An artistic rendering of Nick Gabaldon's last wave at the Malibu Pier. Gabaldon is credited with being the first documented African American surfer. Art: Peter Spacek

An artistic rendering of Nick Gabaldon's last wave at the Malibu Pier. Gabaldon is credited with being the first documented African American surfer. Art: Peter Spacek


The Inertia

“The second period when swimming became popularized and democratized was in the 1950s and 1960s sixties,” says Wiltse. That era of popularization primarily occurred at the (literally) tens of thousands of private club pools in the nation’s burgeoning suburbs. As some historians have pointed out, the Post-War suburbs were lily-white. So, we basically see a replay of what happened in the first swimming pool boom – tens of thousands of new pools contributed to further the democratization and popularization of swimming, but all this was occurring in institutions to which Black Americans had no access.”

This era differed slightly from the first in that the segregation was often a function of larger social norms instead of explicit racism. “There was some overt racism during this period in denying black Americans access to pools, but in large part it was more a consequence of residential segregation,” says Wiltse. “…These pools were located in neighborhoods that Black Americans simply didn’t have access to.”

The late 1960s saw a public pool building spree in low income, racially segregated neighborhoods, but unfortunately for would-be black swimmers, the structures were little more than glorified bathtubs, often no more than a few feet deep and designed more to appease lower class, urban populations than to provide quality spaces for people to swim.

During the same time period that they were denied access to pools, American blacks weren’t doing any better with beaches. Due to the growing concept of coastal land as valuable leisure space, as well as the same White/Black sexual concerns that surrounded swimming pools, Black Americans were often only allowed to swim at out-of-the-way, segregated beaches in the American South.

In the beginning of the 20th century, almost all of the blacks in America lived in the South. However, the Great Migration, which would see the fanning-out of some six million Blacks over six decades to all parts of the nation, changed all of that. Many African Americans found that coastal areas were just as segregated in other parts of the country as they had been in the South. Frederick Douglas’ son Charles and his wife, Laura, founded a Black beach resort at Highland Beach, Maryland after they had been refused service at the nearby Bay Ridge resort based on race.

Any Black person who wished to move into a coastal (read: “White,”) community faced an uphill battle. It was often difficult for them to get loans for houses based on their race and even more difficult to find real estate agents willing to show them houses in White neighborhoods. The residents of these neighborhoods often put racial covenants on their homes, which made it illegal to sell the property to people of other races. Although they were ruled unconstitutional in 1949, many racial covenants still sit like ghosts on house deeds to this day.

Efforts by Black people to develop directly on the beach, either residentially or commercially, were even more contentious. Once such development, a proposed leisure and resort facility for Black people in Santa Monica was opposed in courts by white property owners who organized themselves into “protective leagues” designed to “eliminat[e] all objectionable features or anything that now is or will provide a menace to the bay district,” Alison R. Jefferson, a Doctoral Graduate Student at UC Santa Barbara wrote.

“African Americans were squeezed out from living on the coast early which hurt their relationship with the ocean,” Jefferson says. “The beach in Santa Monica was seen as a gathering place. African Americans didn’t just go to swim, they went to see their friends.” It was that tendency to gather that local white people found threatening. “People didn’t bother them from a recreational access standpoint if they were individuals, but they definitely bothered them when they were in groups.”

The movement of many blacks away from the beach was a gradual process, according to Jefferson, that included a range of different motivations. “There was hostility towards them going to the beach so they just stopped going,” she says. “When you have activities where people are pushing you out and property prices are going up and restrictive racial covenants are imposed on properties, exclusion changes the dynamic of the community. In Santa Monica there are still old African American families that own property but most of the community started moving more inland.”

Would-be black beach goers in other areas faced similar issues. A resort called Bruce’s Beach in Manhattan Beach operated for twelve years in the face of repeated intimidation by the Ku Klux Klan but was eventually killed by the state in order to create a park. Another resort called the Pacific Beach Club in Huntington Beach was simply burned down by arsonists when it was near completion.

