Fifty miles west of New Orleans in the US, along the twisting banks of the Mississippi River, lies the unincorporated community of Vacherie, Louisiana. It's split into two designations: North Vacherie and South Vacherie. But that is not the only way in which Vacherie is divided. According to some residents, racial segregation has continued unchallenged in the community, and specifically in one of its private swimming clubs.
Since 1974, La Vacherie Swimming Club has operated on a share-holding membership basis, meaning that, to be a member, you must buy a share in the pool. Should a member want to sell a share, an applicant, selected from the club's waitlist, can buy it and gain membership.
But, it is an open secret among the just over 3,000 South Vacherie residents that there is only one way off the waitlist: You must be white. According to former members of the pool, they had never heard of a single Black person who had been offered membership. “It’s just always been known that Black people can’t go there. If they try, they tell them there’s a waiting list. They’ll say it takes years to buy a share there,” longtime Vacherie resident, Jill Griffin told Refinery29. “You get off the waiting list when someone’s share becomes available and then the board has to approve you. Black people are never getting approved. They skirt around it.”
This summer, Griffin decided to act on her frustration with the segregation that existed in her hometown and its private clubs. On 7th July, she laid bare the club’s discriminatory practices on Facebook and Twitter. “If you are a member of the whites only pool you are part of the problem no matter how many times you post BLM!” Griffin posted on Facebook. “And I said what I said!!!” Her post quickly amassed more than 1,000 comments.
Many responded in shock that a pool would still be segregated in 2020, while others from Vacherie and nearby towns responded that it was time that the swimming club was called out. Still more had stories of their own: Some told stories about never feeling welcome at the pool club as children; others recounted rumours of the racist reasons why Black people weren’t offered membership.
“I can’t believe y’all don’t know that,” wrote one Facebook commenter. “That pool been whites only for a long time.” Another commenter wrote, “I remember being invited to multiple parties at this pool and our Black friends would never come and I knew why. It’s completely and utterly disgusting.”
On Twitter, Griffin posted a call out to anyone who could help her tell the story of La Vacherie Swimming Club. It, too, garnered thousands of likes and retweets.
But what none of the comments could confirm was whether or not La Vacherie Swimming Club had ever had an official policy preventing the admission of Black members. When we reached out to the swimming club, we found that the listed phone number listed had been disconnected. Refinery29 also repeatedly reached out to each of the members listed on the club's board, but they did not respond. Yet, according to another local swimming club, La Vacherie is still in full operation. However, its existence is not traceable online or even on Google Maps.
Perhaps the current elusiveness of La Vacherie Swimming Club shouldn't be a surprise. Griffin’s Twitter and Facebook posts set off alarms. While some of the town's residents were supportive of Griffin, others tried to dilute her assertions by discrediting her and her family, who have lived in Vacherie for generations. No wonder, then, that many residents declined to speak about the swim club out of fear of threats or retaliation.
Some of the people who came forward with their experiences of discrimination faced immediate retribution. Big Easy Magazine, a New Orleans-based platform, ran a story in July about the allegations against La Vacherie Swimming Club. In an update, the magazine redacted the names of social media posters with a note stating that they "now fear for their safety."
“I didn’t know Vacherie was that racist until Jill made that post and people attacked her,” LaKrisha Dumas, another lifelong resident of Vacherie, told Refinery29. “I remember growing up as a kid. We used to walk by there and they used to always look at us crazy, so we would just leave. At the time, we didn’t really know so much about racists. Vacherie is more of a white community, but has Black people in it,” she said.
Dumas, like many other Black residents, wanted a membership for her kids, but didn’t know where to begin. On a Vacherie Facebook page with around 4,000 followers, Dumas posted asking how she could get a membership in time for this summer. No one responded. Refusing to let it go, she started messaging people directly on Facebook. One woman responded, not with answers, but discouraging her from applying by saying how difficult it was to get a membership.
“I kept pushing like, ‘I don’t care. I still want to know how to get a membership,’” said Dumas. She then reached out to the swimming club president’s wife. “At first she didn’t respond to me,” Dumas explained. “But I guess as Jill’s post got more in the spotlight, she finally inboxed me back on Facebook.” The woman suggested Dumas reach out to someone else about how to apply. Dumas continued, “I had asked her, ‘Isn’t your husband the president of this? Wouldn’t you have more details than me inboxing somebody else about it?’”
Dumas said she hadn’t heard of any Black members at La Vacherie Swimming Club. But it seemed that her interest in applying, coupled with Griffin’s viral post, may have added some pressure on the swimming club. “I was told that the reason they inboxed me and got back to me after that post Jill made...was the feedback of everything that was going on,” said Dumas. “I guess they’re trying to put my face out there as this, ‘Yeah, we do allow Black people.’ They’re not going to do that to me. That’s not right.”
These discriminatory practices weren't just relegated to potential members either. In 2014, La Vacherie Swimming Club was one of the members of the River Parish Swim League. In a near-split vote, La Vacherie Swimming Club joined three other swimming teams to vote Piranha Swim Team out of its league of seven teams, citing “unsportsmanlike conduct.” Among all the teams in the league, Piranha Swim Team was the only racially diverse group of swimmers. According to a report from L’Observateur at the time, the vote was close. Three of the teams, including Piranha Swim Team, voted for the team to remain in the league, but they were overruled by a majority vote from team representatives from four other teams including La Vacherie.
