State officials will investigate accusations of racial discrimination against a suburban Philadelphia swim club that allegedly reacted to a visiting group of minority children by asking them not to return.
The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission will immediately open an investigation into the actions of The Valley Club in the leafy suburb of Huntingdon Valley, chairman Stephen A. Glassman said.
“The rule of law in Pennsylvania is equal opportunity for all, regardless of race,” Glassman said Thursday in a written statement released by his office.
“Allegedly, this group was denied the use of a pool based on their race,” Glassman said. “If the allegations prove to be true, this is illegal discrimination in Pennsylvania.”
The club maintains that accusations of racial discrimination are false and claims overcrowding from more than one outside camp was the problem.
The Creative Steps camp in northeast Philadelphia had contracted for the 65 children at the day camp to go each Monday afternoon to The Valley Club in Huntingdon Valley, camp director Alethea Wright said Thursday. But shortly after they arrived June 29, she said, some black and Hispanic children reported hearing racial comments.
“A couple of the children ran down saying, ‘Miss Wright, Miss Wright, they’re up there saying, “What are those black kids doing here?”‘” she said.
The gated club is on a leafy hillside in a village that straddles two townships with overwhelmingly white populations. It says it has a diverse, multiethnic membership.
Wright said she went to talk to a group of members and heard one woman say she would see to it that the group, made of up of children in kindergarten through seventh grade, did not return.
“Some of the members began pulling their children out of the pool and were standing around with their arms folded,” Wright said. “Only three members left their children in the pool with us.”
Several days later, the club refunded the camp’s $1,950 without explanation, said Wright, who added that some parents are “weighing their options” on legal action.
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People requested the Human Relations Commission’s investigation.
Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., issued a statement calling the allegations “extremely disturbing” and said he was looking into the matter.
The United States’ highest-profile black swimmer, Olympic gold medalist Cullen Jones, said “hearing about what’s happened to these 65 kids is both disturbing and appalling.”
Chuck Wielgus, executive director of USA Swimming, the governing body for the U.S. swim team, was stunned at the accusations.
“This is the sort of thing you’d hear about in 1966, during the height of the civil rights movement, not in 2009, and not in the City of Brotherly Love, of all places,” he said.
Club president John Duesler told Philadelphia television station WTXF that several club members complained because the children “fundamentally changed the atmosphere” at the pool but that the complaints didn’t involve race.
In a statement released on its Web site Thursday afternoon, the club called the allegations of racial discrimination “completely untrue.”
The club said it “deplores discrimination.”
Amy Goldman said she’s been a member of the club for two years. She said the pool wasn’t particularly crowded and the children from Creative Steps were “well-behaved and respectful.”
She said there had been black members at the club in the past, though she couldn’t remember seeing any this year.
The club appeared closed Thursday afternoon, and the guard station at the entrance was unattended.
About two dozen protesters, most of them white, held signs in front of the club’s locked gates and chanted slogans including, “Jim Crow swims here!”
Wright rejected the overcrowding explanation, saying the club covers 10 acres with a “nice-sized” pool and a separate pool for younger children. The board, she said, knew that her group included 65 children, and none of them had misbehaved.
Wright said that the children were upset and that she was looking for a psychologist to speak to them. Some children have asked her whether they are “too dark” to swim in the pool, she said.
Day camp member Araceli Carvalho, 9, said she was upset when told she wouldn’t be allowed to return.
“I said, ‘That’s not right,'” she said.
But when asked if she wants to return now, she said, “I don’t want to swim here anymore.”
Wright said Girard College, a boarding school for poor children in first through 12th grades, has offered to host the camp children for the summer.