Atlanta artist's 'Ghost Pools' exhibit parses effects of segregation on public pools in Georgia
Across two abandoned public pools in East Point, a local Atlanta artist hopes others will see reflections of Georgia's history of segregation.
Hannah Palmer's "Ghost Pools" exhibit, created in partnership with Flux Projects — a public art collective with a self-proclaimed mission to "invite audiences in Atlanta to explore the city’s sites and stories as a means to imagining its future possibilities" — is focused on the complicated, and often forgotten history of Atlanta's public pools.
The two East Point pools that were the focus of her exhibit, the Randall Street Pool and the Spring Avenue Pool, were segregated for Black and white Americans.
When integration became law, the pools were opted to be abandoned instead. With that was a loss of public swimming for both black and white communities in the town, leading to decades of disparities in swimming abilities and fear of drowning—which is still present today, when 64 percent of Black children are not proficient swimmers, compared with 40 percent of white children.
While the topic itself comes with the heavy weight of history, Palmer told GPB News they began their research and interest from a simpler place.
"I started getting interested in this topic just because my kids reached an age where they needed to learn how to swim. I was doing this research as a mom," she said. "I was saying, 'Like, where are they going to learn to swim? Where am I going to take them? What happened to the pool in our neighborhood?'"
Those questions eventually led Palmer to discover the complicated history of public pools and their relationship with the racial divide in Georgia.
"Because of the way my brain works, I immediately started doing all this research and asking questions about the past, but only because I have a need in the present," she said. "I imagine sometimes when I talk to old folks who remember this history they're a bit dismayed and feel like this is bringing up old wounds, bringing up bad stuff from the past. I feel like it's never healed. If it had healed, we'd have swimming, right?"
With those big questions also came other surprises in Palmer's research.
"I had always kind of assumed that this was a symptom of the Jim Crow South, just losing our swimming pools rather than integrating them," she said. "I was surprised to learn, in fact, this happened in the forties in St. Louis and Pittsburgh and in New York and like in northern cities who were experiencing a large influx of African-American migrants. And they were the first to set up racial restrictions and codes."
Another surprise was Palmer's discovery that the federal government played a large role in the initial creation of public pools across America.
"The federal government sponsored the first major pool building boom in this country during the Works Progress Administration era," she said. "Every small town in America took a swimming pool with the help of the WPA, just about."
The exhibits will be hosted at the former sites of the pools themselves, featuring an audio and visual component that helps tell the story of the construction, segregation and failed integrations of the community sites in a time of divide in America.
Flux Projects executive director Anne Dennington told GPB News that she believes Palmer is set to become one of Atlanta's greatest modern storytellers.
"I think that this city is only just beginning to realize the impact that she is going to have on how we view water," she said.
Dennington hopes the project will help reconcile people's perspectives on race in the south.
"Part of it might just be in our DNA, right? That, you know, it's history with the civil rights in general," she said. "I think that I think that being in the South, particularly if you grew up in as a Southerner, you carry a certain weight of the past with you."
Palmer said the similarity between today's political divides and that of the time of segregation was an unintentional parallel drawn by the project, not one she saw as the impetus for her questions when she began.
"This is stuff I was not taught in school because it's a it's a negative story about how racist behavior impacted our communities." she said. "I really started this work five or six years ago. I have been learning that this is something we need to talk about as a city, right?"
The opening night of "Ghost Pools" will be on Sat, June 3, 5 to 9 p.m. at the former sites of the two pools and will run through the summer.