When I was a girl, June brought the end of school and the beginning of swimming lessons at our city pool in my hometown–Sanford. That pool was built in 1935 by the WPA–Works Projects Administration, as part of the New Deal of President FD Roosevelt’s administration. That huge rectangle of turquoise water was a magnificent sight to a kid, empty and waiting at nine o’clock in the morning. The smell of chlorine meant it was summer again with the anticipation of fun afternoons in the water.
Not all my friends who lived in the country were given the chance to take lessons. The demands of the farm took precedence over a child learning to swim. I don’t remember my parents ever saying why they thought it was important, why they paid the fee and provided the transportation. But what I do remember is hearing a story that may have been the explanation.
Sometime after the “Be careful in the water” “Don’t get out too far” instructions when our family was swimming at the lake, I heard Mama say more. It was something about “the time we were at the beach and they pulled your Daddy in,” a memory she had before we three daughters were born. That was as much as I remember.
Years later, I was going through a box of Mama and Daddy’s love letters. I found one where Daddy apologized to Mama saying, “I’m sorry for scaring you so. I’m feeling much better now.” I think it was during their trip to Atlantic Beach. In Mama’s response, she’d said she was just concerned about him after what he went through when the lifeguards had to bring him in.
I thought about how frightening that would have been for Daddy. I remembered how proud he was of me when as a teenager I’d taken and passed the Senior Life Saving Course. While I took the class at that same city pool, I practiced my lap swimming for the requirements at the Moose Lodge’s private pool.
Our family had never belonged to a private club. It’s all somewhat of a blur of memories that were embedded in the time of integration of the schools followed by integration of the city pool. It was that dramatic time when I was in middle and high school. What I remember was being at the city pool the first day the Colored (that was the accepted term for Black people in the late sixties) kids came to our pool. I was playing with my friend in the shallow end and as I remember it, the Colored teenage boys walked to the diving board at the deep end. It wasn’t long after that, when our family–and I don’t know how many others, stopped going to the city pool.
Years later, when I was writing a story based on that time, I did research at my hometown newspaper, The Sanford Herald. I saw pictures of the Colored pool and was struck by the small rectangle with cracked concrete and a rusty fence. I read articles about how this was true in other towns and the Colored community said they just wanted to be able to go to a nice, well-maintained pool. Like what we had, I thought.
It finally occurred to me that it wasn’t just our pool, it was their’s too; they were as much a citizen of our town as me and the other White people.
More recently, I’ve thought back to my days of swimming lessons as my son and daughter-in-law are checking on classes for my two grandsons. I saw a news story that harkened me back to the Sanford swimming pool and the things I’d witnessed as a girl of the sixties.
On July 4th of this year, the Raleigh news station WRAL aired a story by Investigative Data Journalist, Ali Ingersoll entitled, “Drowning deaths disproportionately affect Black residents in North Carolina.” https://www.wral.com/drowning-deaths-disproportionately-affect-black-residents-in-nc/20359819/
“The Swim Tribe team practices a variety of strokes at different distances. The team is the Triangle’s first organized group that is primarily comprised of children of color.
“Coming up, I didn’t get to see any minority owners,” said Gerard Woody, a former NC State swimmer who is the founder and coach at Swim Tribe.
On average across the country, there are 11 drowning deaths a day, the CDC reports. Data shows people of color are at a higher risk than others. Woody says drowning disparities are linked to economic and financial factors like segregation and historically Black neighborhoods not having pools along with the fees associated with learning how to swim.
In 2020, there were 126 drowning deaths in North Carolina, according to the state’s vital records. Almost one out of every three people who drowned were Black, despite only 22% of the state’s population being Black.
“Water in general is a beautiful thing but if you don’t know anything about it, it is very dangerous,” said Woody. “You’d rather spend money on swim lessons than a casket.”
Wow! A problem that existed when I was a girl in the sixties has continued into 2022, I thought. Not as dramatic as then, during the days of segregation, but still– without the attention that it should have received.
While Daddy wasn’t limited by the color of his skin, he was limited by the financial factors of his time–farm boy who grew up during the Great Depression. They had a pond for irrigation and fishing, creeks and streams they played in. But his parents wouldn’t have given much thought to scheduling their eight children for swimming lessons; that was not essential.
Now, my two grandsons are lucky enough to live in a community that has its own pool. The older one, Baker who is four, is scared of the water; the younger one, Parks who is two, isn’t scared of anything. He will go charging toward the water without a care. Both boys will get swimming lessons; it’ll be as essential as going to kindergarten or having their regular pediatric check-ups.
I’m glad to know that there are people in the Black community, and hopefully, in other minority communities with limited access, who are advocating for kids to learn how to swim. It’s essential for their safety, and it’s advantageous for their happiness.
Daddy’s life-threatening experience led to me having the privilege of learning to swim and carrying that on with my sons–and now, will be carried on with my grandsons. Those early morning swimming lessons as a child brought me great joy and afforded me many happy memories of fun in the water. I was spared from the fear that becomes overwhelming for those who are scared of being around water.
May we all seek ways to be inclusive, sharing access to swimming venues and affordable instructions for all who just want the opportunity.