Justice sues Pa. swim club, charging race bias

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PHILADELPHIA (AP) — The Justice Department accused a suburban Philadelphia swim club of race bias in a lawsuit filed Wednesday, six months after the club barred a group of mostly black day campers from their pool.

The civil-rights suit charges that the Valley Club of Huntingdon Valley engaged in a pattern of racial discrimination in canceling its $1,950, eight-week contract with the Philadelphia-based Creative Steps program after the children’s first visit.

“I’m sorry that it’s come to this. I suggested so many ways (to club officials) that this could be resolved,” said Alethea Wright, the camp’s founder and chief operating officer. “I am so glad that forces are united to make sure that this, never ever happens again.”

Club officials have said race had nothing to do with the ouster of the mostly black and Hispanic children from Philadelphia last June. They say there were too many children for the lifeguards on duty, and that many of the 65 campers couldn’t swim.

The lawsuit seeks to bar the swim club, or any successor clubs, from continuing such conduct.

“It is illegal and inexcusable to discriminate against patrons by barring them from a place of public accommodation on the basis of race or color,” Thomas E. Perez, Assistant Attorney General for the Civil Rights Division, said in a statement.

However, the Valley Club filed for bankruptcy amid the uproar over the camp ban, and the 10-acre parcel is currently for sale, according to the club’s bankruptcy lawyer, Michael Cibik. The land, listed for $2 million, will likely be used for residential housing, he said.

Any proceeds recovered would go toward claimants in the bankruptcy, including club bondholders and the camp families pursuing a class-action lawsuit.

Much of the national attention over the club’s actions centered on a statement by club president John Duesler, who said the presence of so many children would “change the complexion” or atmosphere of the club. He later acknowledged he had used a poor choice of words. Duesler has long refused comment on the case, and a woman who answered the phone at his previous home number said Wednesday he did not live there.

Club member Amy Goldman said Wednesday that Duesler succumbed to pressure last summer from a vocal minority at the club.

“What they did was disgraceful,” said Goldman, 47, of Philadelphia. “I don’t think the majority condones that behavior.”