Environmental Health
Environmental Justice
Jennifer D. Roberts
Spring 2024

Don’t Get In The Water: Blue Space Racism and the Drowning of Black Bodies

By Dr. Jennifer D. Roberts, DrPH, MPH, University of Maryland School of Public Health

This image from 1964 shows James Brock, the manager of the Monson Motor Lodge, as he pours acid into a pool, trying to disrupt swimmers who were protesting the hotel’s whites-only policy. Photo provided by Rare Historical Photos.

Dip A Toe. Drain The Pool. 

The 1999 feature film, “Introducing Dorothy Dandridge,” reenacts the true story of when Dandridge, the first Black American film star to earn an Academy Award nomination for best actress, was hired to headline a Las Vegas casino hotel, but was forbidden from swimming in the establishment’s pool. It was the 1950s, and while Jim Crow laws codified and legitimized a system of racial apartheid in the American South, racial segregation was the social norm for housing, schools, transportation and public facilities, such as swimming pools, throughout the entire country.

Hotel Manager: “The Last Frontier Hotel is proud to welcome Ms. Dandridge as their first Negro guest. We look forward to her performances. The chefs are at her disposal, meals will be delivered to her room. She can have any dish she likes… the casino and the restaurant are obviously off limits, the club too except of course when she is performing, and the pool. If she got in the pool it would have to be drained…[for] health reasons.”

Dorothy Dandridge: “Tonight I will take my bows and exit stage rear, go through the kitchen, pass the casino, around the pool I am apparently too dirty to swim in, up the service elevator to my luxurious penthouse, sip my complimentary champagne and pee in a brand-new Dixie cup.”

Enraged and with much indignation, Dandridge ignored hotel management, appeared poolside in her swimsuit and stuck her toe in the pool as onlookers stared in disbelief. As promised, the pool was drained and scrubbed clean by the hotel’s Black maintenance workers that evening.

Interestingly, blue space racism did not always exist in the United States. Before World War I, municipal swimming pools, particularly those in northeastern cities, were gathering spaces for everyone to enjoy. Although designated swim days for different genders guaranteed gender separation, public pools otherwise catered to all working-class communities — Black and native-born White laborers swam together alongside newly-arrived immigrants. During this period, New York, Philadelphia, Boston and other urban areas heavily invested in the building and maintenance of municipal pools, which often served as a source of recreational enjoyment and even “bath time” for the millions of physical laborers who used the pools to clean off at the end of the work day.

However, by the 1920s, the dynamics of public pools were changing and new social lines were drawn. American cities continued to build more and more pools, but these swimming spaces changed from primarily bathhouses to leisure destinations. Gender-designated swim days were dropped, allowing both genders to swim together for the first time. However, this spawned a new wave of racial segregation predicated on the racialization of cleanliness and safety, “as well as intense fears of Black men interacting with White women in bathing suits,” according to Victoria Wolcott, a historian at the University at Buffalo. 

Black Americans challenged blue space segregation in the 1950s and 1960s by filing lawsuits against cities and repeatedly pursuing admission to Whites-only pools through wade-ins and swim-ins. Similar to the well-known lunch counter sit-ins, wade-ins and swim-ins were forms of civil disobedience during which protesters would attempt to swim at Whites-only beaches or pools. Although many of these civil rights milestones were swept under the rug of American history, an image showing a swim-in and the retaliatory Monson Motor Lodge manager pouring acid into the pool and burning several protestors has been widely circulated. 

Similar to the St. Augustine, Florida swim-in at the Monson Motor Lodge on June 18, 1964, many of these civil rights protests ended in violence, humiliation and assault. While the integration of these public spaces was eventually mandated by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 — which was passed by the Senate the day after the swim-in, a massive wave of reactionary public pool closures throughout the country had already begun. 

Prior to the Civil Rights Act of 1964, some cities were already confronted with integration orders via the judicial system when Black communities successfully sued for the use of their tax dollars on a commodity to which they were denied access. To avoid enforcement of these court judgments and the subsequent civil rights legislation, pools were closed and continued to close throughout the subsequent decades. 

