmers.
In 2010, following the recommendation of a naming committee, the City of Alexandria named the pool at the new Charles Houston Recreation Center the Memorial Pool. This name pays tribute to the memory of the Johnsons and other Alexandria youths who drowned during segregation. Currently nine children are listed on a plaque at the rec center but evidence indicates that a tenth child should also be honored.
Lindora Hyman, a 14-year-old girl, drowned in Cameron Run on May 27, 1939. She lived only three blocks from the municipal pool on Cameron Street but was not allowed to swim there. Newspaper accounts state Lindora was wading in the muddy run when she became trapped in a deep hole and could not get out. Another girl summoned help, and police and fire personnel  responded but were unable to save her. A native of Bethel, N.C., Lindora was survived by her parents, a brother and a sister.


According to Jeff Wiltse in Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America (UNC Press, 2007), segregated public pools were the norm during the first half of the 20th century, either through  Jim Crow ordinances or through practice.  Some Northern cities, like New York, didn’t ban blacks from using pools but rather “encouraged segregation de facto by locating pools within racially homogeneous neighborhoods,” says Wiltse. Other communities, when directed by courts to open their pools to African Americans or build new pools for them, closed down their public pools altogether.
The legacy of segregation remains. A Sports Illustrated article in August 2010 indicated that African American children are three times more likely to drown than white American children. The article, focusing on the efforts of Olympic gold medalists Cullen Jones to teach black kids to swim, considers the role that segregation and public pools played in this disturbing statistic. The article was published just a couple weeks after six African American teens drowned in the Red River in Louisiana – more than 70 years after Lindora Hyman drowned in Alexandria.

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