The Racial History of Adelphi Pool

In these difficult times, it is worth pausing for a minute to think about the role the pool has played in the history of racism in this country. A few years ago, I researched the history of Adelphi Pool and the reasons for its founding. The current board has asked me to write a little about what I found and pass it on to you, the members. Todd Betke and Carrie Murphy helped and supported me while I was doing this.

Please be aware that being honest about our history is difficult. If you are already in distress about what you see going on around you, do not read this now, as it will only add to your pain. This is painful. I hope, when you have the mental space, that you will read this note and the excerpt I have attached from a book about the history of swimming in the US titled “Contested Waters” by Jeff Wiltse.

There is no record in any of Adelphi Pool’s founding documents, history or correspondence of a racist, segregationist motive in founding the pool. There is no record of any family being rejected for membership or complaining about racism at the pool. Our bylaws had no racist language and did not contain any of the clauses commonly used to enforce segregation (geographical boundaries or requiring referrals from existing members, for example).

However, I hope you all realize by now that the fact that racist motives were not written down, does not mean they do not exist. At the same time that I was unable to find a record of racist motives in our pool’s founding, I was able to find very clear evidence that private pools founded in the late 1950s in suburban Washington D.C. were explicitly formed to avoid having to socialize with black people.

As noted in this Journal of Sport and Social Issues article, public pools construction boomed in America in the 1920s and 1930s, though segregated. Public swimming sharply declined in the 1940s due to WWII and the polio epidemic. By the mid-1950s as it became clear that the polio vaccine was effective, families felt safe to return to swimming. Concurrently, a Supreme Court ruling had banned segregation in public facilities. So, families could return to public pools, but they could not control the racial composition of those pools. Instead they formed private pools, which in the 1950s were still allowed to be segregated. At first, the founders of these pools did not feel the need to explicitly ban black families. Since neighborhoods were segregated, they just defined the addresses from which members could be drawn. However, whenever an African American family managed to buy or rent a house within the limits, pools would change the bylaws and explicitly limit membership to white people.

At the same time, the leaders of Montgomery and Prince George’s counties were explicit that they would not build public pools. Washington DC had public pools, but by the mid to late 1950’s there were no white families attending those pools. If white families would not attend public pools, then the white-led counties would not fund them.

This was the political and social climate in which Adelphi Pool was founded. White suburban families wanted to swim again, and they wanted to do so in a social setting. They wanted their children to learn to swim, to compete on swim teams and they wanted to be able to meet their neighbors in a relaxed setting. We must assume that many of them did not want to socialize or share a pool with black families and we know that these families chose not to support public pools, choosing instead a private facility where they could control who came to the pool.

The Adelphi neighborhood must have been so white and remained white for so long that Adelphi did not make any public comment about race from 1957 through the 1970s and then avoided the lawsuits forcing desegregation in the 1970s.

It is tempting to read the absence of a written history as meaning that Adelphi pool was always welcoming. This is dishonest and disrespectful. Adelphi pool was not the one honorable pool founded in the Washington DC suburbs in the 1950s. It was the same as all the other pools: a place for white families to socialize without any possibility of interaction with a black person. As I tried to find out more about the history of the pool, I heard at least one “founding story” that explained why Adelphi was the one exception among all the 1950-era pools. I investigated the story and it was false.

We need to acknowledge today that any attempt to whitewash or otherwise avoid the fact that Adelphi Pool was founded on corrupt motives necessarily implicates us in those motives. Many of the founders of the pool, like many white people in the 1950s, were explicitly racist, and worked hard to avoid exposure to black people while at the same time showing no concern for the fact that African Americans were excluded from the rights and privileges they took for granted. More importantly, all the founding families of Adelphi were implicated whether they understood what they were doing or not.

We do not have a recorded history of the black families that tried to join the pool and were discouraged or insulted in that process. We do not have a recorded history of the black guests who were mistreated. We do not have a recorded history of the teenage boys who were over-disciplined or the girls who were singled out to wash their hair before they got in the pool. But we do know these things happened broadly.

Adelphi Pool was brought back from the brink of closure in the last decade. The families who helped bring it back to life were not the same families that founded it. Those of us who have chosen to live in Prince George’s County or the neighborhoods in DC that border the county have chosen not to run or to hide our children from diversity. We don’t have to apologize for what happened in 1950. That said, we do need to recognize that it happened and that it continues to happen today. Today, white families are being asked to acknowledge the reality of being black in America and to recognize that if they are silent, they are complicit. I believe we need to be honest that the pool was built by racists and, at least in part, for racist reasons. It is not a neutral place.

As more and more families join, the pool will improve, and new families will feel more comfortable. We can remake it, but that is not a passive act. It is not enough to pretend that all races are welcome; we must act to be sure that everyone is welcome and safe.

This is a nice quote from a Washington post article: “Swimming pools have also been intensely contested because they are places at which people build community and define the social boundaries of community life. Swimming pools are primary summertime gathering places, where many people come together (often for several hours), socialize, and share a common space. Swimming with others in a pool means accepting them as part of the same community precisely because the interaction is so intimate and sociable. Conversely, excluding someone or some group from a pool effectively defines them as social others—as excluded from the community.”

“For these reasons, swimming pools serve as useful barometers of social relations. If we as a nation want to know how we relate to one another across social lines, how we structure our communities socially, and how we think about people who are socially different from ourselves, just look at our swimming pools. The answer will be obvious.”

Ken Leonard, former Adelphi Pool President