Acknowledging History: Swimming and the Anacostia River

Acknowledging History: Swimming and the Anacostia River

Although we had to navigate our way through the Kenilworth landfill to get to the river to swim, we felt that it was well worth it. We felt that it was our local beach! We felt very free, as children should feel. We played in the river and at the dump until we were discovered.
— Dennis Chestnut, Deanwood Resident

Before 1949, pools were segregated in the District of Columbia, and African Americans had few safe places to swim in the city. When white-only pools were desegregated that year, a riot broke out at the Anacostia Pool in Fairlawn, then a white neighborhood. The pool closed for a while and then reopened, but as desegregation became the norm, many white people stopped using the pools as frequently and the quality of facilities declined.

Dennis Chestnut

Dennis Chestnut

Dennis Chestnut, a resident of Deanwood, tried to swim in the pool in Fairlawn around that time. “I leapt at the chance to go to a regulation size pool with two diving boards, a high dive and a low diving board,” he said. “Once at the pool we were surprised to see the white kids get out of the pool when we got in, but didn’t mind because it meant more jumps off the diving boards with no lines. Our return trip home was not so pleasant. We had to travel back through the all-white neighborhoods near Fort Dupont Park, where we were assaulted with rocks and bottles by some of the kids who lived there.”

Dennis and his friends instead decided to swim in the Anacostia River. To get to the river, they waded down Watts Branch from Deanwood, the stream that then ran between two halves of the Kenilworth landfill. The District burned its trash in the open air at this landfill until it was closed in the late 1960’s and capped in 1970, becoming what is now called Kenilworth Park.

Kenilworth Landfill along the Anacostia River (now Kenilworth Park). Photo: NPS

Kenilworth Landfill along the Anacostia River (now Kenilworth Park). Photo: NPS

“Although we had to navigate our way through the Kenilworth landfill to get to the river to swim, we felt that it was well worth it. We felt that it was our local beach! We felt very free, as children should feel. We played in the river and at the dump until we were discovered.” 

Today, most of the residents in neighborhoods east of the Anacostia River are African American. The pool in Fairlawn is still there, but Dennis’ story is just one example of many in which African Americans nationwide have been “separated from water” over time, as Brentin Mock describes it in an article about the history of African Americans and swimming pools. Mock argues that “the stereotype that black people don’t swim… is ill-deserved, just like the notion that people of color don’t like the outdoors.”

It is true today that many fewer African Americans know how to swim than white Americans, which not only increases chances of drowning but also “bars black children from being qualified for a variety of summer employment and career opportunities, ranging from lifeguards and camp counselors to collegiate coaches and directors of aquatics for municipalities,” according to Ebony Rosemond, founder of Black Kids Swim.

A proposed swimming facility in the Charles River in Boston, MA. Image: Charles River Conservancy.

A proposed swimming facility in the Charles River in Boston, MA. Image: Charles River Conservancy.

As the Anacostia River marches toward becoming swimmable and fishable in the near future, the District not only has an opportunity to celebrate the clean water resulting from billions of dollars of cleanup investments, but also to acknowledge the history racism and swimming surrounding the Anacostia. The Kenilworth landfill is gone, and water quality in the river is improving. Around the world, cities are restoring their once-industrial waterfronts for new use, including swimming. An Anacostia River Pool could reclaim the river as a safe and inviting space for DC kids to enjoy clean water and learn how to swim.

Currently, many government agencies are planning for the future of the Anacostia River and its 1,100 acres of waterfront parks. If the District wants to create a safe and fun place to swim in the river once it’s restored, now is the time to start envisioning what such a facility could look like, where it could go, and how it could best serve District residents. That’s the goal of the Anacostia River Pool initiative. That’s why we asked architecture, engineering and planning firm SmithGroup to study the feasibility of creating a swimming facility in the river, and why we are now asking people like you to let the world know what you think about swimming in the river.

Sign up to get updates on the Anacostia River Pool initiative as it moves forward.


Erin Garnaas-Holmes is the Ambassador to the Anacostia Watershed Urban Waters Partnership.

Swimming Links

Swimming Links