While I was visiting my family in Pittsburgh this week, I watched an episode of the excellent Pittsburgh history documentary series that reminded me that once Champ and Delie reached the “Promised Land” in 1935, they saw what they believed to be real progress.
On the episode of In Pittsburgh called, “North Park v. South Park,” documentarian Rick Sebak discussed the state of the art, Olympic sized swimming pools built in both of these large parks in Allegheny County. These pools were constructed as part of the CCC core projects that kept Americans working during the Great Depression. The pool in North Park, which still exists, was supposed to be used for Olympic swimming trials in for the 1936 games, but they couldn’t finish it fast enough.
However, South Park went to the extra expense and trouble to build an extra pool that was not so large called Sully’s pool. Sully’s pool was the place where African American Pittsburghers of the late 1930’s went to swim. These two pools existed side by side in South Park until the early 1970’s when the larger, natural rock pool in South Park was closed. The pool that exists for use today in the park is the one formerly known as Sully’s pool.
Newly arrived migrants from the South, like Champ and Delie were probably glad to have a Sully’s pool. Swimming in tax-payer supported pools was always a risky proposition in the Southern United States in the first part of the 20th century. Some communities maintained separate pool hours for African American citizens, but other communities banned them from swimming there altogether, by custom if not by law. So, when they wanted to swim, African Americans had to use quarries, ponds, swimming holes or skipped swimming as a practice altogether.
Not having a place to enjoy swimming has led, I believe, to embraced beliefs among African Americans that swimming is an activity that is not “for us” and swimming as being “bad for our hair.” Over generations, the fear of being rejected at public swimming pools has contributed to a larger percentage of African American children who drown in swimming accidents.
So while the mere existence of a segregated pool seems horrible and backward to us now, Sully’s pool represented real progress to the newly arrived Champ, Delie and their large brood of adopted children.