Have you been following the story of a Philly suburban swim club and how its membership and officers handled the presence of African American camp kids? It has involved law, social understandings, racial tension, and…an attempt at conciliation.
Here are excerpts from four stories, presented in chronological order from the start. They will give you a pretty good sense of how this disturbing story has evolved. Then I have a few observations.
July 9, Philadelphia Inquirer:
Montco swim club accused of racial discrimination
By Zoe Tillman and Max Stendahl
Inquirer Staff Writers
Days before a Northeast Philadelphia day camp’s membership at a private suburban swim club was rescinded, several of the campers said they had heard racial remarks about themselves at the pool.
Parents and staff members of Creative Steps Inc. day camp are considering legal action against the Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley, said Alethea Wright, the camp’s executive director.
Sixty-five campers, kindergartners through seventh graders who are African American and Hispanic, arrived at the private swim club around 3:30 p.m. on June 29. It was their first visit to the club, but the camp had made arrangements for weekly trips on Mondays through Aug. 10.
While the campers were swimming, Wright said, three of them came up to her and said they had heard club members asking what African Americans were doing at the club.
Although the children were upset, Wright said, they stayed at the pool for an hour more to complete their session. She said that she approached club president John Duesler while events unfolded that day and that he seemed apologetic.
On July 3, Wright said, the camp’s $1,950 check in membership fees to the swim club was refunded, meaning the children no longer had access to the pool. She said Duesler gave no reason for the refund except that the membership no longer wanted the children at the pool.
Repeated attempts to reach Duesler, other club officers, and the club’s management yesterday were unsuccessful. NBC10, which first reported the story, said yesterday that Duesler had given the station the following statement: “There was concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion . . . and the atmosphere of the club.” (emphasis added)
[W]right said she heard no racially charged comments when the campers were at the club but did hear a club member express displeasure that the children were at the pool. She said many parents made their children leave the pool after the campers arrived.”There were no behavioral problems” with the campers, who were accompanied by eight Creative Steps staff members, Wright said. “They never gave a reason.”
[T]he camp first contacted the club about membership after the New Frankford Community Y in the Frankford section of the city – where the children used to swim – closed last month because of lack of money. The club is about a 20-minute drive from the camp’s location at Devereaux and Summerdale Avenues in Northeast Philadelphia.Several parents and the camp are looking into possible legal action against the club, said Staci Morgan, a Creative Steps board member and Philadelphia social worker.
July 10, 2009:
Pa. to investigate pool discrimination allegations
The Associated Press
HUNTINGDON VALLEY, Pa. – State officials will investigate accusations of racial discrimination against a suburban Philadelphia swim club that allegedly reacted to a visiting group of minority children by asking them not to return.
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission will immediately open an investigation into the actions of The Valley Club in the leafy suburb of Huntingdon Valley, chairman Stephen A. Glassman said.
“The rule of law in Pennsylvania is equal opportunity for all, regardless of race,” Glassman said Thursday in a written statement released by his office.
“Allegedly, this group was denied the use of a pool based on their race,” Glassman said. “If the allegations prove to be true, this is illegal discrimination in Pennsylvania.”
The club maintains that accusations of racial discrimination are false and claims overcrowding from more than one outside camp was the problem.
The Creative Steps camp in northeast Philadelphia had contracted for the 65 children at the day camp to go each Monday afternoon to The Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley, camp director Alethea Wright said Thursday. But shortly after they arrived June 29, she said, some black and Hispanic children reported hearing racial comments.
“A couple of the children ran down saying, ‘Miss Wright, Miss Wright, they’re up there saying, “What are those black kids doing here?”‘” she said.
The gated club is on a leafy hillside in a village that straddles two townships with overwhelmingly white populations. It says it has a diverse, multiethnic membership.
Wright said she went to talk to a group of members and heard one woman say she would see to it that the group, made of up of children in kindergarten through seventh grade, did not return.
