Black family kicked out of historically Black pool, highlighting lasting impact of segregation

“It’s not that Black people cannot swim. It’s that they were denied access for so long that the skill stopped being learned.”
Ghenete Wright Muir, Masai Muir and Niki Lopez back in the pool at Joseph C. Carter Park for the swim-in protest.
Ghenete Wright Muir, Masai Muir and Niki Lopez back in the pool at Joseph C. Carter Park for the swim-in protest.David I Muir

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By Isoke Samuel

The Fort Lauderdale community is being asked to confront its own history with barring Black residents from beaches and pools after a white woman demanded that police be called on a Black family at a public pool.

Ghenete Wright Muir, an attorney and an LGBTQ advocate, and her son, Masai, 23, are both former competitive swimmers who went to the Joseph C. Carter Park pool, which had been designated for Black people during segregation, for the first time on July 19.

Muir said after she entered the pool, she turned to her son, who was swimming two lanes away, to ask a question. Muir said that a white woman who was swimming in the lane between the two demanded they stop speaking across her lane. She said she asked the lifeguard if there was a rule prohibiting speaking across lanes. The lifeguard said there was not. According to Muir, the woman demanded that Muir and her son leave the pool and an argument ensued. Muir said she and her son asked that they be allowed to stay as they had not broken any rules. The woman then requested that the police be called, according to Muir.

“I was distraught. When I heard her say she's going to call the police, it was already painful for me,” Muir said. “You don't call the police on Black people when there's no danger. Maybe she could have gotten out of the pool and left. If she was really feeling uncomfortable, there was nothing stopping her from leaving the pool. She also could have moved lanes over.”

Another member of the pool staff, who has not been publicly identified, called the police, and could not be reached by NBC News. When police arrived, Muir said everyone was asked to get out of the pool. For fear of what might happen if they did not comply, they got out of the pool.

Bodycam footage obtained by NBC 6 South Florida shows officers asking everyone to leave the pool. Muir said that even after officers asked the woman to leave, she refused. The Ft. Lauderdale police department has not yet responded to a request for comment from NBC News.

City Commissioner Robert McKinzie said Fort Lauderdale is working on a plan to make sure an incident like this does not happen again, especially because the pool staff member “never should’ve called the police,” he said.

“My question is, why did one of our lifeguards feel so threatened to pick up the phone and call the police for something that we could have handled,” he said. “It's a public pool, so we welcome all, but we will not tolerate that type of behavior.”

In a statement to NBC News, a representative for the city of Fort Lauderdale confirmed Muir, her son, and her friend Niki Lopez, 45, who was also at the pool, were banned for 24 hours for “inappropriate behavior and failure to comply with the lifeguard’s directives.” The woman was banned for two additional days for “violating park rules.” NBC News reached out to the woman and the pool manager but did not receive a response.

When legal segregation barred Black swimmers from pools and beaches

Marvin Dunn, a historian, said Muir’s experience points to an issue that has existed in Fort Lauderdale since at least 1896 when Black people in the city were first denied access to the ocean after the Florida East Coast Railroad was built.

“It’s a glimpse of what we have gone through, historically, in terms of one kind of denial, one kind of discrimination, one aspect of racism that can be traced back to a period when there was intense resistance to be in the water with Blacks,” Dunn said. “In the whole scope of desegregation, the thing that white people themselves resisted, second only to intermarriage, was swimming with Black people.”

In 1961, Black protesters in the city staged a series of “wade-ins” at white-only beaches in order to get proper roads built to the Black-only beach that was overgrown and only accessible by ferry.

Dunn said that over time, the exclusion of Black people from beaches and pools had an impact.

“It’s not that Black people cannot swim. It’s that they were denied access for so long that the skill stopped being learned,” he said. “Because of racial segregation and Blacks not being allowed access to pools, Blacks, as a group, tend not to be able to swim comparative to whites.” African American children ages 5-19 are 5.5 times more likely to drown in a swimming pool, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A 2017 survey by the University of Memphis and the USA Swimming Foundation found that Black children and their parents are three times more fearful of drowning than white children and their parents. The survey also found that 64 percent of Black children have low or no swimming ability and there’s a high likelihood that if parents do not know how to swim, their children don’t either.

But Muir learned to swim at age 5 and began competing when she was 9. She made sure that both her sons could swim, too.

After the incident at the pool, Muir’s swim club, Diversity in Aquatics, an organization focused on teaching water safety and aquatics activities to underrepresented communities, organized a swim-in protest. They are asking that pool staff be trained in de-escalation tactics, that more aquatics programs be established to teach Black community members to swim, and that the woman be banned from the pool.

“Causing people who already love the water and people who are learning to love the water to then be kicked out in a traumatic fashion by using police power is a micro-example of how they maintain the disconnect Black people have with water,” Thaddeus Gamory, director of community engagement and programs for Diversity in Aquatics, said. “That maintains the disparity, and the myth that Black people can't swim.”

He adds that this incident may have introduced an added anxiety to swimming for Black people. It suggests that the pool is another unsafe space where a white person's discomfort could put their lives in danger.

Muir said her son went back to the pool as soon as he could but she was anxious about returning. On Sunday, she said, her stomach was in knots as she recalled what happened the last time she was there, but she got in the pool at Joseph C. Carter Park and swam with her son and her friend.

“I need to make a habit of going there at least once or twice a week, and owning it and releasing what happened there,” she said. “There's a part of me that feels like I'm never going back there, but then it feels like, no, that's wrong. I have equal rights, and I own the pool as much as anybody here in the city.”

UPDATE (Aug. 1, 2020, 11:40 p.m. ET): This article has been updated to remove the name of the woman accused by Muir, whose identity has not been verified by NBC News.