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Celebrating Black Swimming History: A Brief Lesson

Oh come on! You didn’t think I was going to let this month pass by without writing something about Black history did ya?!

No seriously, as I mentioned in a previous post, I would come back to the subject of Black people and swimming.

Like I said before, its true that recently we have not had a particular successful relationship with swimming, but it wasn’t always that way. In fact, our connection with the water dates back to pre-slavery days, and since there were no pools until the last 100 years or so, the only way we learned to swim was in open water.

So let me take you all on a little tour of our noted, but sadly forgotten swimming history.

Before the slave trade began, Africans living in coastal communities were observed by early European explorers to be excellent swimmers.

Bruce Wigo, Director and CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has been chronicling the origins of swimming and blacks. Wigo, spoke about a picture drawn in 1884 by a European settler that depicts an African doing the “Australian crawl.” “So what,” you might ask? Well, Wigo goes on to say: “The only difference between what that African is doing in the picture and the Australian crawl is that the Australian crawl wasn’t invented yet.”

The following comment was on video when I first heard it under the title: A History Lesson, on the website Diversity in Aquatics.

Lee Pitts, Jr., in an article entitled, Black Splash: The history of African American swimmers. Pitts wrote about a number of remarkable achievements by blacks in swimming. Pitts writes of one that is truly striking to think about:

“In 1679, when a slave ship wrecked off Martinique, an African slave whose name is lost to history, reached shore after swimming for sixty hours, an aquatic feat of survival that rivaled Homer’s Ulysses and was a record of endurance swimming that was not matched by white men for almost 300 years.”

Let that sink in for a moment. No pilot boat, no food or drink, choppy water, and swimming in a predatory environment, yet this person managed to reach shore. Heck I’ve been known to get lost trying to swim to “the opening” of Aquatic Park let alone being out in the middle of nowhere on my own!

In the same article, Pitts expounds on another piece of history that most people are unfamiliar with. Most of us remember reading about Harriet Tubman and her famous Underground Railroad. But how many of us know where that title originated? Pitts writes:

“The Underground Railroad got its name when a slave named Tice Davids escaped from Kentucky in 1831 and swam across the Ohio River to freedom in Ripley, Ohio. According to legend, Davids’ owner was chasing Davids in a boat when he lost sight of his swimming slave. Thinking Davids must have drowned, he remarked to his companions with a sarcastic smirk that his slave must have taken an ‘underground railroad.’ The comment was reported in the press and the term has been with us ever since.”

Oh and here’s one for you WWII buffs out there. OK here’s the question: Who is Charles Jackson French? Go ahead I’ll give you a moment. Please no help from the studio audience. AAAHHHH!!! (sound of a buzzer going off).

Oh I’m sorry the correct answer is: Charles Jackson French was a 23-year-old mess attendant from Foreman, Arkansas. French was commended by Admiral William Halsey, Jr. and awarded the Navy Medal in 1943 for swimming 6 – 8 hours in shark invested waters, towing a raft filled with 15 wounded (white) sailors to safety, after their ship was sunk by the Japanese off the Solomon Islands. The raft was drifting toward Japanese occupied territory and if it had washed ashore, the sailors would have either been taken prisoners of war or killed. The raft was eventually rescued at sea by an American craft.

Ok, I don’t know about anyone else reading this but let me be the first to say, that when I’m swimming out in the S.F. Bay or the Pacific Ocean, if I do not see a kayak, RIB or support boat nearby I would lose it!

An before you think that only African American men have been the only ones who accomplished startling feats in open water let’s talk about Pauline Jackson. What? You don’t know who she is either? Boy I’m glad I wrote this post today then!

Pauline Jackson, from New York, NY, was among the first group of marathon swimmers to attempt to swim The Catalina Channel back in 1927. Though she only lasted a few hours in the frigid waters the mere fact that she attempted one of the seven toughest swims in the world is an amazing achievement.

The stories that I have talked about above are by no means exhaustive, there are far more to tell and, God willing they one day will be told.

You wanna know what I think about sometime when I’m swimming? I think of all those who sacrificed there lives on those ships. I think of the Pauline Jacksons, Charles Chapmans, Tice Davids, and Charles Frenchs that have gone before me, and I keep swimming so that others will follow after me.


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