Specter Wants Probe Into Club's Rejection of Black Swimmers

Sen. Arlen Specter looks into claims of racial discrimination.

July 9, 2009, 2:40 PM

July 9, 2009— -- The introductory voice mail for The Valley Club outside Philadelphia notes that "things are really starting to heat up here in July."

They weren't kidding.

The private club in Huntingdon Valley, Pa., is denying it practiced racism after coming under fire from parents, bloggers, even U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter, D-Pa., because a group of black and Hispanic inner-city campers were asked not to come back to the pool even though the camp had paid membership dues through August.

Valley Club president John Duesler Jr. initially released a statement claiming members were concerned "that a lot of kids would change the complexion" and atmosphere of the club.

"This will not be tolerated," said Alethea Wright, executive director of Creative Steps, Inc., which has run the day camp since 1997.

This evening, the club's Web site carried an unsigned statement saying it simply was unable to handle the volume of camp kids and was "deeply troubled by the recent allegations of racism which are completely untrue."

"Our Valley Club deplores discrimination in any form, as is evidenced by our multi-ethnic and diverse membership," the unsigned statement said. "Whatever comments may or may not have been made by an individual member is an opinion not shared by The Valley Club Board."

But during a day at the club, Wright said she was approached by a 7-year-old boy who asked her, "Am I too black to go into the pool?"

As Wright plans to meet with the children's stunned parents, Specter, D-Pa., is waiting for a response to a letter sent out today demanding facts from Duesler.

"As a first step, without getting into all of the legal issues, it is my suggestion that you promptly reinstate the contract and welcome Ms. Alethea Wright's group back to the pool. Whether they accept is up to them," Specter wrote. "It may be that further action will be taken but my suggestion, as an immediate first step, would diffuse the situation and obviously be helpful."

In a separate statement, Specter called the allegations against the swim club "extremely disturbing."

"I am reaching out to the parties involved to ascertain the facts," he said. " Racial discrimination has no place in America today."

The Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission said today it will launch an investigation of the country club's actions at the request of the NAACP.

Wright said she will meet with parents to decide what further action the camp would take against the Valley Club.

Duesler did not return messages left today and the voice mail for the Valley Club was full.

But this evening, the club's unsigned Internet statement said it disinvited the camp kids for logistical reasons, not racial ones.

"We had originally agreed to invite the camps to use our facility, knowing full well that the children from the camps were from multi-ethnic backgrounds," the statement said. "Unfortunately, we quickly learned that we underestimated the capacity of our facilities and realized that we could not accommodate the number of children from these camps. All funds were returned to the camps and we will re-evaluate the issue at a later date to determine whether it can be feasible in the future."

White Children Pulled Out of Pool as Black, Hispanic Kids Entered

Wright told ABCNews.com that Creative Steps had prior approval from the Valley Club board to buy memberships for 65 campers to swim at the club's pool once a week.

When they arrived June 29 for their first session after a 40-minute drive from Philadelphia, Wright said, there were problems from the beginning.

As her campers -- boys and girls from kindergarten to 7th grade -- entered the pool area to swim, parents began pulling their children out of the water and standing poolside with their arms crossed.

Wright didn't hear any racist comments made directly to them, but was told by three campers later that one white woman asked "what are these black kids doing here?"

Out of the more than two dozen white families swimming at the pool that day, Wright said, just three parents allowed their children to swim with her campers.

"The children were very, very upset," she said. "They still don't understand."

And in this day and age, Wright said, neither does she.

Wright said she spoke to Duesler shortly after the incident and he promised to call an emergency board meeting. Twenty-four hours later, Wright said she got a call telling her the board would not allow Creative Steps back on the property and the campers' $1,950 in membership fees would be returned.

The camp is now in talks over an offer from a local college to swim there and will continue swimming at a local Jewish community center.

Wright, who is black, said she has faced this type of racism personally, but never with her campers.

"This is the first time I've ever experienced this with Creative Steps," she said.

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