By Kristen White, chief operating officer, YWCA Evanston/North Shore (condensed from remarks at the Flying Fish awards ceremony on April 4, 2019)
People often ask us why YWCA Evanston/North Shore is involved in swimming. They do not see how swimming is related to our mission of eliminating racism and empowering women.
However, the history of swimming couldn’t be more linked to our mission. The role swimmers and swimming played in fighting for race and gender justice is a history we should all own and be proud of, and our Flying Fish aquatics program is helping continue this legacy.
Let’s take a look back.
YWCAs around the country have a history of standing up for race and gender justice. In 1882, the first-ever athletic games for women in the U.S. were held at a YWCA in Boston. It’s important to remember that at this time, athletics were considered unfeminine and unhealthy for women.
By custom and often law, women in America weren’t allowed in the water without covering up with heavy bathing wear. Competing in swim races, especially in public, was also frowned upon. But some women wanted to jump into the water unencumbered. Some even wanted to race.
In the 1910s, around the same time that YWCAs around the country started opening public pools for women and African Americans, women swimmers began creating leagues of their own, like the Women’s Swimming Association. Groups like the Women’s Swimming Association pushed for new freedoms for female swimmers. They wanted women to be able to wear bathing suits that wouldn’t weigh them down. Believe it or not, when women raced in a public pool, they had to be covered shoulder to toes, wearing stockings, a skirt, and shoes. Can any of you swimmers imagine getting into our YWCA pools wearing that?!
The Women’s Swimming Association was created so women could exert control over their sport. Interestingly, as women were fighting to have access to swimming, they were also fighting to have the right to vote. In a story about “swimming suffragists” by Sarah Laskow in atlasobscura.com, women swimmers used swimming as a way to plead their case. The story said that, in 1917, women in support of suffrage held the “suffrage rescue race” as part of a competition at a beach in Brooklyn. These “suffragist swimmers” wore sashes reading, “Votes for Women.”
African Americans have a conflicted history with swimming as well. Research tells us that many Africans forced to come to the Americas as enslaved people had strong swimming skills. Upon arrival in America, though, they were denied access to swimming and over the course of many generations, their strong swimming traditions faded.
In the 1920s and ‘30s, nearly 2,000 public pools were built across the nation. Because of laws that prevented blacks and whites from using the same public spaces, most African Americans were denied access to these pools. Where African Americans tried to swim, they often faced violence from white swimmers. Race riots at public pools was not uncommon during this period.
While the country struggled with this painful and demeaning legacy, YWCAs were leading the way and starting to fully integrate their boards of directors and leadership with African American and Native American women.
In the same way that white suffragist swimmers used swimming as a vehicle to push for the right to vote, in the 1960s, black protesters also used swimming to advance the cause of civil rights. According to a New York Times story about the segregated history of swimming pools, in 1960, protesters organized a “wade in” to demand equal access to the beach in Biloxi, Mississippi. This led to what was described by the Associated Press as “the worst racial riot in Mississippi history.” In 1968, a federal court finally ruled that the beach in Biloxi must be open to all.
After the race riots in the ‘60s many cities started building public pools in black communities. The pools that were built primarily attracted children due to their small sizes and water depths. At the same time, swimming was kicking off as a competitive sport in white communities with private pools.
But despite these public pools, studies done for USA Swimming show that swimming still isn’t a huge part of African American recreational culture. In fact, nearly 70 percent of African Americans cannot swim. The University of Memphis conducted a series of studies, showing that fear of water, engendered by generations of discrimination, is the reason behind this alarming statistic.
The studies also showed if a parent is afraid of the water and doesn’t know how to swim, only 13 percent of the children in the household are likely to know how to swim. On top of that, African American children age five to 14 are 3.1 times more likely to drown than other children.
As you can see, swimming, like many sports, is a mirror of our past and present. You can swim for exercise, you can swim to compete, and those who came before us often swam for equality and justice.
At YWCA Evanston/North Shore, we are committed to using swimming as a vehicle to promote race and gender equity. One way we demonstrate this commitment is by making swimming accessible to communities who historically have not been able to access this life-saving sport.
With the generous support of our donors and many Flying Fish swimmers and their friends and families, last year, we gave out $110,000 in swim school and swim team scholarships. This allowed 295 children, who might otherwise have been unable to access water safety instruction, to join our Flying Fish aquatics program and learn how to swim and experience the benefits and growth opportunities of competitive swimming.
Our Flying Fish aquatics program is integral to who we are as an organization, and I’m pleased to share that in the coming year, when we commence construction on our new family support center and training and education center, we will also be upgrading our locker rooms and adding a handful of private family changing rooms. We hope these upgrades in space and in air quality will position the Flying Fish program for years to come to continue carrying the mantle of eliminating racism and empowering women, one splash at a time.