Place  /  Retrieval

Cooling Off in the Tidal Basin

In the 1920s, Washingtonians dealt with the summer heat by going to the nearest the Tidal Basin.

The beach wasn’t totally without its problems, though. Remember, it was the early 1920s: women’s hemlines were rising, moralities were loosening, and many weren’t happy about it. At the Tidal Basin, officials expressly prohibited “revealing” bathing suits (meaning one-piece suits with hemlines more than six inches above the knee). Women, unless under the age of six, were required to wear loose-fitting suits with skirts, and police were employed to measure any bathing costume they deemed inappropriate. In 1923, Colonel C. O. Sherrill, newly appointed Officer of Public Buildings and Grounds, moreover ended the annual beauty contests at the beach, proclaiming they worked against the policy of modesty that the beach sought to promote.

As the 1920s progressed, additional, more serious conflicts arose. At this time, most public facilities remained strictly segregated. While whites regularly gathered at the premier Tidal Basin Beach, African American Washingtonians were still swimming in undeveloped areas of the Potomac that were largely dangerous. In July of 1921, Col. Sherrill asked Congress for the funds to create a beach for them. Three years later, a bill was finally passed appropriating $75,000 for one on the north coast of the basin. But in February of 1925, before plans for the beach were even finalized, the Senate cut funding. Led by senators from Kentucky and Alabama, the votes were 53 to 22 against such a facility.

With plans for an African American beach scratched, the Tidal Basin Beach for whites came under attack. Senator Phipps of Colorado, fearful of integration, pointed out that “if a colored bathing place is not provided, the colored population of Washington will insist on using the beach for whites.” Other congressmen brought up the quality of the ever-polluted water. Was it really worth the trouble to continue funding its sanitation when the beach would never satisfy the entire population? This debate raged through Congress for the majority of the day on February 18, 1925, and by the time it was over, so was the beach. Congress decreed that there would be no further bathing in the Tidal Basin and ordered the beach to close immediately.


Summer Memories

In the days before air conditioning, Washington DC was one of the cities where summer could feel especially oppressive. This is the story of how Congress came to fund, and then de-fund, a swimming beach for the District's (white) residents.