POOL opens at Fairmount Water Works, examining swimming segregation

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Fairmount Water Works’ new exhibit was due to open on September 3 last year, but nature has poured cold water on those plans. Just days prior, Hurricane Ida had swept through Philly, flooding the exhibit’s gallery and dashing any hopes of a fall 2021 debut.

The installation, “POOL: A Social History of Segregation,” finally launched this week. It explores the social history of swimming and public pools, focusing on how black swimmers and community leaders managed to succeed despite decades of systemic exclusion.

POOL – along with some of the local stories it tells – is the focus of the next episode of Movers & Makers, airing March 31 at 7:30 p.m. on WHYY-TV.

“It’s all about what you have access to,” James Ijames, a South Philly-based playwright, director and educator who made an animated film for the exhibit, told Movers & Makers. “Do you have access to a swimming pool?” Do you have access to a safe place to swim? And for many years, black people in this country did not. »

The free exhibit tells this story of pools, running, and access through wall-mounted timelines, touchscreens that let you scroll through milestone events, and plenty of both new and archival video footage.

When last year’s hurricane hit, most exhibits were already water resistant, according to set designer Victoria Prizcia. The “persistent challenge” after storms like Ida, she said in December, is the cost of clearing debris from the river and industrial cleanup.

It’s all now set up alongside the Schuylkill River inside the old Kelly Natatorium, which was an indoor swimming pool once used for competition and recreation – and not always fairly.

Early 20th-century bathhouses were often racially integrated but gender-segregated, the exhibit explains. Around the 1930s, things changed. Public swimming pools became increasingly gendered as they were used for recreation – but ended up being effectively segregated by race.

The exhibit also addresses the exclusion of black swimmers from swimming clubs and key pool-related moments in the American civil rights movement.

Asha Prihar / Billy Penn

In Philadelphia and across the country, the history of exclusion has modern implications.

The ability to swim was not passed down from generation to generation in many black families as it was in many white families, Jeff Wiltse, a historian whose book “Contested Waters” inspired Prizzia to make the leap to Movers & Makers, told Movers & Makers. ‘exposure.

This means that black children are less likely to know how to swim even now. Between 1999 and 2010, black children were five and a half times more likely to die from drowning in a swimming pool than white children, according to a CDC study.

The exhibit seeks to capture the successes of black people in the world of swimming and peek into future advancements.

“How do we tell this story and also offer pathways forward?” said creator Prizzia in an interview with Movers & Makers. “How can we tell this story and make it uplifting? How do we tell this story and help it shape the future instead of getting stuck in the past? »

POOL devotes space to news such as Diversity in Aquatics, a national organization that aims to eliminate the drowning disparity among vulnerable populations and groups historically excluded from swimming pools.

The exhibit also highlights the voices of Black swimming champions, aquatic scholars and other leaders in the swimming world, including:

  • Cullen Jones, the first African-American to hold a swimming world record
  • Dr. Angela K. Beale-Tawfeeq, Director of Aquatic Diversity Education and Research and American Red Cross Scientific Advisory Board Member
  • Naji Ali, distance swimmer and creator of the “Crossing the Lane Lines” podcast

Full interviews with them and others are available on the exhibition’s website.

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Asha Prihar / Billy Penn

Much of the art and media commissioned for the exhibition came from local manufacturers. Calo Rosa, a Philadelphia-based street artist, created “Safe,” a set of eye-catching murals toward the center of the exhibit’s main hall, which depict wave-filled head silhouettes.

“These are silhouettes of people made with water to remind us that we are safe around water,” Rosa said. “We are part of the water and we are the body of the water.”

Also on display are playwright Ijames, animation artist Lowell Boston, graphic novel and comic book artist Dylan B. Caleho, multimedia artist Modupeola Fadugba, and interdisciplinary artist Homer Jackson.

The history conveyed by the exhibit is also sprinkled with connections to the Philadelphia area.

For example, Philadelphia was home to the first municipal swimming pool in the United States in 1883, according to the exhibit.

Philly was also home to the PDR swim team, which was formed in the 1970s by swim coach Jim Ellis to make swimming more accessible to black swimmers. The organization became a model for other cities and eventually inspired the 2007 movie “Pride”.

Yeadon, a suburb just west of the city, is home to the oldest historically black swim club, which opened in the 1950s. will drown in our city”, which offers free swimming lessons to children.

“From day one, the club has always been inclusive,” board chairman Anthony Patterson told Movers & Makers. “All are welcome at the Nile Swim Club, and to this day it remains that way.”

The POOL exhibition is open until September and its opening hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Saturdays. Free entry.

Scroll down for more interior photos.

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