Swim Club Faces Backlash, Investigation Over Discrimination Allegations

Nine-year-olds Quadir Preston and Asjah Anthony demonstrate in front of the Valley Club over allegations that it prevented minority children from swimming.
Nine-year-olds Quadir Preston and Asjah Anthony demonstrate in front of the Valley Club over allegations that it prevented minority children from swimming. (By Mark Stehle -- Associated Press)
By Ann Gerhart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Valley Club, one of those archetypal suburban summer preserves on a leafy hillside outside Philadelphia, became a target of national opprobrium yesterday over allegations that it may have discriminated against a group of minority youngsters.

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has undertaken an investigation, Sen. Arlen Specter (D-Pa.) called the allegations of racial discrimination "deeply disturbing," and Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones, the highest-profile African-American swimmer, said from the U.S. Championships in Indianapolis that "hearing about what's happened to these 65 kids is both disturbing and appalling. . . . And in this date and time -- we have a black president!"

Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, the governing body for the U.S. swim team, said he 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 told the Associated Press.

The private Valley Club opened in 1954 in the town of Huntington Valley, Pa., just as years of pressure to desegregate the city's public pools neared success. This year, it looked as if the municipal pools might not open at all, given Philadelphia's budget woes.

So Alethea Wright, the director of Creative Steps day camp in nearby Northeast Philadelphia, went looking for a place for her campers to splash around. She reached a contract with the Valley Club, and on June 29, the Monday before July 4, her 65 children -- black and Hispanic, kindergartners to seventh-graders -- jumped into the cool water.

Within minutes, she said, they were racing back to her, saying they had overheard people making racial remarks about them. "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 told the Associated Press.

Within a few days, the Valley Club had revoked the camp's contract, refunded its $1,950 and become a new symbol of a painful "whites-only" past.

The club's president told a local television station that "there is a lot of concern that a lot of kids would change the complexion . . . the atmosphere of the club."

What transpired next is a parable about racial sensitivities in the age of Obama, and the warp speed at which elusive facts mingle with assumptions and suspicions in a mash-up of widespread online outrage and on-site protest.

It is also 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."

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