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  • Bill Fletcher

    Bill Fletcher | Photo: teleSUR

Published 24 June 2015
Bill Fletcher, host of teleSUR’s The Global African, interviews Dr Crystal Sanders, an assistant professor of history and African-American studies at Penn State University.

Below, we publish the transcript of an interview from The Global African.

BILL FLETCHER, HOST, THE GLOBAL AFRICAN: We're joined by Crystal Sanders, Dr. Crystal Sanders. Dr. Sanders is an assistant professor of history and African American studies at Penn State University. She is a 20th century historian that has a particular interest in the African-American freedom struggle in the southern part of the United States. Welcome to The Global African.

DR. CRYSTAL SANDERS: Thank you for having me.

FLETCHER: I wondered in the hearing about the work that you've done and a piece that you wrote on African-American access to water recreation, if you could actually help us understand what happened in McKinney, Texas. What was this all about over a swimming pool?

SANDERS: I believe that in order to put the McKinney, Texas, incident in the proper context, we must look at the long history of African-American access or, rather, exclusion from water recreation. Typically when we think of Jim Crow segregation, people will talk about segregated water fountains, segregated schools, African Americans sitting at the back of city buses. But we tend to forget that also places of public leisure were typically closed off to African Americans. Places of public leisure included beaches, they included amusement parks, they included some swimming pools. Segregationists in particular were very concerned about African-American access to water recreation because of their fears of racial miscegenation. This idea of trying to prevent Black men from having interactions with white women severely limited Black access to the water. So, typically throughout most of the 20th century, Black access to swimming pools was either non-existent, severely limited, or they were relegated to substandard water facilities, like swamps or something, if they didn't have sections of cities set aside for their use. So, typically, if we take a place like North Carolina, a place that's known for its beaches, places like Nags Head, the Outer Banks, Wilmington, Wrightsville Beach, all of these areas were closed to African Americans. And I should add that Black access or Black exclusion from water recreation was not limited to the South. The example I typically use teaching is the town of Bellaire, Ohio, that restricted its public swimming pools to African-Americans on every day of the week except for Mondays. Now, things began to change in 1955 when the United States Supreme Court out-lawed racial segregation in public recreational facilities. And what this meant is that cities and towns had to make sure that their swimming facilities, whether these were swimming pools or whether these were beaches, were open to all without regard to race. Now, remember, there was still this real fear of racial miscegenation. So the question was: how were city officials going to maintain swimming pools for white citizens while also not running afoul of the law? And typically one of two things happened. In some places, public officials simply sold their swimming pools to private organizations, who could then control who had access to them. So, in Marshall, Texas, to get around the law, officials sold the swimming pool to the local Lions Club, and the Lions Club could then, as a private entity, decide who had access to those facilities. The other thing that happened was that many municipalities simply closed their swimming pools for good. They simply did not offer swimming facilities for Black or white citizens. That's what happened in Monroe, North Carolina, outside of Charlotte. Now, you may be asking, if several towns and cities closed their swimming pools because of the fear of racial integration, how did white people have access to swimming? I should tell you that whites did not abandon swimming in the face of these new laws that required integrated swimming facilities. Simply what happened is that they built private pools in neighborhoods like the one in McKinney, Texas. These private pools, which were owned by homeowners associations, could then control--it gave a way for white officials to control who enjoyed those facilities.

FLETCHER: You know, I grew up in the Bronx, in New York, and very close to the East River in the eastern part of the Bronx, and at the end of my block was this very large beach club. It was called the Castle Hill Beach Club. And for years it was completely segregated. There were no Black people, no Puerto Ricans, to my knowledge, that were permitted there. And it was amazing, because it was right on--it was bordering a Black and Puerto Rican community, and it was sitting there, and it was an incredible source of tension in the area, but it was allowed. It was so tense, in the public schools during the summer, you know, in the warmer months, some of my classmates would be going to the Castle Hill Beach Club, and the rest of us would just simply be going home. And it was amazing, because the white kids seemed to be completely oblivious to the immorality--leave aside the legality of it--the immorality of this. And so my sense was that this was a phenomenon, in listening to you, that was really quite rampant.

SANDERS: Most definitely. If you recall, when Martin Luther King Jr. writes the letter from a Birmingham Jail in 1963, he writes that as a parent it pained him to have to tell his six-year-old daughter that she could not attend the Funtown amusement park in Atlanta, Georgia, because the amusement park was closed to children who looked like her. There are generations of African Americans who've grown up having their access to recreational facilities restricted, and there are generations of white Americans who have no recollection of this exclusion, of this history of exclusion.

FLETCHER: So, Dr. Sanders, let's go to specifically what happened in McKinney, Texas. This was a private pool?

SANDERS: Mhm, yes, owned by the Homeowners Association.

FLETCHER: So how was it that these young Black folks get there?

SANDERS: Well, from what I've been able to learn about the situation, it was a graduation party. A resident of the community was graduating, and they had put an announcement on social media for everyone to attend their pool party. So, many of their classmates, Black and white, whether or not they lived in the neighborhood, felt that they were invited to this pool party because they saw the invitation on social media and they wanted to celebrate the graduation.

FLETCHER: So one of the things that I'm sort of confused by is that these may be private institutions, but they have access to various public resources. How is it that they can in effect exclude people of color? Is it just done surreptitiously?

SANDERS: It is, it is done surreptitiously, because any recreational facility that receives public funds has a legal responsibility to make those facilities open to all without regard to race. Now, in particular, this swimming pool at the heart of the--or at the center of the controversy in McKinney, Texas, is not a public facility. It was owned by the neighborhood. That has been one way that people have been able to get around making swimming pools available to all citizens without regard to race. If those pools are owned by private organizations, if they're owned by private homeowners associations, then those entities have the right to control who can make use of those resources. Now, what's at stake in McKinney was the fact that these teenagers believed they were invited to the party. They were guests of a resident. So they're saying they were not there trespassing, they were not someplace where they were not supposed to be.

FLETCHER: And is anyone at this point actually alleging that they were trespassing?

SANDERS: Well, if you recall, there was a parent there who supposedly made a racial slur to several of the Black teenagers. She said, you need to go back to your section 8 housing. Those words, we can infer that this parent believed these children did not belong at the pool, they did not belong in that neighborhood. She's suggesting that they needed to go back to their section of town where they belonged, in her opinion.

FLETCHER: I guess let me reframe the question. Not knowing what the motivation of that individual was in speaking, someone can make a racist, derogatory comment about someone but is actually not charging them with trespassing. They're basically just saying, we don't want you here. And so I'm just wondering to what extent was there ever an allegation that this was actually, legally speaking, trespassing, as opposed to some white folks that just didn't want the Blacks there.

SANDERS: Well, we must remember that several visitors at the pool called the police. The McKinney Police Department says they received several phone calls that there were people at the pool who shouldn't have been there. So, obviously that means there were individuals attending that pool party or swimming at the pool who believed that outsiders had infiltrated their space.

FLETCHER: Understood. Welcome to the United States of America, as they say. Well, listen, Dr. Sanders, thank you very, very much for this, your insight and historical background, and we really appreciate you taking the time with us on The Global African.

SANDERS: Thank you. It was my pleasure to speak with you today.

FLETCHER: Take care.

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