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Black children face higher risk of drowning in pools

Published Sep. 1, 2005

(ran West edition)

Last month, a 12-year-old Clearwater boy nearly drowned in an 8-foot-deep hotel swimming pool. His 17-year-old sister stood helpless at the pool's edge, watching her brother's blood rise to the top of the water.

Neither could swim.

Although the boy, Shaquille Wallace, was rescued by the hotel owner, the incident highlights a troubling problem: Black children die of drowning in pools at a far higher rate than white children.

According to one national study, the drowning risk for black boys ages 6 to 19 is 12 to 15 times higher than white boys.

While the risk for black girls is lower, they, too, are at an increased danger of drowning.

But why? And what is being done to teach them how to survive in the water?

At the North Greenwood Recreation and Aquatic Complex, a $4.8-million pool in a historically black Clearwater neighborhood, swimming classes are often only half full, though scholarships are available.

That is frustrating to some who work there.

"Black parents don't put their children in lessons. Black parents don't spend the money," said swim instructor Ajene Snow, 20, who is African-American.

Swimming and safety experts point to cultural and sociological reasons _ from slavery to hair care maintenance _ as reasons for parents' reluctance.

Fort Lauderdale resident Lee Pitts, the first African-American to produce a swim video, said explaining the disparity is not easy.

Blacks have historically earned less, he said, meaning reduced access to swim lessons, which to many are a luxury.

Jim Crow laws and fear passed down from prior generations are also factors, he said.

The gruesome treatment blacks were subjected to during the slave trade is the reason for some African-Americans' cultural fear of water, he said.

The threat of being thrown overboard as a punishment was common on ships transporting blacks across the Atlantic Ocean. Pitts said once blacks got to the United States, slave masters didn't allow them to swim because it was seen as a means of escape.

"Nobody has talked about the horrors of slavery in terms of swimming. If I'm a slave master, it is my best interest that my slaves didn't learn to swim," he said.

Thus, a domino effect was created, Pitts said.

"You have a generation of nonswimmers birthing nonswimmers. That generation goes on to birth a generation of nonswimmers who will give birth to another generation who will be nonswimmers," said Pitts, who has appeared on Good Morning America and the Today Show to discuss blacks and swimming.

"All of a sudden, after Emancipation Proclamation, they are free, but they are not free with swimming skills."

Today, he said, black children too often view swimming as a sport rather than a survival skill.

"If you can't execute the fundamentals of some sports . . . if you can't shoot a free throw or throw a pass, it won't mean the difference between life and death," Pitts said.

On one recent afternoon at the North Greenwood pool, four boys bare their brown bellies before slowly making their way to the pool's edge.

It's the second day of swim lessons, and Tariq Smith, 3, is in the pool with his right arm around the neck of swim instructor Snow.

"Okay, relax," says Snow as she pulls Tariq's arm down. He puts it right back around her neck.

"Okay, put your head back," Snow says as she helps Tariq lie in the water in a floating position.

"Push your tummy to the sky," she says. The other boys watch, wondering who's next.

Snow said it's disheartening to see so few kids in her swimming classes. Snow, who has worked in municipal pools in Pinellas County since she was 15, says she sees a lack of interest among black parents in the area.

When she worked at a pool in an ethnically mixed community in St. Petersburg, she said the facility had to turn kids away for lessons.

"Women would line up at the door at 6 a.m., and signup wouldn't be until 8 a.m.," Snow said. "Here, we rarely have a full class."

Pitts, who founded the Lee Pitts Swim School in South Florida, said most public pools were segregated and built in white communities until the 1960s, so previous generations of blacks were generally not exposed to public pools.

But not all want to continue the cycle.

Tariq's mother, Terry Smith, said she never took swimming lessons growing up in Jamaica.

But the near-drowning of Terry Smith's 9-year-old nephew on a family vacation prompted her to enroll Tariq in classes. Her nephew, who couldn't swim, was spotted at the bottom of the pool by another family member.

"(The incident) stayed in my memory," Smith said. "That motivated me to get my kids in lessons . . . so they could help themselves.

"What if she (the family member) hadn't seen him? My sister would have lost her only son."

On the same June afternoon, four or five teenage boys stand around in a broken circle across the street from the North Greenwood pool. It's hot, 93 degrees hot, and not one is in swimming shorts.

When asked why they aren't at the pool, one 13-year-old boy says, "You get blacker quicker."

When asked what's wrong with being darker, Terrance Reckel says, "People pick on you. The girls don't go out with you."

Standing in a group, all the boys say they know how to swim. But only a couple have taken lessons.

Pitts lists the damage chlorine in pool water can do to black people's skin and hair.

"We have different types of hair and scalp because we are descendents of Africa," Pitts said. "Chlorine breaks off black people's hair."

And if a woman's hair is chemically straightened, a short dip in the pool can lead to hours of restraightening.

"They say, "We don't want our hair all nappy.' I've heard it so many times. If I had a penny every time I heard that, I would be a millionaire," Pitts said.

Pitts said it "shouldn't keep you from learning one of the basic, necessary skills of life."

At the North Greenwood pool, swimming lessons cost from $25 to $37.50 for two weeks of lessons.

Most kids, Snow said, take at least a month or more of lessons before they become confident swimmers.

The pool offers scholarships for children on free or reduced-price school lunch. Parents pay only 25 percent of the regular fee.

Ann Hogan, 53, a godparent to one of Snow's students, said the lessons cost too much for some.

"You can't eat it (lessons). It's not a roof over your head," Hogan said. "Especially with more than one child, especially if you're a single parent, that makes it double hard."

Pitts agreed. If he had had to pay for his lessons, Pitts said, "I would have never learned how to swim.

"Swim lessons should be free to low-income kids. Period."

Snow, who will to teach swim lessons throughout the summer at the North Greenwood pool, said the majority of black parents she meets want to change the cycle of fear and the lack of opportunity that have kept them from swim lessons.