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Suit Accusing Coach of Racism Stirs Bitter Memories of Pool's Past

Bias: Aquatics Center's predecessor discriminated against blacks. Officials say current allegations are false.

April 16, 2001|RICHARD WINTON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The crystal clear waters of the Rose Bowl Aquatics Center are calm, but poolside, things are getting rough these days with a lawsuit and allegations of racism that are a reminder of a past that many in Pasadena would just as soon forget.

Nestled in Pasadena's Arroyo Seco in the shadow of the Rose Bowl, this sparkling oasis is one of Southern California's premier swimming and diving facilities. It hosted final practices of the 2000 Olympic team, and one of the region's top-rated swim teams calls it home.

But the team's head coach, Gary Anderson, is now facing allegations that he kicked some swimmers off the team because they were Asian and used racial epithets when referring to Asian Americans, African Americans and Latinos.

Named in the suit claiming racial discrimination, slander, infliction of emotional distress and violation of civil rights are Anderson -- a one-time Canadian Olympic swimmer and USC star -- and the center, its booster club and the city.

The suit, filed by Faith and Alan De Jong, is all the more stinging because of a chapter in Pasadena's history. The center, with its two Olympic-size pools and world-class facilities, was built on the site of the Brookside Plunge, where for decades minorities could use the pool only one day a week.

For 33 years, African Americans and others struggled to desegregate the city-owned pool, and didn't succeed until 1947--the year Pasadena's Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in baseball.

Robinson, born in Georgia, wrote in his book about the treatment of blacks in Pasadena and baseball: "We saw movies from segregated balconies, swam in a municipal pool only on Tuesdays and were permitted in the YMCA one night a week. . . . In certain respects, Pasadenans were less understanding than Southerners and even more hostile."

The plunge, even if unknown to some Pasadena residents today, remains a metaphor for race relations in the city, said Howard Shorr, a former Pasadena resident and community college history instructor, whose essay on the plunge's significance appeared last year in the anthology "Law in the Western United States."

"Much of the history of Pasadena that's often discussed is the boosterism of Greene & Greene [Craftsman] homes," he said. "But what is often neglected is its role in the struggle for civil rights."

To hear Jordan Sheinbaum, the attorney for the De Jongs, tell it, the more things change, the more they stay the same. "We'll show racism played a considerable part in this man's decision to throw my client's children off the team," he said.

Repeated attempts to reach Anderson, who has been head coach of the swim team since January 1998, were not successful.

William E. Thomson Jr., Aquatics Center board member and Pasadena's former mayor, said the De Jong children and those of a few other parents were asked to leave because their parents were disruptive. He denied that Anderson ever used racially charged language.

"We've investigated these claims thoroughly and there's no truth to them," said Thomson, who said he was speaking on behalf of the center and its officials. "If you come to the Aquatics Center when school's out, you'll see the broad-based diversity. There is simply no discrimination taking place at the Aquatics Center," he said. "It's flatly wrong to tie this lawsuit to history 40 or 50 years ago."

The plunge opened on July 4, 1914, and was accessible to people of color only Wednesday afternoons and evenings, Shorr said. A black taxpayers group challenged the practice.

The city responded by banning all nonwhites from the pool entirely until 1929 when each Tuesday, between 2 and 5 p.m., was designated International Day and set aside for minorities, Shorr said.

Six African American men tried to go to the plunge on the wrong day once in 1939 and were denied entry. The National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People of Los Angeles then sued, and won the case three years later. Rather than abide by the court ruling, Pasadena closed the plunge until the NAACP got an injunction, forcing its reopening on July 7, 1947, without racial restrictions.

Over time the plunge fell into disrepair, and it closed in 1983. Shortly afterward, a local swim coach with the support of several influential donors set about building the independent, nonprofit Aquatics Center -- formally known as the AAF Rose Bowl Aquatic Center. It opened in June 1990 to serve "all members of our diverse community."

Almost immediately, Councilman Isaac Richard and local NAACP leaders complained that the center's "country club" atmosphere discouraged minorities from using it.

"The plunge came to symbolize a time in history when race relations were far from good in Pasadena," said Councilman Chris Holden. "Some African Americans perceive the center much the same way, and it's a great challenge to overcome that."

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