A state agency is investigating a Huntingdon Valley swim club for possible racial discrimination after the club revoked a contract to let children from a Northeast Philadelphia day camp swim in its pool.
Officials and antidiscrimination groups expressed concern over the allegedly race-motivated decision and protesters assembled outside the Valley Club's locked gates twice yesterday.
Among them were Silvia Carvalho, 32, of Northeast Philadelphia, and her daughter, Araceli Bagwell, 9, who had been among the city campers swimming at the club.
"This is pathetic," Carvalho said. "The next day, she was telling me she was a minority. I don't want her looking at herself that way. We are not going to allow someone to humiliate us like this."
Homer Floyd, executive director of the state Human Relations Commission, said the civil-rights agency began its investigation after receiving requests from the NAACP and other groups.
"We thought that with issues like this - swim clubs and so forth - we had crossed that hurdle, but clearly we have not," Floyd said.
In a letter to the club, U.S. Sen. Arlen Specter (D., Pa.) suggested the day campers be allowed to return.
On June 29, 65 black and Hispanic children from the city camp Creative Steps Inc. made their first visit to the Montgomery County club and heard some members make racial remarks and escort their own children away from the pool, Creative Steps executive director Aletha Wright said.
Last Friday, the Valley Club refunded a $1,950 check to the camp in Oxford Circle to terminate the agreement allowing children from kindergarten through seventh grade to swim at the club.
A statement on the club's Web site yesterday said its leaders were "deeply troubled by the recent allegations of racism, which are completely untrue."
The statement says the day campers were turned away because they overwhelmed the 110,000-gallon pool.
"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," the statement says.
A worker at another Northeast Philadelphia day camp that had an agreement to use the Valley Club this summer, Storybook Children's Center, said she believed the club's account.
Monica Scanlon said that she took 25 children of diverse ethnicities to the club pool this summer, but that the noise had clearly been too great for comfort.
Valley Club president John Duesler apologetically refunded Storybook's money, as he did for Creative Steps.
"He was trying to help us out, because there weren't supposed to be city pools open this year," said Scanlon, who contacted The Inquirer after learning of the controversy.
By phone, Valley Club board member Fred Helbig, 71, said that he had not heard any race-related comments at the pool on June 29 and that the club does not discriminate.
"We have people who are black, people who are Asian, and Russians and Jewish people," Helbig said.
Other board members could not be reached for comment.
The club, which is unaffiliated with the Huntingdon Valley Country Club, is just outside Philadelphia's city limits and was founded in 1954, when pressure was emanating from within the city to integrate pools. In 1953, State Sen. Charles R. Weiner (R., Phila.) had offered a bill to desegregate all public pools. In 1951, the Rev. Harrison DeShields of South Philadelphia sued pool operators across the city and suburbs, alleging discrimination.
The new allegations against the Valley Club prompted questions of whether it was resisting decades of racial progress.
"It's 2009, not 1909," said Spencer Lewis, 41, of Conshohocken, who works in marketing and who went to the club yesterday morning to protest. "It's just kind of weird that we can have a black president, but black kids - these children, they're in seventh grade - they can't even swim in the pool."
Lewis and others spread word of their protest plans via social-networking sites, which drew a crowd of about 30 to the Valley Club gates at one point yesterday afternoon. There was also a small protest in the morning.