Pool rules say no dreadlocks or baggy pants. Just business or veiled discrimination?

A social media firestorm that blew up this week over a Wendell pool’s rules banning baggy pants, revealing clothes, dreadlocks and hair extensions may be resonating with some people who remember segregated beaches, black theater balconies with separate entrances, and signs over courthouse water fountains that read, “COLORED” or “WHITE.”

John and Teresa Freeman, who own and operate the Outdoor Recreation Center pool on Wendell Boulevard, have said there was no racist intent in their rules, which they said had been posted in the pool office for years before Teresa Freeman shared them on the pool’s Facebook page and they went viral over the weekend.

That post, and related threads in which the couple apologized for what they said was an incorrect reference to dreadlocks, have since been taken down. John Freeman ordered a reporter off the pool property on Tuesday.

The couple have said the ban on dreads and weaves was an attempt to reduce the influx of “artificial hair” into the pool’s filtration and pump system. In the now withdrawn apology, the couple said the word dreadlocks had been used incorrectly.

Screengrab from comments on the Wendell NC Community Connections Group Facebook page

Some who read the rules in screen grabs shared across social media defended the couple’s right to run their private business as they see fit, and noted that white people also wear baggy pants, revealing clothes, dreadlocks and hair extensions.

Others saw a veiled attempt to discourage potential black patrons from paying the pool’s $100 one-time membership fee and the $6-a-day admission.

“Most people have figured out by now they can’t put up a sign that says a specific race is not welcome,” said Meredith Ballard, a Raleigh attorney who handles discrimination cases brought under state and federal laws that protect designated groups in places of “public accommodations,” including at private businesses that serve the public.

Most often, Ballard said, the complaints she handles have to do with discrimination against people with disabilities, because their legal protections are relatively new.

Laws against racial discrimination in public accommodations are more settled, having been tested and reaffirmed through lawsuits and demonstrations. Brown versus the Board of Education ended racial segregation in public schools, and sit-ins such as the one at the Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro resulted in black customers being able to have pie and coffee alongside white diners.

The divide over swimming

Swimming was once a particularly racially divided activity, and not just in the South. Some public pools in North Carolina and across the country closed down rather than integrate as federal law required. Historic restrictions of African Americans’ access to swimming pools are believed to continue to play a part in drowning rates. The Centers for Disease Control reports that black children are three times more likely to drown than white children, in part because more than 64 percent of black children can’t swim, compared to 40 percent of white children.

Ballard said the test of the intention of the Outdoor Recreation Center’s pool rules is in how the rules have been enforced. It’s not clear whether the owners have denied admission to patrons of any race who violated the rules.

ABC11 news reported that Freeman said the pool has 381 families with various ethnic identities as members, and that he tries to “accommodate any and everybody.”

In a Facebook post that has since been deleted, the Freemans said the ban on dreadlocks, extensions and weaves was because “they can get into pumping equipment, causing an automatic shutdown of 3 days or more.” The Freemans have said they were advised about the issue during a class for their Certified Pool Operator’s license.

“That’s about as big a stretch as there could be,” said Stefan Nickoden, who said he has taught such classes for more than 20 years and managed pools for more than 30.

Nickoden, who is based in Raleigh, said, “I’ve never had a pool that had a problem with hair getting into the pump and closing down the pool. That’s what the filtration system is for. And if hair did get in, repairing it would take a matter of minutes, not days.”

Screengrab from the ORC of Wendell's Facebook page. It has since been taken down.

Nickoden said he could remember a time when, at some public pools, swimmers with long hair were asked to wear swim caps.

“But I haven’t seen that since the 1970s, maybe the 1960s,” he said. “Most rules like that went away a long time ago because they were proven not to be factually based.”

The mayor’s response

Throughout the day Tuesday, relatively few people of any race came to swim at the Outdoor Recreation Center, which sits just outside the Wendell town limits. The pool competes for patrons with facilities in the new housing subdivisions that have been built in Eastern Wake County in recent years, as well as the YMCA in nearby Knightdale and Pullen Park and other city-owned pools in Raleigh.

According to Wake County tax records, the pool at the Outdoor Recreation Center was built in 2000. John Freeman bought the 7-acre property in 2015. More than $2,100 in taxes owed on the property are delinquent and in collection, according to the county’s web site.

Wendell Mayor Virginia Gray said in an email that, “The ORC does not reflect the vision statement or practices of the Town of Wendell,” which she described as, “a beautiful, safe, and full service town with a diverse population.”

Wendell has an estimated population of 7,809, according to the U.S. Census, which says the town is about 68 percent white, about 19 percent black and about 13 percent Hispanic.

Larry Harvey, who has operated Larry’s Tailor Shop in downtown Wendell for 25 years, said it wasn’t immediately clear to him whether the Freemans meant to exclude black swimmers.

As an African American and a business owner himself, he said, “I think a lot of times, people write restrictions without knowing what the boundaries are. You have a right to your own rules and regulations, but they should not be discriminatory.

“If they are, and if it’s brought to your attention, you should have a chance to correct that.”

Related stories from Raleigh News & Observer