Professor makes a splash using swimming pools to study the racial history of the U.S.
By Cary Shimek
Jeff Wiltse’s unusual area of expertise came to him in a dream.
While in graduate school getting pressure to come up with a strong dissertation topic, he spent Thanksgiving break with the family of his girlfriend (now wife) in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Sleeping in a windowless basement room, he dreamed of researching the history of the private, suburban swimming pool in Seattle where he spent much of his childhood. It was a place of happy memories, but later he came to wonder about its sameness. All the swimmers had been middle class. And white.
“Huh?” he thought when he woke up. “I wonder if anyone has written about the history of swimming pools? I bet it would be fascinating.”
A quick review of the literature confirmed his sleeping mind had stumbled into unexplored academic territory. It became an excellent dissertation in 2002, the same year he joined the faculty of the UM Department of History. Then in 2007 he published a full book, “Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.”
Published by the University of North Carolina Press, “Contested Waters” became something of an academic best-seller. It was reviewed by The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Economist, Atlantic Monthly and even People Magazine. It has sold over 8,000 copies to date and proved its staying power by still selling 855 units in the past year. The book offers a comprehensive public history of swimming pools in the U.S., from the mid-19th century to the present. And it uses pools as a lens through which to view the history of race relations in America.
And if a race-related incident happens at a pool anywhere in the U.S., UM’s Wiltse is the expert on the topic. He’s done interviews with 20 national and international media outlets in the past year — from National Geographic and USA Today to the Los Angeles Times. HBO’s “Vice News” covered him, and a video by Al Jazeera featuring his work has 1.4 million views.
“What happens at swimming pools tells us a lot about what’s happening with our communities and broader society,” Wiltse says. “Swimming pools provide an accurate reflection of who we are as a people.”
Swimming pools are intimate spaces where we see one another partially clothed and share a body of water. They also are socially intimate, in that people are together for hours and have ample time to interact.
“I’m a firm believer that pools are an important community institution that have the potential to bring people together — to foster vibrant community life across social lines,” Wiltse says. “But when people segregate themselves at private swim pools, they aren’t serving that function anymore. Instead they reinforce social differences and divisions.”
Wiltse’s research revealed that the earliest public pools were segregated along gender lines, but, at least in the Northeast, Blacks and whites swam together. Then there came a historical moment when officials decided the sexes should swim together, and that’s when racist attitudes began to exclude Black people and other minorities from these treasured community spaces.
Egregious racial incidents occurred when Black people and other minorities tried to use public pools. One of the worst took place in Pittsburgh, where the city opened a gigantic leisure resort pool at Highland Park in 1931. When a group of teen African-American males tried using it, a white mob of about 200 men attacked the teens in the pool, punching and kicking them and pushing them underwater to simulate drowning.
“They literally beat them out of the water,” Wiltse says. “And when they tried to resist and come back later, the whites would wait for them outside. They would pelt them with rocks and beat them with sticks and clubs. This went on for days and days. The police officers stationed at the pool allowed the beatings to occur. They did arrest people, but the people they arrested were the Black victims of the violence, charging them with inciting a riot.”
A more famous event took place in 1964 in St. Augustine, Florida, during the height of the civil rights movement. African Americans and other protesters tried to use a “whites only” pool, and the hotel manager poured acid in the water to try driving them out. When Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rev. Ralph Abernathy arrived and confronted the hotel manager about the incident, the two icons were hauled off to jail together for fighting for the right to swim.
The racism didn’t need to be so blatantly violent, Wiltse says. When the courts finally determined that public pools couldn’t exclude Black taxpayers, city planners in places like Maryland would choose to cancel planned public pool projects. Instead, private suburban club pools would spring up, which for decades could still legally exclude people on the basis of race.
Racist swimming pool policies have had effects that echo across generations in the U.S. During the 19th century, people of African ancestry generally were more accomplished swimmers than people of European ancestry. Today, African Americans are half as likely to know how to swim as whites, and Black children are three to six times more likely to drown than white children, depending on their ages. Wiltse’s research shows that a primary cause of these contemporary disparities is the pervasive racial discrimination that occurred at swimming pools during the middle decades of the 20th century.
This history casts a long shadow. “Everyone has this shared experience with swimming pools,” he says. “My scholarship shows the extent to which African Americans had limited access to swimming pools and swim lessons, and I’ve been able to connect what that means to the present. I think that’s why this work continues to attract attention.”
So much attention, in fact, that in 2021 Fairmont Waterworks in Philadelphia opened up a 4,700-square-foot public history exhibit titled “Pool: A Social History of Segregation.” Largely based on Wiltse’s work, the exhibit highlights Black voices and swimming greats such as 2016 Olympian Simone Manuel, the first Black woman to win an individual gold medal in swimming.
“Dr. Jeff Wiltse’s work both inspired and informed the landmark exhibition,” says Victoria Prizzia, the exhibit director. “He served as the project’s primary content expert and consulted with the creative team on all aspects of the history presented within the exhibition and programs. (His) fundamental contributions helped to shape the entire visitor experience of the exhibition, from exhibit graphics to multimedia narratives.”
Wiltse teaches UM’s courses on Montana history, and his next book — already in the works — will highlight the history of Big Sky Country. But he appreciates having an academic specialty that continually makes ripples beyond the state on the national and even international stages.
“Really, it’s been like a dream,” he says. •