There is so much history in Simone Manuel's tears the moment she became the first African-American woman to medal in Olympic swimming. African-Americans were prohibited from public swimming pools across the country well into 1960s.
The 1919 Chicago race riots began when a Black 17-year-old, Eugene Williams, drifted into the "white" section of the swimming area in Lake Michigan and was stoned to death by white bystanders. The police refused to arrest the murderers.
A hotel in Las Vegas drained its pool in 1953 after the movie star Dorothy Dandridge dipped her toe in the water. Another pool was drained after the beloved singer/dancer Sammy Davis Jr had swum in it. In 1964, a bystander jumped into a pool at a Florida motel to force out the black swimmers and the manager threw acid in the water during a civil rights protest in St. Augustine. After the Supreme Court ruled in favor of desegregation in Brown v Board of Education in 1954, a Federal judge upheld segregated pools in Baltimore because pools "were more sensitive than schools."
Barred from swimming pools for generations, African-Americans were then subjected to the myth that they were incapable of swimming. It was a stereotype that was widely held long after the end of formal Jim Crow. In an interview in April 1987, Al Campanis, then a Los Angeles Dodger executive, made some over-the-top comments about African-Americans being unsuited for management positions in professional sports. When ABC's Ted Koppel gave him a chance to clarify, Campanis went even further:
"Why are black men or black people not good swimmers?" Campanis asked Koppel. "Because they don't have the buoyancy." Campanis was ostracized and paid with this career and reputation, but he was voicing a common misconception.
Nearly 30 years later, Simone Manuel's Gold medal performance made history by defying it.
It was a myth for many years that blacks can't swim because that was how they were made! This was widely believed and it became entrenched in every black child.
Simone Manuel's story brings up a decades-old American drama around race and swimming pools."There has always been fear, in terms of using swimming pools, about being exposed to the dirt and the disease of other swimmers. "
And back during the 1920s and 1930s, and ... continuing on even further up from there, there were racist assumptions that black Americans were dirtier than whites, that they were more likely to be infected by communicable diseases."
But those big public pools eventually became mixed-gender pools, unleashing even deeper-seated fears about what might happen if black men and white women went swimming together. "Whites in many cases literally beat blacks out of the water at gender-integrated pools because they would not permit black men to interact with white women at such intimate public spaces,". Thus, municipal pools in the North continued to be intensely contested after 1920, but the lines of social division shifted from class and gender to race.
Campaigns by civil rights groups like the NAACP to integrate public pools often turned very, very ugly. "Groups for and against segregation threw rocks and tomatoes at one another, swung bats and fists, and even stabbed and shot at each other," according to Jeff Wiltse, the author of the book Contested Waters .
Even after Brown v. Board of Education ostensibly desegregated America's schools in 1955, a federal judge sided with Baltimore's pro-segregation argument that pools "were more sensitive than schools." (That decision was later overturned.)
But what happened in Baltimore next was instructive for what would happen more broadly throughout the country: White folks stopped using public swimming facilities altogether, instead opting to join private swimming clubs or for pools in their backyards. As The Atlantic's Yoni Appelbaum writes, the popularity of private pools and members-only pool clubs exploded in the postwar years:
"Before 1950, Americans went swimming as often as they went to the movies, but they did so in public pools. There were relatively few club pools, and private pools were markers of extraordinary wealth. Over the next half-century, though, the number of private in-ground pools increased from roughly 2,500 to more than four million. The declining cost of pool construction, improved technology, and suburbanization all played important roles. But then, so did desegregation."
Appelbaum points to Marshall, Texas, where 95 percent of local residents voted in 1957 to have the city sell off its recreational facilities; the pool's new private owners reopened it as a whites-only space.When the group of white and black integrationists refused to leave the motel's pool, this man dived in and cleared them out. All were arrested.
It was during one of these fights that the famous photograph at the top of this post was taken. It shows James Brock, a motel manager in St. Augustine, Fla., pouring muriatic acid into a pool filled with black kids who were participating in a protest against whites-only pools. J.T. Johnson and Al Lingo, two of those protesters, talked with StoryCorps last year about that moment.
" 'Everybody was kind of caught off guard,' J.T. says.
" 'The girls, they were most frightened, and we moved to the center of the pool,' Al says.
" 'I tried to calm the gang down. I knew that there was too much water for that acid to do anything,' J.T. says. 'When they drug us out in bathing suits and they carried us out to the jail, they wouldn't feed me because they said I didn't have on any clothes. I said, "Well, that's the way you locked me up!" ' "
Wiltse theorized that the disproportionate number of black Americans who can't swim and are more likely to drown is in part due to this historical lack of access to regular places to swim. Once white folks fled to the suburbs and built their own pools, he explains, public pools fell into disrepair and began closing. "As a result of that pattern of discrimination, swimming did not really become a significant part of ... black culture," he told NPR's Michel Martin back in 2007. Because swimming never took root in black communities, he said, fixing swimming pools was not much of a priority when black politicians began winning elective office in the 1960s and 1970s.