“Some of the members began pulling their children out of the pool and were standing around with their arms folded,” Wright said. “Only three members left their children in the pool with us.” (emphasis added)
Several days later, the club refunded the camp’s $1,950 without explanation, said Wright, who added that some parents are “weighing their options” on legal action.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People requested the Human Relations Commission’s investigation.
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., issued a statement calling the allegations “extremely disturbing” and said he was looking into the matter.
The United States’ highest-profile black swimmer, Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones, said “hearing about what’s happened to these 65 kids is both disturbing and appalling.”
Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, the governing body for the U.S. swim team, was stunned at the accusations.
“This is the sort of thing you’d hear about in 1966, during the height of the civil rights movement, not in 2009, and not in the City of Brotherly Love, of all places,” he said.
[I]n a statement released on its Web site Thursday afternoon, the club called the allegations of racial discrimination “completely untrue.”
The club said it “deplores discrimination.”
Amy Goldman said she’s been a member of the club for two years. She said the pool wasn’t particularly crowded and the children from Creative Steps were “well-behaved and respectful.”
She said there had been black members at the club in the past, though she couldn’t remember seeing any this year.
The club appeared closed Thursday afternoon, and the guard station at the entrance was unattended.
About two dozen protesters, most of them white, held signs in front of the club’s locked gates and chanted slogans including, “Jim Crow swims here!”
Wright rejected the overcrowding explanation, saying the club covers 10 acres with a “nice-sized” pool and a separate pool for younger children. The board, she said, knew that her group included 65 children, and none of them had misbehaved.
Wright said that the children were upset and that she was looking for a psychologist to speak to them. Some children have asked her whether they are “too dark” to swim in the pool, she said.
Day camp member Araceli Carvalho, 9, said she was upset when told she wouldn’t be allowed to return.
“I said, ‘That’s not right,'” she said.
But when asked if she wants to return now, she said, “I don’t want to swim here anymore.”
July 11, 2009:
Valley Club president says safety the issue
By Joelle Farrell
Inquirer Staff Writer
The president of a Montgomery County swim club said yesterday that safety concerns, not racism, led the club to bar camps of children from the pool.
John G. Duesler Jr. said the Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley had arranged for three day-camps to use the pool this summer. But when 65 black and Hispanic children from a city camp called Creative Steps Inc. showed up at the club on June 29, lifeguards and other club members were overwhelmed, he said. “It was just too many kids on top of each other,” Duesler told reporters, some of whom had camped out in vans in front of the club throughout the day. “Many of them couldn’t swim.”
The state Human Relations Commission is investigating the matter. Yesterday, Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) asked the U.S. Attorney General’s Office to review the matter to determine if the swim club violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The club reopened yesterday after being shut Thursday while protesters marched out front with signs saying such things as “Jim Crow Swims Here.” Children swam and played in the pool, and their shouts could be heard from the street, where news vans idled and helicopters flew overhead.
Duesler, who met with reporters in front of the club yesterday afternoon, found himself at the center of the controversy after children from the camp told their director, and later national news media, that they heard club members make racially disparaging remarks about them. A few days after their first swim, Duesler revoked the contract with the camp and refunded the $1,950 the group had paid to use the pool.
In his first comments to reporters on the matter, Duesler said “there is a lot of concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion . . . and the atmosphere of the club.”
Yesterday, with his wife, Bernice, at his side, he called that statement “a terrible choice of words,” saying he meant that having so many children greatly altered the atmosphere of the pool and created an unsafe situation. He said he was uncomfortable with the ratio of children to lifeguards – which was 10-1 when all the children were swimming at once.
“This is just a terrible misrepresentation of what I said,” he said, with local news media and CNN recording. “This is just so wrong.”
Duesler would not name the other camps whose contracts were revoked, but said all three were done for safety reasons, not race.
July 13, 2009
Swim club vote for camp’s return was near unanimous
By Derrick Nunnally
Inquirer Staff Writer
A private suburban swim club rocked by allegations of racism is still waiting to hear if a premoninantly black and Hispanic Philadelphia day camp will accept its invitation to return.
