Swimming Pool Image by freelancerphotos4u.wordpress.com
Swimming Pool Image by freelancerphotos4u.wordpress.com

As the upcoming Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday approaches, I want to discuss the subject of leisure as it relates to race. I spent many years as the aquatics director for a large urban recreation department recruiting lifeguards from varied ethnic backgrounds. The lack of African-American lifeguards serves as a negative role-model for black youth.

The space for leisure has long been an important aspect of the leisure experience. One author discussed the example of the beach and its surfing subculture as a leisure space of pleasure, control and resistance for men, but mostly excluded women.

I see some similarities in the world of aquatics related to racial discrimination and leisure spaces.

Jim Crow laws in the post-slavery South institutionalized racial separation of leisure spaces. Whites had better parks and swimming pools available, leaving Blacks with inferior facilities if any. Even in the 21st century, the “colored only” signs may be gone, but racialized spatial relations continue to exist. Generations later, African-American families have few traditions related to swimming pools.

Water Aerobics

Take a closer look at the “country club” sports like tennis, golf and swimming. I challenge you to actively count how many African-Americans are well known in these sports besides Tiger Woods and Venus & Serena Williams.

The hegemony of institutionalized racism of leisure spaces has possibly left generations of African-Americans without an innate ability to develop values for parks and recreation and, in particular, an affinity for swimming in public pools. S.F. Phillip (2000) in his article, Race and the Pursuit of Happiness, from the Journal of Leisure Research, gave several examples, two of which described how very few African-Americans visit national parks, and conversely, how few Caucasians play basketball in the inner city. He asked if leisure spaces function as societal mechanisms to limit racial contact.

In the modern world, how has institutionalized racism affected the African-American mother who is afraid of water and is unable to teach or articulate the values of water safety to her children?

American swimmer Cullen Jones is trying to change these values. At the 2012 Olympic Games, Jones was the first African-American to win an individual gold medal in swimming. He went on to win another gold and two silver medals. As a young child, he was the victim of a near-drowning in a public water park and his grandmother promptly put him into swim lessons.

According to Black Enterprise.com, Jones said, “Thanks to the hard work and research of the University of Memphis and the USA Swimming Foundation’s Make a Splash initiative, we now know that there are 3 major reasons why African Americans don’t swim. The #1 reason is fear, which trumps all other factors; then parental backing and physical appearance.”

Another article stated, “there is no question that not knowing how to swim contributes to the deaths of minority children who drown in pools and in natural bodies of water such as lakes, streams or the ocean. The focus is on minority children because the data show they are most at risk for drowning. It’s a cultural issue, because many of the African-American and Hispanic children have parents and grandparents who never learned to swim.”

In my own professional experience, I have seen how few African-Americans pursue jobs as lifeguards, let alone participate in competitive swimming. Out of 300,000 people who visit the swimming pools annually, roughly 25% of visitors are African-American. One year, out of 140 lifeguard staff, only 13 were classified as Latino, Asian or Black. In the 14 years I was the director, I was only able to hire four, qualified African-American Pool Managers.

Pool Manager Training image by freelancerphotos4u.wordpress.com
Pool Manager Training
image by freelancerphotos4u.wordpress.com

Cullen Jones’ Make a Splash Initiative provides important leisure education and swim lessons to families from diverse ethnic backgrounds. The safety commission is working with the YMCA, the American Red Cross, public schools and other community organizations to boost access to free swimming lessons.

What else can families do? Citizens in many local park districts are voting to tax themselves to provide more funds for public safety and general-funded recreation programs, including aquatics. Sign your children up for swim lessons, swim team programs and junior lifeguard programs. Encourage your teens to become lifeguards for a worthwhile and decent-paying summer job.

Inner City Lifeguard
Inner City Lifeguard

With access to free and low-cost swimming programs, children from all ethnic backgrounds can learn to swim and eventually become lifeguards. Perhaps they can be the new role models to other children who attend swimming pools.

19 thoughts on “Why Inner City Kids Need Black Lifeguards

    1. I run the Aquatics Division in Charleston, SC. My MLK pool is in a housing project neighborhood. I have a black facility manager, and black assistant manager, but I want more neighborhood kids to use the pool. We are trying some new things, a dive in movie at the end of this month, free rec swim during spring break, Saturday events in April and May. I would love to find some people to network with, get ideas from, and just talk to.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Those are great ideas, Jennifer. You can chat with me anytime. I ran “urban” pools for years!! Last summer, a council member gave us $50K to offer free programs (Lessons, Jr lifeguard, swim team, Red Cross lifeguard training and Access Lessons for disabilities). Offering free lessons to both kids and adults would be a suggestion if you can afford it.


      2. I, Iva Collier grew up on the project area surrounding MLK Olympic sizes pool, and was told by a lifeguard at the pool that,”blacks do not swim, they splashed water.” which was a great motivational force. Not only did I learn to swim. I became a lifeguard. I have been teaching this life skill freely for 30 years.
        I am the 1st African American Female Lifeguatd within The City of Charleston Aqutics Department

        Liked by 1 person

      3. Wow, Iva, thank you for sharing! That is a huge accomplishment and I am proud to hear of your achievement. I really appreciate that you stopped by. I would love to know how many lifeguards you have trained and how many students you have taught lessons to 🙂


  1. I was once a black Lifeguard that worked for the City of Charleston, SC. I worked with Jennifer Ayers-Millar since we were 16. I have to give it to the Charleston Parks & Rec folks for doing their due diligence in hiring black lifeguards. Most of our patrons were black children. Two of the city’s pools were in the projects; MLK & Herbert Hassel. I worked at both facilities as a teen. Herbert Hassel even had an all black staff in the Summer of 1990. Eventually I transitioned to the ocean and eventually became the Head Lifeguard at Folly Beach for 3 Summers. I LOVED EVERY MINUTE of my lifeguarding career. I even have several National Lifeguard Championship medals as well as a several Regional medals. I loved it so much that I joined the Coast Guard after college.I guess my point is that I too wish that there were more black lifeguards. At Folly Beach, I was quite the anomaly. People used to ask the other lifeguards if I were black or had an extra dark tan. Hats off to Cullen for his efforts. If you ever have questions about my experiences, feel free to contact me! Cheers and thanks for sharing!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. What a wonderful career you have had, and I imagine, a positive role model to your community and beyond. I would just love to share your story (no names, places, of course) on my blog. Would you mind? Please let me know!


      1. I wouldn’t mind at all. I don’t even care if you use my name or where I’m from and worked. I’m extremely proud of my what I accomplished as a Lifeguard. I’m open to a phone conversation or email string. Which ever is more efficient for you.

        Liked by 1 person

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