In 1831, Tice Davids, a runaway slave from Kentucky, dove into the Ohio River in pursuit of his freedom. He swam across the river, his owner trailing him by boat.
Davids, who was underwater, disappeared from view, and his owner assumed that he had drowned.
That assumption was based on the age-old stereotype that blacks could not swim. Davids, however, reached his destination of Ripley, Ohio, where he attained his freedom.
This story and others are told in Black Splash: The Amazing History of Swimming in Black and White, a photo exhibit at the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale.
The exhibit showcases a series of photographs that chronicle the story of blacks and swimming from the first Portuguese explorers and enslavers.
Unveiled at a reception and video presentation last month, the exhibit also showcases the stories of other ex-slaves, including Jacob Green, Solomon Northup and Yarrow Mamout, who also swam their way to freedom.
The Old Dillard Museum of Fort Lauderdale also displayed photographs honoring the black swimmers in the exhibit.
“They were working on the black swimmers; we were working on the black beaches,” said Old Dillard’s curator, Derek Davis.
“It just seemed that both exhibits worked so well together,’’ Davis said. “They shared some of their research on black swimmers, which we added to our exhibit; here they added some of our information on the black beaches in Fort Lauderdale.”
The project has been a year in the making, said Bruce Wigo, the International Swimming Hall of Fame CEO and an aquatic historian.
Up until the mid 1800s, African Americans were the best swimmers in the country, Wigo said.
“Somehow that truth got turned around, upside down, and swimming is now perceived as a white sport in white water,’’ he said. “Of course, water is crystal clear, and nothing is more traditionally African than swimming.”
The tragic consequences of the stereotype that blacks do not swim, including segregated beaches and pools, have been devastating, Wigo said, referring to the disparity in the number of blacks who drown.
“The rate for African Americans 5 to 14 years old is 3.2 times higher than their white counterparts,” he said.
Wigo added that while 96 percent of whites learn to swim by age 9, seventy-seven percent of black females reported that they cannot swim.
In the Jim Crow South, there were few pools in black areas, said Lee Pitts, a swim instructor and producer of the swim instruction video Waters: Beginning Swim Lessons for Adults and Children.
“There were two separate cultures,’’ Pitts said. “Many of our pools were unkempt, some didn’t even have water. It was no place for kids to gather, let alone learn to swim. There were no black certified instructors available in most areas.”
Pitts, of Tamarac, said he also hopes for change in future generations.
“Kids, regardless of income or race, should have the opportunity to learn to swim and not be a part of or buy into these stereotypes. We need to make sure that our children have a different view of our past accomplishments in the future,” he said.
At one time, swimming was thought to be an essential part of education, Wigo said, “and that goes back to the Romans and Greeks, before we had the black and white issue. Certainly for the white community during the Jim Crow era, the swimming pool was the place to be. You had to learn to swim if you were white, but that wasn’t the case for blacks. The will and desire to do so was erased by the experience of slavery and segregation. So what you see now is the manifestation of that history—two separate cultures viewing swimming in entirely different ways. So it’s not just the drowning statistics, it’s all events in the water.”
Sabir Muhammed, breaker of 10 U.S. swim records, said that “blacks should reclaim their history as swimmers.”
Muhammed added that after slavery was abolished in the North, runaway slaves sought out Quakers for employment on whaling ships.
“Their swimming skills allowed them an opportunity for financial freedom,” he said, “and as many as 30 percent of the crewmen were black.”
Jeannette Smith of Hollywood visited the exhibit and said she was “amazed at how much prejudice there was and just how it tied to swimming. This has been the most informative event I have attended in a long time. What I found of most interest was the fact that Africans used the swim strokes we all assumed to be created by whites, and so long ago.”
Davis said he felt that Wigo “did a great job of researching details about African-American swimmers,” and wished that “everyone could have been there to hear the stories.’’
Said Davis: “It was amazing how he gathered the brief notes out there about this history and put it together into something so inspirational. It’s inspirational in one way, when you know the heritage of swimming; heart wrenching in another, when you discover just how many black children are dying because of the improper attitudes that have led to them not being in the water.”
IF YOU GO:
WHAT: “Black Splash: The Amazing History of Swimming in Black and White”
WHERE: International Swimming Hall of Fame; One Hall of Fame Drive, Fort Lauderdale, Fl. 33316
WHEN: On display through April 15. Daily, 9 a.m. – 5 p.m.
COST: Adults, $8; Seniors, $6; Students with ID $4; Children under 12 and Active Military, free.
CONTACT: 954-462-6536, or visit www.ishof.org