During law school reunion, city's history of desegregated public pools discussed

During a weekend gathering of black alumni from the University of Maryland Law School in which the continuing inequalities faced by African-Americans was discussed, one participant called for Baltimore to preserve the city's tradition of public pools.

UM law professor Taunya Lovell Banks presented Saturday new work on the civil rights history of swimming in Baltimore and questioned whether Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake is doing enough to keep the pools open and available.

"Like mayors before her, when it's time to do budget cuts, the first think they look at are parks," said Banks. "She has, to her credit, kept the swimming pools open but not for as long as they should be open. We haven't built new pools; we haven't really upgraded our swimming pools."

Kevin Harris, a spokesman for the mayor, who herself graduated from the law school in 1995, said Rawlings-Blake "is a huge proponent of pools and recreation services in general."

"She has requested a complete assessment of pool use and needs across the city in an effort to provide resources that best serve the community," Harris said.

Banks' discussion of access to pools was one example of the inequalities faced by African-Americans that were discussed during the reunion held to honor graduates from the 1970s.

School administrators credited students of that generation with making the school a more hospitable place for blacks. Among the more than 200 alumni in attendance were some of the city's most prominent attorneys and judges.

On Saturday morning, Banks presented research for a forthcoming journal article that will show the limits of some of the legal strategies that civil rights lawyers pursued in seeking to provide African-Americans with access to swimming pools.

After a black teenager died swimming in a river with white friends, lawyers in Baltimore began to challenge the city's segregation policy — following cases to open up public beaches to all.

The admission of black swimmers to the pools was particularly charged at the time because of the proximity into which it would bring African-American men with white women in bathing suits, Banks said. And in one of the Baltimore cases, a city lawyer argued that because swimming involved physical contact between people, allowing different races into the same pool was undesirable.

Ultimately, desegregation was achieved through the courts, but Banks said her research shows that the victories were incomplete. White swimmers often abandoned the pools rather than swim alongside blacks and set up private clubs instead. Faced with declining demand, many cities shut down their facilities.

Research by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that Banks cited suggests that lack of access to good swimming facilities leads to higher rates of drowning among black and Hispanic people, suggesting that inequalities persist, according to Banks.

In Baltimore, though, the pools remained open. And Banks said she had been considering sharing her findings with City Hall as a reminder of Baltimore's special history.

"I've been trying to debate in my head whether I was going to send a little note down there summarizing what I'm writing … because Baltimore has a very proud history because we kept the pools open," Banks said.

Banks added that she would like to see new schools built with swimming facilities attached so that they could be used as part of academic programs, but also be available to neighborhood residents.

Harris said that's a goal that the mayor shares.

"Currently the administration is working with area schools to make sure their pools are able to serve the local community adequately as well as be a resource outside of students and school hours," he said.

"The mayor has also requested a complete and thorough analysis and capital plan for pools in the city and expects to hear back soon about recommendations she can act on to better serve local communities."



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