Black people don’t swim.
I’ve heard this lie spoken in several different ways:
- Black people don’t like the water
- Black people don’t get their hair wet
- Black people don’t go to the beach
- Black people don’t swim
Maritza Correia became the first Puerto Rican of African descent to be on the USA Olympic Swimming Team in 2004. She then went on to became the first Black United States swimmer to set a World swimming record.
Simone Manuel First Black Woman to Win an Olympic Gold Medal for Swimming
Lia Neal First African-American woman to medal at two Olympics, following up her 2012 debut with another podium place in Rio in 2016.
Natalie Hinds Hinds made history as a junior as she and Neal and Manuel became the first African-American swimmers to go 1-2-3 in a single event. Besides her bronze medal finish in the 100-yard free, Hinds also took 5th in the 100-yard fly.
From early 19th century throughout the 1960s, African Americans were prohibited from swimming due to segregation and violence.
In the early 19th and 20th century, a lot of swimming pools were being built by cities throughout the Northern States. Well, they were being built in working-class, immigrant, and poor, white neighborhoods, but none were being built in predominately black neighborhoods.
“And then in the 1920s and 1930s, there was a pool-building spree in the United States. And there were thousands, literally thousands and thousands of pools that were opened up in the 1920s and 1930s, and many of them were large, leisure-resort pools. They were – some of them – larger than football fields. They were surrounded by grassy lawns, and concrete sundecks, and they attracted literally millions and millions of swimmers.
And yet, it was at that point in time that cities began to racially segregate pools throughout the north, and it then extended, obviously, all throughout the United States. And black Americans were typically relegated, if a pool was provided at all, to a small indoor pool that wasn’t nearly as appealing as the large, outdoor resort pools that were provided for whites (Dr. Jeff Wilste, NPR: Racial History of American Swimming 2008).”
In St. Louis, the black population was 15%, and they were given one small indoor pool. The white population had access to nine pools. Two of the nine were large resort pools.
Signs such as “No dogs or niggers allowed.” could be found at white only swimming pools.
And these as well:
With the roaring 20s and 30s came a pool-building craze and thousands upon thousands of pools were built. Some of these leisure-resort style pools were larger than football fields. However, this didn’t change the sentiment towards African Americans being allowed to partake.
Even when a few cities began to desegregate swimming pools in the 40’s and 50’s, any black Americans who tried to access these pools endured extreme violence. They were punched above and under water, repeatedly dunked, and sometimes beaten with clubs. This was commonplace, as law enforcement and club owners encouraged white swimmers to deter black swimmers from attempted to utilize desegregated pools. And for the pools marked “white only,” police officers were stationed at the entrance, barring the entry of African Americans.
During the 1950s and 1960s, swimming recreationally took off. However, with the integration of both sexes around this time, racial segregation became as forcibly reinstated as before, because whites didn’t want their females in the same vicinity as black males.
“And the concern was the black Americans, black men, would take advantage of the pool environment, to brush up against white women, to touch them in the water, to visually consume them, as they were wearing, you know, relatively-tight-fitting, relatively-revealing swimsuits. And this sort of played into a psychology of needing to separate black men from white women (Dr. Jeff Wilste, NPR: Racial History of American Swimming 2008).”
Since slavery, there has been a false narrative pushed by whites, that black men are predatory to white females. This falsehood has led to thousands of lynchings and the incarceration of black men throughout history, but that lie shall be dispelled in another post.
When more cities began to enforce mandatory desegregation of a pool, the “white flight” phenomenon occurred. Essentially, the white community simply abandoned those pools and headed to the all white neighborhoods/suburbs to swim in pools within private white only clubs. There, segregation was still legal.
Public pools then began to close, which left African Americans without any place to swim. But European Americans were not impacted, as they had access to “white only” pools, as well as their private pools in “white only” country clubs.
Fast forward to the millennium.
In Louisiana, in 2010, six African American children, 13-17 years old, all drowned in a river. One of them was drowning and they all tried to save one another. None of them could swim.
Black children 5-19 years old drown at rates 5.5 times higher than white children. And those between 11-12 years old, drown at rates 10 times higher than whites (CDC, African American Drowning Rates).
In light of the brief history covered, it shouldn’t be surprising to learn 68.9% of black children do not know how to swim. And with an average of 10 children die per day from drowning, young black American children are five times more likely to die from drowning. And so a long, racially enforced past has continued to affect African Americans in crippling ways.
How Can We Help?
Support the cause by donating to organizations tackling the problem, or spread awareness through article sharing on your social media platforms.
Do you know how to swim? Why not volunteer to teach others at a local pool? No program near you? Why not create one yourself with fellow swimmers?
As an artist, I possess a skill that others may be interested in learning, but may not have the resources or opportunity to learn. So I hopped online and researched different ways I could be of service to communities that are underserved.
Volunteering with nonprofits that work with underserved and low-income children is of great interest to me, and I’m able to create and offer art instruction free of cost.
We are all blessed with certain gifts. And because of that, we can all help each other.
So I’d like to leave you with this final note:
Black people DO swim.