Skip to main content

Boy 'glad' he spoke out after hearing racial slurs at Pennsylvania swim club

From Ross Levitt and Susan Candiotti, CNN
updated 10:21 AM EDT, Sun August 19, 2012
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • A boy recalls hearing a mostly white club's members talking about day campers
  • His account of that 2009 incident was later fodder for a Justice Department lawsuit
  • "Marcus didn't know racism existed" before the episode, his mother says
  • The now defunct club recently reached a settlement, including payments to campers

(CNN) -- Tears streamed down 12-year-old Marcus Allen's face in 2009, as he recalled how members of a private suburban Philadelphia swim club had hurled racial slurs and worried aloud if he and other mostly minority day campers might steal from them.

Today, Marcus is just about to turn 15 and hit the gridiron as a running back on his high school football team. He has grown up in more ways than one -- including having experienced discrimination firsthand and seen the U.S. justice system in action, its pursuit of justice driven in large part by his and other adolescents' accounts of what they had seen and heard that summer.

"I'm glad that people saw and felt what I felt," Marcus, who is black, told CNN.

The U.S. Justice Department announced Thursday that it and the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission reached a settlement with the now-defunct Valley Club of Huntingdon Valley, two and a half years after filing a lawsuit against the club.

Under terms of the deal, the club -- which filed for bankruptcy in November 2009 a few months after the incident and had its property sold for $1.46 million the following June -- agreed to payouts to more than 50 children like Marcus who were part of the Creative Steps Day Care Center, their counselors and Creative Steps. The distributed money includes whatever "remaining assets" from the club's property sale are left over, with $65,000 set aside to create a diversity council made up of former Valley Club members, Creative Steps counselors, campers and their families to promote community healing, the U.S. Justice Department said.

Marcus' mother, Aletha Wright, who owns Creative Steps, told CNN on Friday that her son grew up in a white neighborhood and goes to school with mostly white students. In his first 12 years, she said her son hadn't had any problems.

2009: Swim club rejects minority kids

"This was a culture shock for him, because Marcus didn't know racism existed," Wright said.

The day care center based out of northeast Philadelphia had paid the Valley Club $1,950 in June of 2009 so its camp children could access its pool over the summer.

But when young day campers came to the predominantly white club for the first time on June 29, "the children reported hearing racial slurs," the Justice Department said.

On July 3, 2009, "the club refunded the day camp's membership fee and prohibited the children from returning to swim" according to the federal agency -- a decision the Valley Club contended then was not due to the campers' race but because "we underestimated the capacity of our facilities."

Marcus, who was then 12, told CNN soon after the incident that he'd heard some club members say, "What are these black kids here? They might steal from us."

"It's kind of sad that people still thinking like this," the tearful boy said. "I thought those days were over."

Three years later, his mother said she feels that interview had an impact "because (viewers) saw a child. They didn't see an African-American child. They saw a child -- before the world -- being discriminated, and he innocently just wanted to take a swim."

The recently announced settlement could net each camper between $15,000 and $30,000, depending on their involvement in the incident, according to lawyers.

Many of them plan to use the money to help pay for college, the day camp's civil attorney Brian Mildenberg said. But not Marcus, who said he has other plans.

"I want to open my own business and do something like Steve Jobs did," the teenager said.

Wright, his mother, calls the settlement "bittersweet," though she does feel "justice was served."

Another civil lawyer involved in the case, Gabriel Levin, said he believes the young campers involved get more than money from the case.

"It's a great life lesson for these kids," Levin said. "They experienced something terrible and justice prevailed."

ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT