Now, we’ve all heard the stereotype that black folks can’t swim. But, unfortunately, that cliché is based in haunting truths.
The numbers speak for themselves: 64 percent of black kids have no or low swimming ability, versus 45 percent of Latinx children and 40 percent of white kids.
A 2014 study also found that black children between the ages of 5 and 19 were five and a half times more likely to drown in swimming pools than white kids of the same age.
Here’s the thing: Black folks weren’t always thought to be non-swimmers.
According to associate professor Kevin Dawson—author of Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World—from 1492 up until the 19th century, people of African descent could often swim better than Europeans and their descendants. But the prominence of black swimmers in the Americas dwindled because slave owners saw swimming as a path to freedom.
Fast forward to the late 19th century and public pools were segregated by gender. In his book, Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America, historian Jeff Wiltse says that by the 1920s, Jim Crow laws were in full effect and public swimming facilities became segregated by race.
“It was the perception of sexuality that this is our space,” said Randal Maurice Jelks, an award-winning history professor at the University of Kansas. He continued, “The water belongs to us where we don’t share a democratic space for everybody to use. Waters and facilities and pools and where we rub against each other our wet bodies touch each other and so forth.”
This history has affected how we still see swimming today. Watch me unpack it all in the video above.