Swimming in the Nile

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



The Nile Swim Club
News clipping of Harry Belafonte at the Nile Swim Club.

In that moment, I felt my grandmother beaconing me, telling me it was time to come home.

So we joined. On our first visit, I reconnected with folks I hadn’t seen in more than 25 years. Some things had changed, I was taken aback a bit when I caught sight of a few white members sunning around the pool, and I was even more surprised to spot a white lifeguard. But I soon realized that it was a sign of the times and the changing neighborhoods nearby and the only way for the club to survive.

Mostly, though, the Nile is just as I remembered. Each day, the adult swim is from 6 to 6:30 p.m., my half hour of blissfully swimming laps. Once there, I feel as if I don’t have a care in the world. I meet up with other mothers, and on Tuesday and Thursday nights, we gather for free water-aerobic classes taught by Miss Charlotte, grandmother of four, who wears us out every class. The kids take lessons on Saturday mornings. Watching them cringe as they are instructed to jump into the cold water sends me down memory lane, back to my own wary leaps into the cold pool as a child.

It’s not all idyllic. The membership has dwindled, and some of the long-time members are a bit resistant to change. But Olivia and Yannick are now swimming like guppies. And best of all, after a day at the pool, Yannick sleeps for a good 12 to 13 hours. Nirvana!

As a child, I was oblivious to the uniqueness of the Nile—an African-American-owned and managed swim club, with stakeholders who were invested in creating an environment where black families could gather, dispelling the myth that black folks don’t swim. Today I’m awed by the progressive spirit and forethought of the club’s founders, who, with an acute awareness of the significance of ownership in black communities, built an institution. The Nile, currently in the midst of a massive expansion campaign, is still an anomaly, providing a mostly black environment in an area surrounded by fully integrated communities. Outside of houses of worship, we’re hard-pressed to find safe and welcoming gathering places where we’re surrounded and ensconced by our own.

It feels good to be back, to contribute to my grandparents’ legacy. It was the best investment we could have made this summer. An investment in family, in community, in history.

Lisa Nelson-Haynes is a waterlogged blogger at Living Out Loud Now .