Tyler Fleming

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Tyler FlemingBio

Tyler Fleming is an associate professor in the Departments of Pan-African Studies and History at the University of Louisville (Louisville, Kentucky, USA). His research focuses on black South African popular cultures (mainly music, sport, literature and theatre) during the twentieth century. Dr. Fleming has published in various academic journals, including History in Africa,
Safundi, and The International Journal of History of Sport. He is also the co-editor of Music, Performance and African Identities (New York: Routledge, 2011). In 2020, he published his first monograph, Opposing Apartheid on Stage: King Kong the Musical, with University of Rochester Press.

 

Abstract

“The Place of a Pool: St. Cyprian’s Swimming Pool in Memories of Sophiatown”

Few neighborhoods loom as large within South African popular memory than Johannesburg’s Sophiatown. A key facet of Sophiatown’s enduring memory was the area’s exceptionality. Its close location to the city’s downtown, the multiracial composition of its residents, and its status as one of the few freehold areas where Africans could own land made Sophiatown an epicenter of black Johannesburg throughout the 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s. It became associated with interracial mixing, cosmopolitanism, and black modernity. Its former residents included notable figures, such as Nelson Mandela, Dr. A.B. Xuma, Bloke Modisane, Don Mattera, among others. Because of its now almost mythical status, Sophiatown’s unique history is well-documented in academic scholarship, autobiographies and memoirs, documentary films, and popular memory. However, the history of specific landmarks, particularly spaces of sports and leisure, in Sophiatown remains rather uneven and underexplored. One such space that differentiated Sophiatown from the Witwatersrand’s other black neighborhoods and townships was a swimming pool.

Built in 1939 on the grounds of Community of the Resurrection Church and St. Cyprian School, this swimming pool was the first pool widely available for use by the black public (until the construction of a pool in Orlando, Soweto in the mid-1950s). As a result, the Sophiatown swimming pool became immensely popular, especially amongst African children, and acquired a particularly enduring significance to black Johannesburg throughout the postwar era. The swimming pool became ingrained in historical accounts of Sophiatown and regularly recalled in the memories of Johannesburg’s residents from the era. As such, this paper explores what this swimming pool meant to black South Africans, how the pool operated, who used it and why, and how this one landmark came to seemingly epitomize Sophiatown’s exceptionality and factors into historical memory. In doing so, this essay mines autobiographical accounts, newspapers and periodicals, missionary records, and government documents to articulate this particular pool’s significance to Sophiatown, Johannesburg, and South Africa.

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