Dangerous waters: Blacks less likely to swim, more likely to drown

Sha-kym Adams parents
Sharrod Rowe and Kimberly Adams share a quiet moment after the South High School football team and boosters present them with the jersey and letter jacket their son, Sha-kym Adams, would have earned this year.
Laura Yuen / MPR News

In this land of 10,000 lakes, water has long offered Minnesotan children a way of life and leisure. But jumping in is riskier for some kids than for others.

Recent drowning deaths in the Twin Cities reflect a sad national reality: Black kids are far less likely than whites to know how to swim. They are more than three times as likely as white kids to drown. In Hennepin County, blacks make up 1 in 8 residents but account for 1 in 3 drowning deaths handled by the county medical examiner the past decade, according to an MPR News analysis.

In many states, the differences between white and black drowning rates are negligible. But in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa, African-Americans are nearly twice as likely to die from drowning, federal data show.

The solution seems obvious: Teach children of color how to swim well. The reality, however, is more complicated, swimming advocates and families say. Efforts to close the swimming gap are up against a legacy of racial discrimination that limited African-Americans' access to public swimming areas.

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"Most of us don't know how to swim," said Sharrod Rowe, a lifelong recreational swimmer whose 15-year-old son, Sha-kym Adams, drowned in Lake Nokomis last month while playing with friends.

Rowe and Kimberly Adams, Sha-kym's mother, are both swimmers and both African-American, and brought their son to the lakes when he was growing up. And even though Sha-kym knew how to swim — his parents believe he cramped up in the water after a football practice — they're using his death to highlight the importance of swimming, including in the African-American community.

Access appears to be the biggest problem, Rowe said. Urban pools, once an easy place for kids to learn, are harder to find.

"Most of them can't afford to get to the places that offer swimming services" or lessons, Rowe said. "It's almost like school. If the schools are not in certain areas, the kids are not going to learn. If you make it so everyone can get [to the pools], I believe you'll have a better success rate."

Abdullahi Charif
Abdullahi Charif, 12, died in gym class at St. Louis Park Middle School.
Courtesy of Fred Pritzker

Sha-kym was the third black child in the Twin Cities to drown this year. A 12-year-old Somali-American child died after sinking to the bottom of his school's swimming pool in St. Louis Park. And a 16-year-old immigrant from Guinea drowned in a Plymouth apartment complex pool.

Nationally, nearly 70 percent of African-American children cannot swim. That compares with 40 percent of white children, according to a study commissioned by USA Swimming.

Too often, though, the discussion of why relatively few blacks don't swim doesn't go beyond the numbers, said Jeff Wiltse, a University of Montana history professor who's written extensively on the subject in his book, "Contested Waters: A Social History of Swimming Pools in America."

"Part of it is a lot of black children don't swim because their parents don't swim, and that a lot of African-Americans are more likely to be afraid of the water than white Americans," he said. "But, the question is, why is that?"

Swimming became popular in this country during the 1920s and 1930s with a building boom of public pools, and then again in the 1950s and 1960s with the rise of suburban swim clubs. In both cases, whites had relatively easy access to those pools, but African-Americans were often restricted, Wiltse said. Today, he added, there are far fewer public pools in many American cities than there were a half-century ago.

Advocates note that Minneapolis currently has only three indoor public pools, which are located in more affluent corners of the city. Building more public pools in underserved areas is one way to solve the swimming gap, they say.

Marvin Roger Anderson
Marvin Roger Anderson, 74, said African-American boys growing up in the old Rondo neighborhood of St. Paul were expected to learn to swim.
Laura Yuen / MPR News

Yet in the not-so-distant past, mastering the lakes was the norm for African-American youth in St. Paul, said Marvin Anderson, who grew up in the old Rondo neighborhood, once the heart of the city's black community.

"Growing up in Minnesota, you were almost expected to know how to swim," Anderson said. "Swimming was one of those skills like riding a bike, like was one of those skills of hitting a baseball, was one of those skills of learning how to skate."

Back in the 1950s, he said, teen boys in Rondo set their sights on accomplishing a rite of passage — swimming across Lake Phalen on the city's East Side.