Caught off-guard by the sudden dismissal, Piranha Swim Team head coach Haley Montz and assistant coach Blaine Tatje released a statement accusing league officials of discrimination. “As a league board that should be promoting sportsmanship and teaching athletes the importance of respecting the sport and each other, we have been faced with unprecedented resistance in the form of what can only be called blatant racial discrimination,” the statement read. Tatje told L’Observateur that they were voted out because 30 percent of their team was Black. “We are the only team that has such diversity in our membership, as we do not discriminate in our membership,” the press release continues. League officials did not respond to the accusations at the time.
Though La Vacherie is in the spotlight now for discriminatory membership criteria, many other social and swim clubs across the country have also been called out for similar practices. In 2018, the New York Times shed light on a social club in South Carolina that rejected the application of what would have been the club’s first Black member. The Charleston Rifle Club — historically created to promote good marksmanship, but better known today for bowling — bases admittance on votes from existing members. For each applicant, existing members cast their votes with either a white or black marble: white being a vote for admittance and black being a vote against.
Despite sponsorship from a current member who emphasised his good character and community roots, Dr W. Melvin Brown III was not offered a spot in the club. He was the only Black man among the applicants. Refinery29 reached out to the Charleston Rifle Club to see if it had accepted Black applicants since then but has received no reply.
These kinds of practices are illegal, of course: In 1964, the federal Civil Rights Act passed, prohibiting discrimination on the basis of race, colour, religion, and nationality. It applies to both public and private entities so long as the private business is a place of “public accommodation.” A business falls into this category when they are open to the public or are oriented to the public in some way. This applies to places like privately owned restaurants, gyms, or pools among others, though many facilities that practice discrimination remain largely unreported.
But these US federal laws do not regulate private membership clubs insofar as their membership policies. In fact, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 contains an exception specifically for clubs. The Act “shall not apply to a private club or other establishment not in fact open to the public, except to the extent that the facilities of such establishment are made available to customers or patrons of an establishment…” That means that while private clubs are not legally allowed to discriminate against customers, they have a lot of say in who becomes a customer in the first place.
Another exception that private clubs, including swim clubs, have used is found within the First Amendment to the US Constitution. Often cited as the amendment allowing individual free speech without fear of government recourse, the First Amendment also safeguards the right to “expressive association” or “expressive activity.” This protects an entity's right to organise for the purpose of attracting members who share certain viewpoints, interests, values, or abilities so long as it is clear that they are not open to the public. It also provides legal protection for members to associate and to set specific — but applicable — conditions for membership. This allows them to deny membership based on an applicant lacking predetermined qualities or qualifications.
Historically, the US Supreme Court has repeatedly upheld private clubs and associations’ right to expressive association even in the face of clear patterns of explicit discrimination. When that fails, cities and organisations have gone to great lengths to avoid integration. In 1957 — prior to the Civil Rights Act, but when the fight for desegregation was reaching its peak — a man in Marshall, TX, backed by the NAACP, sued to integrate a brand new public swimming pool. Once it was clear the city would lose the case, citizens voted to have the city sell its recreational facilities to avoid integration. The pool in question sold to a local Lions’ Club which was able to operate it as a whites-only private facility. Even now, with federal laws in place, there are still clubs looking for ways to maintain segregation even if it means going through a loophole.
That is not to say that these exceptions make a perfect shelter of words for people to house discriminatory clubs built on exclusion. More often than not, private clubs are not actually as private as they think. “If everyone is invited to apply, that right off the bat tells me that this is not a private club no matter what they call it,” Sunu Chandy, Legal Director of the National Women’s Law Centre, told Refinery29 after hearing the story of La Vacherie Swimming Club. Chandy then outlined the ways in which a court will look at an organisation to establish if it is actually a private club or if it interacts with the world in which case, the legal concept of public accommodation comes into play.
“If you’re saying that anyone can apply, this is a place of public accommodation,” Chandy said. “This is a public space and so civil rights apply and you cannot be rejecting people based on race.”
There are three overarching questions when establishing the legitimacy of a private club, Chandy explains. First, is whether public accommodation applies. Second, if it does apply, is the club defending its exclusion in some way? Third, if it is being defended, is that justifiable in light of civil rights protections? Whether it is called a private club or not, it all comes down to actions speaking louder than words.
"They are open to the public, so they are open to everyone," Chandy said. "It’s okay to have a theme and a mission and have a message, but you can’t really do that in a way that is exclusive."
As summer comes to an end, so has the outrage, repudiation, and threats directed at those who pointed a spotlight on an unlit and undiscussed corner of the community of Vacherie. We followed up with Griffin who believes that, due to COVID-19, the pool wasn't able to open for the summer months, meaning that La Vacherie Swimming Club will likely sit empty until next year.
"They were mad that I exposed their racism and all they could do was attack me," said Griffin, who was surprised that no one associated with the swimming club tried to make a statement either publicly or within the community. "Their silence speaks volumes."