Why Can’t Black People Swim?

(Image Courtesy of: shutterstock.com)

By: Zach Fulwood

I’m sure we’ve all heard that Black people can’t swim. Obviously this is a bit of hyperbole because their are in fact Black people out there who can swim but the belief that the majority of Black people don’t swim is very real.

When we really think about the reasons for why this thought exists, the possibilities are endless. Reasons such as Black women not swimming to avoid getting their hair wet and Black people simply not finding swimming as a useful skill lead the way. While some of these reasons have some validity to them, most of them are simply unfounded. There is however, one reason for why so many Black people in this country don’t swim and it traces back to the days of segregation.

Historically speaking, there has never been much access to pools for Black people. Most historically Black neighborhoods don’t have pools in them and the only way for Black people to experience any form of water not from their bathtub would be to venture out into White neighborhoods. While this is more acceptable now in 2018, this wasn’t the case in the 1920’s and 1930’s. During this time, it was illegal for Black people to swim anywhere where White people were swimming. If caught, they would be beaten and thrown out of the water.

The assumption during the 1920’s and 1930’s was that Black people were dirtier and that they carried diseases that would infect the White race if allowed to swim alongside each other. There was also the assumption that White men didn’t want Black men swimming in their pools with public access to White women. Regardless of the reason, none of it was morally right and it had a damming affect on Black people. One of the more horrific scenes was back in 1964 when a motel manager by the name of Jimmy Brock poured muriatic acid into his motel pool in an effort to remove swimmers (Black and White) who were protesting segregated motel pools.

Although the acid was not a threat to anybodies health at the time because of the water to acid ratio, the sheer thought of someone being willing to pour acid into a pool to prevent a specific race from swimming was damaging enough. Knowing that this possibility exists would be enough for any Black person to forgo learning how to swim and instead, focus on other things.

The issue of proximity to pools for Black people is still a big one as well. With the increase in private pools requiring  memberships and the decrease of public pools, Black people aren’t systematically being afforded the same opportunity to swim. Maybe swimming isn’t your thing and maybe you genuinely refuse to get your hair wet. Whatever the case may be, if you have the opportunity to learn how to swim, take it in honor of those before you who couldn’t.

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