Valley Club president John Duesler said today that club members had voted overwhelmingly to reinvite the day camp students who had earlier been asked not to return.
“We realized it was the right thing to do,” Duesler said today in the club’s Lower Moreland driveway.
After he and other club officers endured withering criticism for revoking contracts that allowed dozens of children to swim at the club, Duesler said the board unanimously recommended to reinvite the groups. At a general meeting Sunday for the club’s 150 member families, there was only one vote against the idea.
“It was nearly unanimous,” Duesler said.
But the camp director Alethea Wright indicated last night in an interview with CNN that the offer was too late.
“How can I take those children back there?” she said.
Duesler said the immense, worldwide publicity given to the matter had compelled Valley Club to reconsider, but repeatedly said the club’s intentions had been misunderstood.
“This is the saddest week of my life,” Duesler said. “Everything I stand for and everything this club represents has been turned on its head.” (emphasis added)
Although his preliminary talks with Wright, executive director of Creative Steps day camp, included discussion of about 60 children coming to the pool, Duesler said he had decided to take a wait-and-see position on safety concerns.
Instead, when the group came to Valley Club June 29, club members fled the pool, and some were heard making racial comments, Wright and others have said.
Duesler said today he has not heard back from Wright, but hopes the group will return and help forge an agreement that won’t overwhelm pool capacity.
The Olympian Cullen Jones and a few other standouts notwithstanding, swimming remains one of the whitest sports in the U.S. And private, suburban summer swim clubs are no different. Growing up on swim teams and at a few different clubs (albeit more than a few years ago), I can’t recall ever seeing more than a tiny handful of black swimmers. My college swim team experience was the same: No black swimmers, and only one from another team that I can recall in four years of competing. This kid swam in the same event as I. After one race where I’d beaten him but my teammate had not, he was humiliated: “I lost to the [expletive],” he said.”
He was more surprised than angry, I think; how could he lose to someone who barely existed — a black swimmer. This lack of familiarity led to all kinds of nonsense, most memorably the common misconception, infamously voiced by then-LA Dodgers General Manager (in the late 1980s) that blacks “weren’t buoyant.”
That’s what a lack of familiarity will do. This article in last Saturday’s Washington Post provides a good historical perspective on how the segregated private pools developed:
“[The incident] is a reminder of a particularly ugly period in blacks’ struggles for equality, when public swimming pools were one of the most volatile gathering points before and after civil rights legislation.
“Public pools were where ‘Americans came into intimate and prolonged contact with one another,’ writes Jeff Wiltse in ‘Contested Waters,’ his social history of the country’s swimming pools. ‘People who might otherwise come in no closer contact than passing on the street, now waited in line together, undressed next to one another and shared the same water.’
“Through lawsuits and protests, the NAACP kept up pressure throughout the 1940s and ’50s to desegregate municipal swimming pools, and when that effort succeeded in the North, private pools such as the Valley Club sprouted outside cities as a direct result.
“‘The suburban swim club is a post-World War II phenomenon,’ said Wiltse, a University of Montana professor, in an interview yesterday. ‘Rather than fund public pools, white suburban residents established these private clubs precisely because they could restrict the membership, where they could not in a public facility.'”
These stories contain all the ingredients of racial tension in the U.S. today: Fear, misunderstanding, media saturation, fear of litigation, embarrassment, pain, bad conduct towards children — and, at the end, apology.
I’m not naive enough to think that the public outcry and the financial and public perception costs of litigation didn’t have something to do with the decision to invite the group back; after all, the initial position was that doing so “wasn’t safe.” The change in that stance likely owed something to those huge negatives. But somehow I believe Duesler when he says that the incident had begun the “saddest week” of his life, and not just because he was under siege.
Teaching moments can be painful, but they help bend “the arc of history… toward justice.” MLK