The Backstroke

A swim club within the cradle of American Independence did the backstroke a few weeks ago, going back in time to when races were partitioned and swimming pools were segregated, just as Houston’s were in the 1950s.

Sixty-five children from a summer camp were turned away, asked to take their towels, their camp’s contract to use the Valley Swim Club pool and their black skin and get back on the bus.

The Valley Swim Club, it seems, failed to check the children’s skin color before issuing the membership contract to the summer camp.

As black children entered the water, white children were exiting, pulled out by their parents.  The parents then demanded that the swimming club staff make the camper kids leave. The staff did that, ordering the black children to get out of the pool.

The club cancelled the summer camp’s membership the next day, and told the camp its payment for membership would  be refunded.

The Valley Swim Club’s top official said that allowing the camp to have membership “would change the complexion … and the atmosphere of the club.”

Color of Change, a nonprofit organization that is asking the Department of Justice to apply the law to this club under the 1981 provisions of the Civil Rights Act, has a petition people can sign to support their case.

In its petiton, Color of Change states: “We all know stories like this one — similar incidents play out quietly every day in different communities across the country. The difference in this case is that folks got caught and there was a contract in place that makes for a potentially illegal act. Standing up now isn’t just about making things right for these kids in Philadelphia or bringing consequences to this swim club. It’s about creating a climate of accountability everywhere.”

I signed it, and I am putting the web site here in case anyone else would like to join me:  http://www.colorofchange.org/swim/?id=2218-50059

I signed it in memory of two little boys in a big, otherwise empty pool, kids I almost swam with, but didn’t.

I was about  5 or 6, years old, excited to see that I would be one of the only children in MacGregor Park’s public swimming pool. There were only those two children in the entire pool that was usually so crowded that I’d hit five or six other children each time I tried out one of the swim stokes I’d recently learned in lessons at that pool.

But no sooner had I put on my plastic swimming cap and put a toe in the water than I heard my daddy’s booming voice, telling me to get out of the pool. He was standing on the other side of the fence — a position he and I would take metahorically on most every issue until his death.  On that day, I could tell that he was angry, because he used both of my names..   Still, I argued.  That beautiful expanse of blue-green water was just too enticing to ignore.

“Daddy, look!  There’s almost nobody here!” I remember yelling at his massive form through the metal-mesh fence.

“Betty Lou, you get out of there and get back in the car this minute,” he shouted. “You’re not swimming today.”

I didn’t know what I had done wrong, but I knew it must be something really bad.  I was embarrased in front of those little boys, about my age, who  had stopped splashing water and were now intently watching my father and me, their laughter gone..

They were among the first black children to integrate MacGregor Park’s pool, and they had that fabulous water playground all to themselves that day.

In the half-ceutury that followed, I sometimes wondered what they thought about it..

Fifty-five years after my last visit to the MacGregor Park pool, with the Civil Rights Act long part of American history and with a black man in the White House,, I still wonder what the 65 children turned away from the Valley Swim Club will think about the complexion of bigotry.

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2 responses to “The Backstroke

  1. Pingback: Best I know … » Friday link post

  2. Pingback: Friday link post | Best I know …

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