Oregon has the 10th highest rate of deaths due to drowning at 1.4/100,000 in the US . For the period between 1999-2018 the CDC reported the rate for Blacks in Oregon to be 2.2/100,000 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2003)) The CDC points out that “...drowning in a swimming pool was almost six times more likely among black children and adolescents aged 5–18 years than among their white peers. However, if a group's exposure to pools is less than that of their peers, their true drowning risks, based on equivalent exposure, could be even higher."
Racism in swimming in Oregon and the Nation has deprived the community of an essential life skill. Prior to WWII, the Black Community made up less than 3000 people. This tiny community, prior to 1910, was able to move and live where it wanted. As the community grew to about 2000, so did the enforcement of discriminatory practices.
The period from 1940-1947 saw the population increase to 22,000. The temporary community of Vanport was created to house the influx of ship yard workers. It’s destruction in 1948 forced more into the Albina area. Life in Portland for Blacks included living with Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in restaurants, theaters and other public facilities. Black families would visit nearby parks but there was little said about the use of swimming facilities that existed at the time. Although there were no specific ordinance prohibiting the use, the dominant social practices of the time would have made using those facilities practically impossible. Based on ads in the Black newspapers of time, the YMCA was the only organization offering any swimming lessons; even this organization was segregated.
The flood in 1948 of the Vanport area, the ending of the access to union jobs and redlining and other structures segregating Portland effectively constrained the Black community, reduced to a population of 11000 by 1950, giving it few employment and recreational opportunities.
Work by the Urban League of Portland, Willamette University students, City club of Portland and NAACP, lead to the 1953 Oregon Civil rights bill passes ending discrimination in public facilities. With this victory, life still would not improve for the community. It would take the overall civil rights movement in US progressing and an increasingly organized Black community in Portland to drive change.
“As an example, across the country, public accommodations like parks and public swimming pools were segregated by Jim Crow laws in the south, or by less overt means in the northern and western parts of the United States. Though Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders succeeded in the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, whereby discrimination in housing and public accommodations became illegal, those practices continued in less obvious ways. When segregated recreational facilities were ordered by the courts to be open for people of color, the integration was rarely peaceful.
People of color seeking to use these facilities were met with hostile resistance, force and violence (Wolcott, 2012). Rather than embracing a spirit of advocacy, openness and inclusion, some cities shut down their public pools rather than allowing mixed-race swimming, while in other cities Whites moved to pools that were located in more racially homogeneous White neighborhoods or used private pools, where racial discrimination was still legal.”(Five-Racial Equity Plan, Furthering Citywide Racial Equity Goals and Strategies September 2017; Portland Parks and Recreation)
The Portland city council and Parks Bureau faced significant pressure from Albina Community Corporation to provide opportunities for grassroot participation in summer event programs. This pressure led to the Knott street community Center(Dishman) getting a pool serving Albina community 1968. (Aluminum 25 meter by 25 yards). At the time the Portland Parks Bureau at least 7 pools available across the city.
During the 70’s a migration happened; urban renewal projects in the 50’s and 60’s brought the Colosseum and I-5, forcing the community to look for housing in the Columbia Slew area of the North Portland Peninsula. Although the migration gave the community access to better homes, it also led the community towards an environmental ghetto. From 1970-2010, this area of the city has seen some investment, specifically in 1989 a levy passed that allowed for the renovation of the Dishman Community Center’s pool and building. In 1996, a change was made to how parks were funded allowing for leveraging private donations to fund park services.
We are currently at a crossroads where there is access to proper facilities for swimming. What is missing is an adequate regional program to connect the community to the existing aquatic resources, develop lifeguards and instructors and a curriculum to develop the swimming skills that allow for the use and enjoyment of both constructed and natural resources.