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African-American swimming
From left: Mikail Walters, 14, De Andre Jackson, 10, Joseph Gray, 12, and Tysean Hudson, 13, play water football in Fairground Pool, near Grand and Natural Bridge in St. Louis. The pool offers free swim lessons, but few kids take advantage, officials say. (Bethany Mollenkof/P-D)

Eight-year-old Davion Chatman does a handstand in about three feet of water in the Fairground Pool one recent afternoon. Nearby, his brother, Chris Chatman, 13, rolls himself into a ball and does somersaults.

"Hey, watch me," calls DiMarco Martin, 13, who's standing in chin-high water. He dives straight to the bottom and touches the pool floor.

At a glance, these kids look like they're as comfortable in water as, say, Flipper, Shamu, maybe even Michael Phelps. But throw them in the other end of the pool, Joshua Beeks said, and who knows what would happen.

"They probably can't — what we say — swim in deep water," said Beeks, area manager for the City of St. Louis Recreation Division. "If they can swim, they would go down to the deep water because it allows them to show off a little bit."

A recent study commissioned by USA Swimming and conducted by the University of Memphis found that nearly 68.9 percent of African-American children have low or no ability to swim. That's compared to about 40 percent of white kids.

What's more, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that fatal and nonfatal drowning rates are disproportionately higher in minority populations.

Fairground Pool, near Grand and Natural Bridge Avenue, holds a scant 15 children on this broiling summer day. All of them are African-American. Only three are swimming in the deep end, and they earned their way there by proving to the lifeguard that they could swim from one side of the pool to the other.

Beeks estimates that about 100 children from the predominantly black neighborhood would come to the pool each day during summers past, when admission was free. Now, admission is $1 for children and $2 for adults and attendance has dropped.

"But even then, 75 percent would be in the shallow end," he said.

Beeks, who is African-American and an avid swimmer, thinks this is a shame. The pool, he said, offers free lessons on summer mornings, but few, if any, kids show up. In addition, Beeks said he sent letters to 35 city schools several years ago offering to give free swim lessons to students during hours when the pools were mostly empty.

No one responded, presumably because of liability issues, he said.


Two years ago, another study by USA Swimming found several factors that affect whether minority children learned to swim.

They range from fear of drowning on the part of both parents and children to sedentary lifestyles in the family; from household income and educational levels to access and safety at local pools.

One other factor, the researchers found, was black children's awareness and admiration of a highly competitive swimmer.

Cullen Jones became just the third African-American swimmer to make the 2008 U.S. Olympic team. He learned to swim after nearly drowning at a water-amusement park when he was 5. Lifeguards saved him with CPR.

Most of these factors, experts say, can be traced to our history of racial segregation.

Minnie Woods, 91, is a senior aquatics instructor at the Monsanto Family YMCA at 5555 Page Boulevard. She can swim now — with help from copious amounts of Ben Gay ointment — but she didn't learn until she was 62.


"Because I didn't have the opportunity," Woods said. "There was no place to learn. I was born and raised here in St. Louis and there wasn't any in my neighborhood and there wasn't any in my school."

Her friend, Helen Fowler, 76, still doesn't know how to swim.

"I was born in '34 and saw the whole revolution," she said. "We couldn't go where we do now ... You think they wanted me with my blackness in the pool?"

Fowler's last sentiment stood true even after pools were desegregated.

On June 21, 1949, blacks were allowed entry into St. Louis municipal swimming pools for the first time, resulting in what's considered the most widespread outbreak of racial violence here since World War II. The Fairground Pool was at the epicenter.


Beeks also points out that African-American girls — who swim at even lower rates than boys — often don't want to get their hair wet. Water tangles it nearly beyond repair and ruins expensive, elaborate hair styles.

"It keep them from having fun, from staying cool on hot days, from having a lifeguard job and from encouraging their own kids to learn how to swim," he said.

Parental support and encouragement, Beeks and other experts agree, are key to kids learning to swim even if parents are afraid of the water. But that requires a cultural shift in thinking.

Other than lifeguards and staff members, there wasn't a single adult at Fairground Pool the afternoon Davion and his friends were swimming.

A few days earlier, LaTanya Harsley, 40, of St. Louis, sat poolside with several other mothers at the Monsanto YMCA, watching her children practice water safety drills with a half dozen other kids and two instructors.

"I believe children should know how to swim so they don't have to rely on adults," said Harsley. "If they have the basic skills, that could be the difference between saving themselves or saving someone else and not."

Carolan Cross, aquatics director at the Monsanto YMCA, estimates that 125 children, mostly African-American, are taking lessons at the facility. Some are free, others are not, but Cross said they have scholarships for those who can't afford lessons.

Neither Harsley's parents nor grandparents know how to swim, but she learned during physical education classes in high school.

"I had to, because I didn't want my grade point average to drop," she said, laughing. Several years ago, when her 19-year-old daughter was young, she took a refresher course.

"In order to get her to learn, I had to learn," she said.