Black Swimming History: An Overview

The Age of Discovery and Racism

When the first European explorers reached what is now present day Mauritania on  the West Coast of Africa in the 15th century, they were greeted by darked skinned people who were expert watermen. These Africans had been raised up from a very young age to  become masters of swimming and diving and Europeans wasted no time exploiting this.  Africans were taken to Europe to be swim instructors either as slaves or free men, but one questions how “free” they might have actually been. Not long after, Columbus fueled Europe's greed for riches by enslaving  Indigenous people to dive for pearls off the coast of Venezuela and  when these slaves all died from disease,  Africans slaves were imported to take their place. These Africans later became essential to the survival of the coastal colonies  because they were the only ones capable enough to interact with the water and teach colonists about the waterways. 

Pre Civil War in the US

In the 18th century as many as 80% of Blacks could swim and only 20% of Whites could swim.  Many plantations that enslaved Blacks were near bodies of water allowing slaves to continue their relationship with swimming.  Abolitionist Frederick Douglass who lived in Maryland near a creek recalled that it “made a very beautiful playground for children”. Mamout Yarrow, a freed slave and practicing Muslim, was touted as the best swimmer to ever swim in the Potomac River. Swimming competitions were held in which Black men and women fought off sharks, alligators and manta rays to amuse themselves and their owners. Plantation owners soon discovered that slaves could escape using their swimming mastery and prevented them from going near water. This no doubt contributed to the disappearance of  the swimming and diving skills that were once  so natural to West Africans.  

Tice Davids was a slave who escaped his owner by swimming across the Ohio River in Kentucky.  Davids’s pursuers assumed he had drowned when he dove under water and did not resurface, stating Davids’ must have got to where he was going “on an underground railroad”. According to Ohio History Central: Rush Sloane, an abolitionist from Sandusky, Ohio, claimed that the Davids episode led to the naming of the Underground Railroad. Historians continue to remain divided as to the accuracy of this statement.

Escaped slaves and free Blacks who could swim found good jobs in the whaling and merchant fleets in the Northeast. By 1863, nearly ⅓ of New England’s merchant seamen were made up of African Americans and ¼  comprised the Union Navy. Men like Paul Cuffee, joined a whaling fleet at the age of 16, progressed to the rank of captain, and became one of America’s first Black millionaires. 

Post Civil War to 1945

The late 19th century brought almost a complete reversal of swimming statistics between Blacks and Whites. After the Civil War, high drowning rates amongst Whites sparked a public safety movement for development of swim programs and centers and black people were  excluded from this opportunity thanks to Jim Crow Laws.  Instead Blacks were forced to small pools at “Colored YMCAs” and to the dangerous beaches or swimming holes because all the best areas were marked for Whites only.  At the start of WWII, 85% of Black sailors were unable to swim compared to only 10% of White sailors.

1946 to 1964

After WWII, Black veterans began demanding equal access to beaches and swimming pools as part of the Civil Rights Movement. Almost every attempt at aquatics integration was met with violence including the infamous ‘swim in’ at a motel pool in St. Augustine, Florida where the motel manager poured acid into the pool with protesters still in it. 

1965 to Present

Rather than comply with integration laws many pools chose to close and of pools that did remain open, white people refused to support them and they were forced to close for lack of funds.  perpetuating the cycle of making swimming  inaccessible to black people.



Black Swimming History: Oregon

Oregon has the 10th highest rate of deaths due to drowning at 1.4/100,000 in the US .  For the period between 1999-2018 the CDC reported the rate for Blacks in Oregon to be 2.2/100,000 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Web-based Injury Statistics Query and Reporting System (WISQARS) [Online]. (2003))  The CDC points out that “...drowning in a swimming pool was almost six times more likely among black children and adolescents aged 5–18 years than among their white peers. However, if a group's exposure to pools is less than that of their peers, their true drowning risks, based on equivalent exposure, could be even higher."

Racism in swimming in Oregon and the Nation has deprived the community of an essential life skill.  Prior to WWII, the Black Community made up less than 3000 people.  This tiny community, prior to 1910, was able to move and live where it wanted. As the community grew to about 2000, so did the enforcement of discriminatory practices.  

