Swimming in the Nile

A return to the nation's first black-owned swim club.

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When I was about five, my mother spent lots of money on swimming lessons at the local YMCA near my hometown of Yeadon, Pa. Sadly, most of the money went down the drain. At the end of my first session, my progress was so stunted that the instructor asked my mom to join the class. Perhaps she could at least coax me off the diving board. My mother agreed, but I refused to jump in. The YMCA wasn't working out.

My grandmother prodded my frustrated mom to take us to the Nile. My grandparents and their neighbors organized the Nile back in 1959, after being denied membership in the all-white Yeadon Swim Club. This was no small accomplishment. The endeavor required they pool their resources, buy a plot of land and build a pool, clubhouse, snack bar and modest recreational facilities.

The club, once a refuge for all the African-American families in Yeadon, had been the place my mom went to meet friends and socialize as a teenager. But after she got married and had a baby she drifted away from the social life she'd had there. With segregation having ended since her Nile days, she had access to all sorts of other outlets like the Y. But once my grandmother suggested it to her, she knew that's where I needed to be.

And she was right. The Nile was the place for me. Once there, I learned to swim—and it became a rich part of my summer life. It might not have been in my backyard, but it was simply my pool. Just a short bike ride away from home, it was a place where I knew I was surrounded by friends and family each time I passed by the membership desk. I spent the better part of every day there, splashing in the pool with my friends, eating hot dogs and slurping down sweet water ices.

It remains the oldest black-owned swim club in the country—and the Yeadon Swim Club that barred my grandparents access, no longer exists.

But like my own mother, I drifted away from the Nile as an adult. For the past 25 years, I've been furiously swimming laps: establishing my career as an arts administrator, going to graduate school, meeting and marrying my husband, starting a family and working full-time.

Two years ago when my husband, Gene, and I, decided it was time for swimming lessons for our children, I, like my mother before me, first tried the Y. We hoped that our babies, Olivia and Yannick, would morph into water babies and share our love for swimming. Didn't work. Neither displayed a fear of the water, but, for the money we spent, it seems we should have gotten beyond a flailing semblance of a doggie paddle.

So now I have drifted back to where I started. This year, as summer approached, both my mom and aunt suggested investing in a Nile membership. It sounded good to me, but with all of the other summer expenses I wasn't sure we could afford the $625 to join. Still, I decided to stop by and pick up the membership info. As I looked over the grounds, my memories floated back to the lazy summer days I'd spent there. As always, the radio was tuned to Philly's top R&B station, WDAS-FM, and the smell of fresh, hot french fries and grilled hot dogs hovered in the air. I left knowing that we'd find the money to join.

Later that evening, my husband and I went on the Nile's Web site. The digital postcard on the homepage featured photographs of the Nile in its heyday. There was a photo of Harry Belafonte enjoying himself at the club, followed by one of The Supremes. Then I got the biggest surprise—a photo of my grandmother, Veronica Athealea Nelson, looking her diva best with some friends, circa 1959.