"You'd hear hand-me-down stories about so-and-so and so-and-so, who swam across Phalen. You'd look at that when you were young and you'd ask yourself, 'Will one day I be able to accept that challenge and swim across Phalen?' And I can tell you that I did it!"

When he was a kid, Anderson said Lake Phalen was one of the few places in the city where African-Americans felt welcome to swim.

Another was the YMCA, though that change came slowly.

A 1936 Minneapolis Spokesman newspaper marked as a victory the fact that Ellsworth Harpole of the Hallie Q. Brown Community House secured an hour for black boys to use the swimming pool at the Y and notes, "For twenty years, citizens of St. Paul have been trying to get a class at the 'Y' for Negro boys, but to no avail.'"

A decade earlier, The St. Paul Echo reported that the principal at Franklin Junior High in Minneapolis denied the use of the swimming pool to the Phyllis Wheatley House, a social service agency that primarily served African-Americans. The principal claimed the pool and gym were booked every night of the week. But when a Wheatley House official tried to verify that with a janitor, she learned that it was a lie.

The school board eventually granted swimming privileges to the agency.

"I don't think there was ever a sign in Minnesota — 'white only' or anything of that nature," said Anderson. "But Minnesota, like a lot of Northern [states], had a subtle form of discrimination that was exercised, that was an unwritten rule."

Yusef Mgeni
Yusef Mgeni, 66, remembers swimming at various pools and lakes while growing up in St. Paul.
Laura Yuen / MPR News

Rondo was torn apart to make way for Interstate 94. If the neighborhood were still there today the community would still expect its young African-American men in St. Paul to learn to swim, Anderson said.

For another former resident of Rondo, Yusef Mgeni, there was nothing subtle about the discrimination he and his friends faced while biking to or from lakes in other parts of the city.

Mgeni says the hostilities they encountered were not in the pool, but in the surrounding neighborhoods.

"It wasn't other kids. It was adults — men in their late teens, early 20s or older — who made it pretty obvious with rocks, beer bottles and slingshots that they didn't appreciate us traveling through their neighborhood," Mgeni said. "There were more than a few occasions when we had to outrun the rocks and beer bottles to get home."

Catherine St. Hill, right, swims with her 4-year-old daughter Zoe Weber, Aug. 22 at Como Pool in St. Paul.
Jennifer Simonson/MPR News

Mgeni says his circle of friends would rotate which pools and lakes they frequented in order to avoid the attacks. They typically biked for miles because there was no public pool in Rondo.

Today in St. Paul, families don't have to travel far to enjoy public swimming facilities. But it's still rare to find people of color.

A recent sunny day found Catherine St. Hill offering sunscreen and safety reminders to her two young girls as they got ready to jump into the Como Park pool. Zoe and Naia, who are 4 and 5, can't break away fast enough, though it wasn't always this way.

St. Hill and her husband realized they needed to foster a love for the water in their daughters after they brought Naia, then just a toddler and their only child, to Florida for a family getaway.

"We put her in the pool with us, and she screamed like we were killing her," St. Hill said. The very next week, we enrolled her in swim lessons, because we figured, trial by fire, 'You're going to like this! And you're going to get comfortable, because this is an important skill to have.'"

St. Hill is black, originally from Barbados. Growing up on an island, she says, learning to swim was a matter of life or death.

But when poolside in the United States, she notices she's often an anomaly.

"A lot of times, it's only either me or one other family of color that is black or African-American here. So in my experience, it's uncommon to see people that look like me here."

St. Hill says both in the U.S. and in her native Barbados, black friends who expressed fear of the water just didn't have the opportunities to swim.

"It's not that people don't want to swim. It's that they haven't had that experience growing up. And by the time they become adults or older children, it seems to be a big barrier to get over."

In the wake of their son's death, Sha-Kym Adams' parents Sharrod Rowe and Kimberly Adams are pushing for the renovation of the shuttered junior high swimming pool in the Phillips neighborhood. The nonprofit group Minneapolis Swims is trying to raise $5.5 million to refurbish the pool and add a teaching pool to the facility, which would be operated by the city's park board.

"We don't ever want (Sha-kym) to be forgotten, and we don't want the Phillips neighborhood to be forgotten, because it's easy to do: 'Oh well — they shut down another pool,'" Rowe said. "Hopefully, we can change that."