The period from 1940-1947 saw the population increase to 22,000.  The temporary community of Vanport was created to house the influx of ship yard workers. It’s destruction in 1948 forced more into the Albina area. Life in Portland for Blacks included living with Jim Crow laws that enforced segregation in restaurants, theaters and other public facilities.  Black families would visit nearby parks but there was little said about the use of swimming facilities that existed at the time. Although there were no specific ordinance prohibiting the use, the dominant social practices of the time would have made using those facilities practically impossible.  Based on ads in the Black newspapers of time, the YMCA was the only organization offering any swimming lessons; even this organization was segregated. 

The flood in 1948 of the Vanport area, the ending of the access to union jobs and redlining and other structures segregating Portland effectively constrained the Black community, reduced to a population of 11000 by 1950, giving it few employment and recreational opportunities. 

Work by the Urban League of Portland, Willamette University students, City club of Portland and NAACP, lead to the 1953 Oregon Civil rights bill passes ending discrimination in public facilities. With this victory, life still would not improve for the community.  It would take the overall civil rights movement in US progressing and an increasingly organized Black community in Portland to drive change. 

As an example, across the country, public accommodations like parks and public swimming pools were segregated by Jim Crow laws in the south, or by less overt means in the northern and western parts of the United States. Though Martin Luther King, Jr., and other civil rights leaders succeeded in the passing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, whereby discrimination in housing and public accommodations became illegal, those practices continued in less obvious ways. When segregated recreational facilities were ordered by the courts to be open for people of color, the integration was rarely peaceful.

People of color seeking to use these facilities were met with hostile resistance, force and violence (Wolcott, 2012). Rather than embracing a spirit of advocacy, openness and inclusion, some cities shut down their public pools rather than allowing mixed-race swimming, while in other cities Whites moved to pools that were located in more racially homogeneous White neighborhoods or used private pools, where racial discrimination was still legal.”(Five-Racial Equity Plan, Furthering Citywide Racial Equity Goals and Strategies September 2017; Portland Parks and Recreation)

 The Portland city council and Parks Bureau faced significant pressure from Albina Community Corporation to provide opportunities for grassroot participation in summer event programs. This pressure led to the Knott street community Center(Dishman) getting  a pool serving Albina community 1968. (Aluminum 25 meter by 25 yards). At the time the Portland Parks Bureau at least 7 pools available across the city. 

During the 70’s a migration happened; urban renewal projects in the 50’s and 60’s brought the Colosseum and I-5, forcing the community to look for housing in the Columbia Slew area of the North Portland Peninsula. Although the migration gave the community access to better homes, it also led the community towards an environmental ghetto.  From 1970-2010, this area of the city has seen some investment, specifically in 1989 a levy passed that allowed for the renovation of the Dishman Community Center’s pool and building.  In 1996, a change was made to how parks were funded allowing for leveraging private donations to fund park services.  

We are currently at a crossroads where there is access to proper facilities for swimming. What is missing is an adequate regional program to connect the community to the existing aquatic resources, develop lifeguards and instructors and a curriculum to develop the swimming skills that allow for the use and enjoyment of both constructed and natural resources.

Black Swimming History: Trailblazers in Portland, OR

Matt Dishman

Matt Dishman was one of the first African American Police Officers in Vanport, Oregon. When the flood happened in 1948, Mr. Jesse, and Mr. Travis also African American Police Officers helped clean up Vanport. Matt Dishman then became the First African American Deputy Sheriff of the Multnomah County. He worked as a sheriff until he passed in 1969, that's when Knott Street was named [after him] . [The]  black panthers marched outside of what is now Matt Dishman and demanded that the center be named after an AA icon in our community; that is how it got its name.  ~ Kimberly Dishman & Portland Black History-Project

Brian Honore 

In 1969 at the age of 21, Brian Honore became the first African American swimming instructor at the Knott Street Pool (Matt Dishman Community Center). 

He was a student at the University of Puget Sound.

Hisoric Articles