A month ago, six African-American teenagers drowned in a single incident in Louisiana, prompting soul-searching about why so many young black Americans can’t swim.
The major reason behind the problem could lie in the era of segregation says Prof Jeff Wiltse, author of Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America.
“The history of discrimination… has contributed to the drowning and swimming rates,” says Prof Wiltse.
In his work he identified two periods of a boom in swimming rates in the US – in the 1920s and 1930s when recreational swimming became popular and the 1950s and 1960s when the idea of swimming as a sport really took off.
The first boom was marked by the construction of about 2,000 new municipal pools across the nation.
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“Black Americans were largely and systematically denied access to those pools,” he notes.
“Swimming never became a part of African- American recreational culture.”
In the northern US that segregation in pools ended in the 1940s and early 1950s, but many white swimmers responded by abandoning the municipal pools and heading off to private clubs in the suburbs where segregation continued to be enforced.
“Municipal pools became a low public priority,” he notes.
“They didn’t really accommodate swimming. They attracted young kids who would stand in them and splash about. There really wasn’t an effort to teach African-American children to swim in these pools.”