Memorial Day weekend marks the unofficial start of summer in the Circle City, and outdoor pools across the city will be opening in the coming weeks. While many in the community dive right in to any opportunity for poolside fun, a significant portion of the Black community shies away from swimming. The notion that Black people don’t swim has reached mainstream cultural stereotype status, but it’s a notion based in statistics and history.
A 2010 report prepared for USA Swimming (the national governing body for the sport) by researchers at the University of Memphis surveyed more than 1,900 people ages 4–18 and conducted a dozen focus groups with 72 parents/caregivers to learn more about adolescents’ swimming habits and factors that affect them. In all, 54 percent of the adolescents in the study were Black.
The study found race played a major role in the children’s views of swimming and their abilities. More than two-thirds (69 percent) of the African-American respondents self-reported low swimming skills, compared to 58 percent of Hispanic respondents and 42 percent of white respondents. An additional 14 percent of Black respondents said they were unable to swim, compared to 7 percent and less than 6 percent of Hispanic and white respondents, respectively.
Statistics from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) about drowning corroborate the survey’s findings. The CDC analyzed 12 years of drowning data for people ages 29 and younger and found Blacks drown at a higher rate than other races.
“Disparities were greatest in swimming pools, with swimming pool drowning rates among Blacks aged 5–19 years 5.5 times higher than those among whites in the same age group,” the CDC said. “This disparity was greatest at ages 11–12 years; at these ages, Blacks drown in swimming pools at 10 times the rate of whites.”
Beyond determining children’s swim abilities, the USA Swimming study aimed to uncover the reasons for the disparities. For one, the study found Black respondents showed significantly more concern than Hispanic and white participants about getting their hair wet and the impact pool chemicals could have on their appearance. The Black respondents also reported significantly higher fear of injury and drowning than white participants.
One factor found to be “critical” in the determining a child’s swim abilities was the presence — or absence — of swimming involvement/encouragement from parents and other family members.
In the survey, “Black/African American respondents reported significantly less agreement than white respondents” when asked to consider the following statements:
My parents/caregivers encourage me to swim.
Most members of my family know how to swim.
My best friends like to swim.
My best friends are good swimmers.
“A lot of African-Americans and Latinos don’t swim because their parents don’t swim, they don’t encourage it,” a Boston parent said in one of the study’s focus groups. “I think we need to educate the parents on the importance of swimming as a life-saving skill. You know, they just don’t really value swimming as an important life saving skill. Because they didn’t swim.”
Though the USA Swimming study found access to pool facilities was not a factor in respondents’ swim abilities, it was undoubtedly a significant barrier for previous generations.
Jeff Wiltse, an associate professor of history at the University of Montana and author of the book Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, says swimming pools have always served as a barometer of social relations.
“Swimming with others in a pool means accepting them as part of the same community precisely because the interaction is so intimate and sociable. Conversely, excluding someone or some group from a pool effectively defines them as social others — as excluded from the community,” Wiltse wrote in a June 2015 piece for the Washington Post.
“If we as a nation want to know how we relate to one another across social lines, how we structure our communities socially, and how we think about people who are socially different from ourselves, just look at our swimming pools. The answer will be obvious.”
Wiltse said in the early days of public swimming pools, racial segregation wasn’t a major issue, at least in the north. It wasn’t until the 1920s and ’30s, when males and females began swimming together, that race became a barrier to pool access.
“In northern cities such as Chicago, New York and Pittsburgh, gender integration brought about racial segregation. Public officials and white swimmers now objected to the presence of Black Americans, because they did not want Black men interacting with white women at such visually and physically intimate spaces,” Wiltse wrote.
While swimming pools were racially desegregated after World War II, the effects still lingered. Wiltse said some public pools were shut down, rather than allowing mixed-race swimming.
A story published in the Recorder on Aug. 14, 1948, shows Indianapolis was not immune to the issue. At the top of the front page, the headline reads “Swim Meet Canceled After Douglass Team Enters.” (“Douglass Team” refers to swimmers from Douglass Park, the city’s public African-American swimming pool built in 1921.)
The story says the City Parks Swimming Championship, which was to take place at the Broad Ripple Pool, was called off due to a small number of entries, which didn’t justify closing the pool to the public during the meet.
“In this admittedly tangled situation, one fact stood out like a sore thumb,” the Recorder story says. “It was that plans for the meet were apparently moving along ‘swimmingly’ until the Douglass Park question was brought into the picture.”
The article then details a discussion among Paul Brown, park director; Wilbur Schumacher, physical activities director; Edward Denny, parks investigator and Wilson Head, NAACP executive secretary, which the Recorder reporter sat in on. In the meeting, Brown ordered that the Douglass Park team should be admitted to the meet, but he also suggested moving the championship to a different pool.
“…the people in Broad Ripple are more race-conscious and prejudiced than those in any other area of the city,” Brown said.
“Just because the district is prejudiced is no grounds for changing or canceling the meet,” Head replied. “We’ve got to get to these people sooner or later, and there is no need to keep putting it off.”
Schumacher said, “Even though Negroes will eventually get out there, now is not the time to begin,” later adding, “White people don’t mind running against colored, or playing tennis or other sports, but the majority wouldn’t care to swim or dance with Negroes.”
Denny contributed: “I’ve been out to Douglass and watched the boys out there swim, and I didn’t see any exceptionally good swimmers. I don’t know why they would want to enter a team (in the meet) that didn’t stand much chance.”
When all was said and done, Brown reaffirmed his stance that Blacks should be allowed to swim in any park pool, but the meet was still called off.
The article concludes with Head’s assertion: “The meet may not be held this year or next, but one day some Negro is going to enter a pool in one of these prejudiced communities, and then you’ll have a problem.”
The CDC recommends learning basic swimming skills, such as controlled breathing and floating, to reduce drowning risk. Here are just some of the several options for swim lessons in Indianapolis:
Make a Splash — free water safety program by Indy Parks
June 9 and 10 at all Indy Parks Aquatic Centers, times vary
Visit indy.gov/SwimLessons or call (317) 327-PARK for more details.
Classes available for children as young as 6 months
Visit indy.gov/SwimLessons or call (317) 327-PARK for more details.
Classes available for early childhood through adult at various skill levels
Visit indymca.org/classes-programs/aquatics for more.
Classes available for all ages and all levels, private and semi-private lessons available
Visit ecommunity.com/s/healthplex-club-programs/swimming-lessons for more details.
American Red Cross
Several providers in central Indiana offer Red Cross-authorized aquatics training.
Find more at redcross.org/local/indiana/local-programs/aquatics.