Watch the documentary “Passage at St. Augustine: The 1964 Black Lives Matter Movement That Transformed America” to learn more about wade-ins during the Civil Rights Movement.
Donate to Tank Proof, a nonprofit organization making swim classes accessible to historically excluded youth.
Consider: How does the local beach, pool, or other recreational space in your community prioritize diversity and inclusion?
Last week, the International Swimming Federation (FINA) banned swimming caps for Black hair from the Tokyo Olympics because they don’t follow “the natural form of the head”. Soul Cap, a company that makes swimming caps designed to fit over thick, curly hair and hairstyles common in the Black community, said that the international governing body for swimming rejected an application for their caps to be certified for use at competitions (Washington Post). After a week of criticism from athletes, partners, and the general public, the organization announced Wednesday that it would revisit this decision (NPR).
This continues a series of discriminatory policies facing Black female Olympic athletes as the 2020 Games approach, drawing broader calls of racism (Salon). But this example, in particular, touches on a long and troubling history of banning Black people from participating in aquatic activities.
Before World War I, municipal pools acted as public bathhouses, frequented by people from all backgrounds, social classes, and races (although men and women were required to swim on different days). But after the war, the rise of recreational spaces in the U.S. shifted the concept of pools from utility to leisure. Swimming became more of a luxury than a necessity. Rules changed so men and women could swim together, drawing families and creating a new social activity for mingling. By 1933, Americans were spending as much time in pools as at the movie theatres (NPR).
But as swimming as a leisure activity grew, so did racial discrimination against Black people at pools. White people worried about having Black men swimming with white women. Some fears drew on racial tropes that Black men were sexually violent. Others were concerned that co-mingling would encourage interracial relationships. White elites also perceived Black, Asian and Latino people – even working-class white people – as dirty and prone to carry communicable diseases (National Geographic). As a result, many pools had “whites-only” days, pools were often sequestered in white neighborhoods, and individuals and local governments alike would reinforce who “belonged” in public swimming spaces (NPR).
And it wasn’t just pools – similar discriminatory practices affected how Black people and other people of color could access any public recreational spaces, including movie theatres, dance halls, amusement parks, and beaches.
These public spaces became the center of demonstrations for racial equity. Organized protests, referred to as “wade-ins,” were held at beaches and pools, where Black people and allies would get in the water where they were not allowed (History). In one highly publicized incident in 1964, Black and white protestors jumped into the Monson Motor Lodge pool in St. Augustine, FL. The manager, infuriated, dumped acid into the pool while the protestors were swimming (St. Augustine). Photos from the incident accelerated the civil rights movement, and pushed President Johnson to get the Civil Rights Act passed. View photos from the protest, and read a reflection on how the St. Augustine local paper covered the Civil Rights Movement.
In theory, the passing of the act should have ended racially segregated public spaces. Instead, many public pools closed. Others charged high fees, only allowed people that lived close by, and implemented “referral-only” policies to keep the space exclusive (National Geographic). This also sparked the rise of the backyard pool trend, as wealthy white people instead decided to have a pool space all to themselves. Public pools, already a costly investment for initial installation and upkeep, received less funding overall as a result. Many shut down (National Geographic).
This discrimination has lasting implications. According to a 2017 report from the USA Swimming Foundation, 64% of African American children had no or low swimming ability, compared to 40% of white children (Swimming World Magazine). More importantly, the study indicates that if a parent does not know how to swim, there is only a 13% chance that their child will learn how to swim. Unsurprisingly, not learning how to swim greatly increases one’s risk of drowning. According to the YMCA, swim lessons for children ages 1-4 reduce the risk of drowning by 88% (YMCA). The CDC reported that, between 1999 and 2010, Black children drowned in swimming pools at a rate of up to 10 times higher than their white peers (CDC). It will take conscious effort to undo the harm of the past and make aquatics feel more accessible to all.
The International Swimming Federation is reconsidering a decision to ban swimming caps for Black hair from the Tokyo Olympics.
Black people have long been banned from aquatic spaces through explicit policies, referral and fee-based exclusion, and even the closure of public in favor of private pools.
As a result, Black people have much lower rates of swimming ability than white people, leading to a dramatically higher risk of death by drowning.