Heather McGhee, author of “The Sum of Us: What Racism Costs Everyone and How We Can Prosper Together,” speaks about how a grand resort-style pool in Montgomery, Alabama was drained and paved over on January 1, 1959 and how the entire Montgomery Parks system was closed in order to avoid the integration of Black and White recreation. Even when the parks system reopened ten years later, the pool remained closed. 

The Ripple Effects

Israel Scott 4 years oldJazida Hernandez Cervera 4 years oldKareem Green 5 years old 
Judah Jackson 5 years oldTJ Mister 6 years oldAdeline Stewart 6 years old 
Javaughn Black 7 years old Alfa Barrie 11 years oldJa-Niya Likely 12 years old 
Darihanne Torres 13 years oldDaniel Persaud 13 years oldGarrett Warren 13 years old
Daniel Persaud 13 years oldTakeitha Warner 13 years oldJaMarcus Warner 14 years old
Latevin Stewart 15 years oldJaylen Hill 15 yearsJaTavious Warner 17 years old
LaDarius Stewart 17 years oldLitrelle Stewart 18 years oldElijah Weatherspoon 18 years old
Luiz Pontes 18 years oldTaleah Lowe 18 years oldAnthony Shores Jr 18 years old

When public pools were forced to desegregate, White families abandoned these spaces and fled to the suburbs where they built private pools in their backyards. This “White flight” upsurged the number of private swim and country clubs in the suburbs and predominantly White neighborhoods. 

In addition, lack of access to public pools has had far-reaching and fatal effects. The names above represent only a small fraction of Black and Latino youth who died in the past few years from accidental drownings. An overwhelming majority of these drownings occurred in 2023 with primarily male victims who were found in pools, ponds, lakes and other bodies of water. 

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “Black children ages 10-14 years drown at rates 7.6 times higher than White children” and are more likely to drown in public pools. These race-based disparities in unintentional drowning deaths have persisted in the U.S. despite a 32% decline in total drowning mortality rates since 1990. In order to understand why these disparities continue, it is important to understand the history of American blue spaces as touched upon at the start of this article. 

For example, after Washington, D.C. desegregated its municipal pools in 1953, 125 new private swim clubs opened within the next ten years intended solely for White membership. Overall, between 1950 and 1962, more than 20,000 private swim clubs opened in White suburbia

Consequently, taxpayer funding for urban public pools dried up significantly throughout the U.S. and as previously mentioned, city pools began to close in record numbers around the country. For example, in Cleveland, Ohio, the recreation budget was slashed by 80%. Due to these budget cuts and overall disinvestment, public pools have continued to shut down ever since. Subsequently, pool access and opportunities for swimming and swim instruction dramatically declined for non-White swimmers or those who could not obtain access to private clubs. 

This is reflected in the 64% of Black youth who do not know how to swim. Aside from underdeveloped or nonexistent swimming skills due to the lack of blue spaces, the history of exclusion, racial segregation and violence associated with these spaces has left many with painful and traumatic memories. 

This legacy of institutionalized multi-generational impediments to swimming engagement is still present today. In 2020, a White employee at a North Carolina hotel called the police on a Black family using the pool. The employee accused the family of trespassing despite the fact that they were hotel guests. This type of blue space racism is not an isolated event, as similar incidents have occurred recently in Ohio, Florida, Oregon and other areas throughout the country.. 

As a result, Black families have generationally avoided swimming as a way of protecting themselves from the racialized dangers of blue spaces. The Holmes family in South Carolina was no different, never learning the survival skill of swimming. As a result, thirteen-year-old Genesis Holmes died on May 4, 2014 from an accidental drowning. The tragedy devastated his mother, Jennifer, as well as the entire community. However, she knew that “the only way to make peace with Genesis’ death was to make peace with the water.” With three years of swimming lessons, Jennifer became a certified lifeguard and established the Genesis Project to raise funding that supported aquatic safety programs in the rural areas of Charleston County, South Carolina. 

Families, like the Holmes, are disrupting pervasive and persistent “Black people can’t swim” narratives and upending the life-threatening cycle of blue space racism. 

This piece is dedicated to Mrs. Marilyn Sifontes and all my St. Philip’s Episcopal Church (Buffalo, NY) moms and aunties who soothed me and others through our experience of blue space racism in Baton Rouge, Louisiana nearly 15 years ago.

blue space racism
civil rights
environmental justice
environmental racism