Opinion by David Leonard of theGrio.com

As Lia Neal, Cullen Jones, and Anthony Irvin compete in the the 2012 Olympic Games, they are not simply battling the best in the world, they are helping to close the book on a sad chapter in American history.  With each start, each stroke, and each flip-turn, the trio of African-American swimmers are putting the historic (and occasionally more recent) exclusion of African-Americans from America’s pools.  Their presence on this year’s Olympic team…reminds us of a larger history of racism and exclusion.


Racially segregated municipal swimming pool (East Potomac Pool) in Washington, D.C., in July 1942

Indeed, to witness three black Olympians competing as swimmers represents the continued struggle against the longstanding efforts to keep pools white.

“Sports reflect a larger quandary in the land of opportunity, that so many sports have been resistant to inclusion for all races,” writes William C. Rhoden.  And for decades, African-Americans were denied access to swimming pools and other municipal activities: and not only in the south. In Pittsburgh at the turn of the 20th century, whites attacked blacks in the name of swimming segregation.

Richard Allietta describes the level of violence and harassment directed at African-Americans within a segregated swimming culture: “As a youngster in Bellaire, Ohio in the early 1950′s, we would go to the public swimming pool on Mondays, ‘colored day,’ and sit in the observer stands and jeer at the colored swimmers.” …

“History lessons reveal that white hostility to black swimming (pool or beach) was internalized by blacks as avoidance and a fear of water. Consequently, black children didn’t learn how to swim, resulting in these high, disproportionate numbers of deaths from African-American kids.”

The rightful celebration of the accomplishments of Neal, Jones, and Ervin should not cloud the persistent inequality visible within America’s pools.  Just as the election of Barack Obama did not produce justice and equality for every person of color, the ascendance of these three Olympians doesn’t wash away this history; nor does it erase America’s swimming color line.  Whereas 60 percent of white children are water safe, only 30 percent of black and Latino children know how to swim.  It is therefore not surprising that black children are three times as likely as white children to drown.

Read more here.