Toni was excited to swim at the new public pool. At twelve, she was allowed to walk the two miles in the hot summer sun to the new swimming hole. She paid her money and changed into her suit in the locker room and took a shower, in accordance with pool rules. She walked out to the gleaming, shimmering pool. She was so excited and so ready to break its refreshing surface with a dive, when she was stopped by the lifeguard.
“You can’t get in the pool! You have to shower first!” the White lifeguard said very loudly and with more than a tinge of impatience from her high-up lifeguard perch.
“But I did take a shower. The lady in the locker room told me…” The lifeguard cut her off mid-sentence.
“Well, you did not shower well enough. You have all of that grease on your arms and legs. Why do you people always come here with all of that grease. You can’t get in the water like that.” The lifeguard said even more loudly as she pointed sternly toward the locker room.
Toni was silent. She knew from the lifeguard’s tone that there was no reasoning with her. As soon as she heard the “why do you people…” part of the lifeguard’s tirade, she knew what this was about. Toni and other Black kids were just recently allowed in the public pools on this side of town and she was well aware that not everyone agreed with the decision to integrate. But in her excitement about swimming, she had forgotten her place and let her guard down.
Toni silently went back into the locker room and took another shower. She rubbed her legs and arms with extra vigor, even though she had not applied any lotion to them that day. She went back out to the pool with apprehension, most of the excitement drained away.
She walked to the edge of the pool, paused and looked over her shoulder at the lifeguard for approval and consent. The lifeguard looked down, scowled and said, ” You can get in. But if you come back out here with all of that grease again, I’m gonna send you home.”
Toni jumped in. She dove under a few times and pretended to be a mermaid, then a submarine, then a sinking stone. But every time she came to the surface, the lifeguard was staring disapprovingly at her. She felt uncomfortable and a little nervous. After about 20 minutes, Toni got out of the pool and went into the locker room and changed into her street clothes. She walked the two miles home as the hot sun baked the chlorine on her brown skin into long, white, crusty streaks like small dry river beds. Toni never went back to the public pool.
Marcus was with his camping group when they visited the private pool in the Philadelphia suburbs. They arrived at the large pool very excited. The pool was a big beautiful oasis in the middle of a lovely expanse of green. Usually, his day camp of some 60 kids spent the hot days of summer playing on the inner-city playground or in the basement of a school. The camp director arranged with the private swim club for the campers to swim at the club every Monday. A day at the pool was just what the doctor ordered for a mid summer hot Philly day. But before the kids could get to the locker room and change and shower and jump in the gleaming, shimmering pool, they encountered a conspicuous and uncomfortable reaction from the regular members of this private club.
“What are they doing here?”
“Who are all of these Black people? Who let them in?”
“I am afraid for my belongings!”
“Belongings!! I am afraid for my child! They might do something!”
Marcus’ excitement drained away as this crowd of White members spewed angry, disapproving and distrustful words at him and his friends. He had never encountered this kind of open hostility. He didn’t know that he needed to remember his place or brace himself for this profound reaction to his blackness. But he knows now. And endowed with his new sense of how the world still works, he doesn’t want to swim anymore. He wants to go home to his safe and friendly part of town.
Even if he wanted to, Marcus was never allowed to return to this pool. The swim club decided that Marcus’ and his group’s presence was unwelcome and a bad idea. They refunded the group’s considerable payment and asked them not to return.
Toni’s racist assault— Summer 1954
Marcus’ racist assault—Summer 2009
The more things change, the more they stay the same.