America’s racist history of separating white and black swimmers
Making a Splash
I was eleven years old, and it was summer intermission at W.E.B. DuBois elementary school. I had signed up for the swim lessons. It was the very first time I’d been in a swimming pool or tried my hand at swimming. The swim instructor told me to lay back and swim. I started to float, and then the chlorine water filled my nostrils, and I panicked. The instructor yelled at me and told me to stand up. It was three feet of water, and I thought I was gonna drown until I stood up. I was highly embarrassed and humiliated that day. My peers made jokes and taunted me about the event on that long school bus ride home. I often wish my mother had told me to go back the following week.
Several years later, I was a young man in Navy boot camp. I was one of the many recruits who wasn’t a swimmer who was placed in the ‘kiddie’ pool. I had the pleasure of large scary men yelling at me to teach me the basics of aquatics. It sucked, but unfortunately, it was typical for people like me (who came from the South Side of Chicago) to not be well versed in swimming.
“Only 56 percent of Americans can perform the five core swimming skills, a recent survey conducted on behalf of the American Red Cross said.” Break it down by race the numbers get more jarring. “According to USA Swimming, over 58 percent of African-American children can’t swim. That’s almost double the rate of white children. And African-American children drown at nearly three times the overall rate.” When it comes to death by drowning, black and Latino children and young adults make up higher percentages of folks who die by drowning.
Some folks claim ignorantly that black people as a collective can’t swim because we have ‘denser bones’ or can’t ‘float’ or just claim it on us being lazy. These claims are all silly and stupid. Scratch the surface, and you will see that this discrepancy arises from the same social problem that hinders all real progress in this country: Race and access.
No Dogs or Niggers Allowed
Racial segregation and Jim Crow went hand and hand like P-B and J in the nation’s history. Public swimming pools and swimming holes were becoming all the rage at the turn of the 20th century. But America being America, we just couldn’t let ‘precious‘ white women be tempted or tainted by black men. Seriously, people being half naked, swimming, playing, flirting, and enjoying taking a dip together would shatter the racial caste system, so the government and private organizations like the YMCA worked hard to segregate public swimming pools. In cities like New Orleans the local government went to great lengths to divide swimming areas:
“…in the 1930s, the city “began draining swamps around Lake Pontchartrain to create the whites-only Pontchartrain Beach.” A decade later, about 15 black children were drowning in New Orleans every summer.”
This ideology wasn’t relegated to just Southern cities and states either. In cities like Chicago and St. Louis, public pools or swimming areas were often segregated too. The Chicago Race Riot of 1919 was a result of a black boy being drowned by a group of white men for swimming on the ‘white side of the lake”. Until the 1970s, private non-profit organizations like the YMCA held openly racist policies to segregate or limit pool access to black people across the country.
Even after the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the overturning of many official and unofficial “separate but equal’ laws in the United States, many public and private entities worked hard to keep pools separated. As ‘white flight’ swept the nation, many public pools shut their doors. Private clubs offered ‘unofficially’ segregated swimming pools and areas for those that could afford it. As cities invested less and less in inner cities and redlined neighborhoods, that forced many poor black and Latino people into hyper-segregated neighborhoods. Public swimming pools or swimming pools in public schools were filled up with concrete; left closed, or used as storage space. I saw this with my own eyes, as an intern at the old South Shore High School. The school’s sole swimming pool was abandoned and unused as a storage space for years.
Creating a New Swimlane
Even with all this, there is still some hope to change things. First all, if you have kids, please take them swimming or give them swim lessons. The YMCA has turned over a new leaf and now offers child swimming lessons. There are local community centers that should provide swim classes for children and adults alike across the country, especially in the summer months, for a low cost. If those options aren’t available, there may be local swimming holes like rivers or lakes nearby. Just ensure that a lifeguard or competent adult who is a strong swimmer is on hand to watch and monitor younger novice swimmers. Schools and high schools should have swimming pools and swim instructors. Advocate at your local school board meetings to make this a reality. Introduce young black kids to people like the Canadian champion diver Jennifer Abel or American Olympic Swimmer, Simone Manuel. They need to know that these spaces aren’t just for white people, but they’re for all people to enjoy.
Finally, folks can work with local organizations and community leaders to bring back public pools to under-resourced neighborhoods and communities. It’s a vital survival skill and healthy activity that all people should have access too. Swimming pools are expensive to operate, but we should do everything in our power to make sure that every child has access to swimming areas or pools.
As for me, my Recruit Drill Commander or as non-Navy civilians, call them “Drill Instructor” Petty Officer Green told me along with two other black recruits this: “After you pass your swim test in boot camp, you all will never get in the water again.”
I’d like to say he was wrong. It’s been a 15-year long journey from Bootcamp to now. I was fortunate enough to have friends in the service who took me to the pool and showed me a thing or two. Years later, I even did a guide school course in whitewater rafting leadership and skills. It has become one of my favorite outdoor activities. Swimming opens doors to fun and exciting possibilities, but if one is not able to swim or afraid to swim, then those entries remain shut.