simone manuel (smiwsuit)

Simone Manuel

*Simone Manuel is the first Black woman in the world to win Olympic gold in an individual swimming event during the 2016 Summer Games.

And of course, her historic win has conjured a conversation that comes up now and again—-the notion that Black people don’t or can’t really swim.

It’s a thing, another of those racial theories that is somehow as farcical as it is true…but not really. Like all Black people can dance. Or we all eat fried chicken, sing and have rhythm.

And we don’t swim.

As for the reasons we don’t swim, I’ve heard everything from the idea that our ancestors on slave ships possessed an intrinsic, generationally communicable fear of the ocean, to 20th century Negroes not wanting to get their permed or otherwise processed hair wet.

Growing up, I hadn’t heard that we don’t swim; I was too busy swimming. Best friend Donnie Minnis and I spent most of our childhood summers in the pool at Washington Park on Oklahoma City’s Black eastside, a couple of blocks from where we lived. In the mornings the park taught a swimming class that lasted a couple of days. I was a natural. Most kids in the pool could swim, and all of them were Black.

Back then, even if I’d been told that whole Black-people-can’t-swim stuff, Gerald, my “big” brother and oldest of the five Ivory siblings, was living proof that this simply was not true.

Gerald Wayne swam like Flipper. Mama insisted that he learn, which he did at the local Y. So gifted in the pool was my brother that one of his first Summer jobs was as a lifeguard at Washington Park. He was just 15.

At the end of his shift, Gerald might dive into the deep end of Washington Park’s giant pool. We’d revel in amazement as his shadow cruised underwater like a torpedo all the way to the shallow end. Still submerged, he’d turn around and head back to the other end, without ever coming up for air.

Gerald joined the swim team at Oklahoma City’s then all-Black Douglass High School (I guess somehow they managed to wrangle a team’s worth of Black kids who could swim, cough, sarcasm), where his main event was the 200 yard back stroke. He and breast stroke specialist Tommy Griffin, future father of Los Angeles Clipper basketball star Blake Griffin, were swim mates. Their individual medley relay team won the mid-state championship in 1965.

My brother won so many swimming honors that both leather sleeves of his prized orange and black Douglass Trojans letterman’s jacket quickly ran out of space for all the honorary patches.

Colleges came calling. One of them, Utah’s lily white Mormon-run Brigham Young University (BYU), got wind of Gerald’s competition stats and began wooing him with letters in the mail. When BYU invited white swimmers from Oklahoma City schools to visit their campus, a coach there queried them about this kid he’d heard about back in their state.

One of the white students said he knew of him. Oh, that’s Gerald Ivory…a Negro from Douglass High. I swam against him in competition. He’s good.

Negro. After that, the love letters to Gerald from Brigham Young ceased.

Instead, he accepted a scholarship from Southern University in Baton Rouge, Louisiana and swam against the teams of Black universities like Howard, Hampton, Morehouse, Tuskegee, Grambling and Texas Southern, all of which, amazingly (again, sarcasm), managed swimming programs.

According to Gerald, Southern U.’s swim coach once made an overture to Tulane University in nearby New Orleans for a swim meet. The lack of a reply suggested white Tulane didn’t want to get in the water with Southern.

I say that figuratively, meaning that for whatever reason, perhaps Tulane didn’t care to compete with Southern. However, in America, some whites literally did/do have a fear of sharing a swimming pool with Blacks.

And it didn’t matter who the Blacks were. Legendary are the stories, some true, others not, out of ‘50s Las Vegas that had hotels there draining white-only pools after Black entertainers purportedly took a swim in them. It’s a fact that in Vegas major Black performers couldn’t sleep or patronize the casino floor at the very hotels for which they worked.

Until the mid ‘60s—-and depending on the region of the country, after that—-many of the nation’s swimming pools were “White Only”. Pool owners found a way to deny Black patrons excess.

They’d tell them the pool was inoperable or would drain the pool. There were “swims-ins”—-protests styled after sit-ins—during which Blacks would get into public pools to the chagrin of operators and white patrons.

Now classic is the photo from June 18, 1964, when, during such a swim-in by both Black and white protesters at St. Augustine, Florida’s Monson Motor Lodge swimming pool, motel manager James Brock is photographed pouring muriatic acid into the pool to get the protesters out.

Over the decades, the scarcity of public pools in Black neighborhoods, limited or no access to such pools in white communities and few pools in the backyards of Black homeowners, would seem to explain why Blacks don’t swim as much as they, say, play basketball or run track.

Because of this, there are those who believe Blacks can’t swim. But we can. Given the opportunity and exposure to the concept, we can do everything some ignorant people insist we can’t. Quarterback. Golf. Gymnastics. The presidency of the United States.

These days, Gerald, long retired from executive ranks of the Los Angeles Probation Department, walks more than he swims. But it’s not because he can’t. Still.

“You tend to pass down what you know,” he said, regarding his view on why more of us don’t swim. “If your grandparents didn’t swim and your parents didn’t swim, then chances are slim they’ll encourage someone in the family to try swimming. But it’s not because we CAN’T. When the [Black] cats I swam with back in the day hear this, we just laugh.”

So does Simone Manuel, I’ll bet. Though I’m sure even Manuel would concede it cumbersome to swim with a gold medal hanging around your neck.

steve ivory (2014) headshot

Steven Ivory

Steven Ivory, veteran journalist, essayist and author, writes about popular culture for magazines, newspapers, radio, TV and the Internet. Respond to him via [email protected]