“Swimming in the United States is a cultural phenomenon,” says Wiltse. “Cultures operate by being passed down from generation to generation. White Americans learned to swim and enjoy the water during ‘20s and ‘30s. They then passed that down through family and friends. That just didn’t happen to Black Americans…swimming never became part of their recreational culture as it did with whites.”

Culture is a fragile thing. In the late 19th century, surfing culture almost died out due to Western cultural imperialism in Hawaii. It survived thanks, in part, to people like Duke Kahanamoku, George Freeth, and others weren’t afraid to cross racial barriers in order to share something pure and fun with their fellow man. I don’t think Black Americans need similar cultural ambassadors to develop a swimming culture (and a subsequent surfing culture), because regardless of what the statistics say, they have had one all along. It has endured over 400 years of assault from slave owners, Jim Crow policies, real estate segregation, and informal racism. Still it continues, beleaguered but by no means broken to this day. Of the many obstacles Black swimming culture still faces, perhaps the most daunting, is the very notion that it does not exist: that a Black person enjoying the water is anomalous, that surfing and swimming, and all water-based activities are somehow written into the genetic code of Caucasians and omitted from that of Blacks. It is our responsibility, as surfers and as people of all races, to change this discourse. The question should not be: “Why don’t black people surf?” It should be “Why wouldn’t black people surf?”

The preceding article is part of a month-long series celebrating African American surf culture. Also see, Black Surfing Association President Tony Corley’s “I Have a Dream,” and the mini-documentary 12 Miles North by Richard Yelland.

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  • ctwalrus

    there were just this week a series of stories in the Atlantic City Press telling the tale of Blacks in the service industry throughout the 150+ years of AC as a coastal resort and the land covants written into the various housing area of the city and surrounding areas.    I recall growing up and both seeing and hearing about the various ‘black beaches’ in jersey coastal towns…….not a nice piece of American history no matter how you look at it………I plan on showing 12 miles North to my oceans classes this  week, the response should be interesting….

  • Igraba

    So what about the real Africans in Africa? Do they love to swim? I happen to live there, on the beach and am black myself. No, the majority of us don’t like to swim. Why do we always have to do everything exactly the same as the white man in America? Maybe we’ll excel in other areas? Chinese don’t really love swimming either, but they can do a ton of stuff most Americans cannot. Calm down and stop looking for a winner. Sometimes it’s not about wrong and right, it’s just different.

    • Bert

       I happen to live in Africa too, from 1970 to 1990, in various west coast countries, and am white myself. I learned to swim with little black kids of my age (3 or 4 years old), and I carry on swimming with them my whole life there, i different countries. I teached numerous black kids or older people to sail or to windsurf, and surfed with some black guys too.
      Of course, without swimming pools and stuff like that, you have to live on the beach to swim, because where I lived, most of the rivers were unfit for swimming.
      I event went twice in South Africa, and witnessed the nazi like apartheid that was the norm there. I didn’t see a single black in the water. Maybe there were some “coloured beaches” somewhere else, but I didn’t see them (Durban and Jburg).
      In different occasions, people there make a connection with the slavery times: fear of water, fear of living close to the sea…

      But I can testify that a lot of black people love to swim and swim on a daily basis on the coast of Africa, from Senegal to Angola.

    • John Smith

      What about the basic survival need? Swimming can be a lifesaver, every parent must ensure their child can swim. Just saying it’s not your thing is not going to help you when you find yourself in the water.

    • zach

      I agree, all races have differences… and how did u learn English so well!?

  • Lobbylyode

    I grew up swimming and surfing with black kids in oz.  Indigenous swimming and surfing in australia  has a long and rich history.
    However, the definite lack of  indigenous professional swimmers in australia is a direct result of segregation.
    Where do you think the south african government got there blue print for aparthied?

  • Sandee D

    I live in Michigan, right on the big lake. I live in a community where it has been majorily black since as early as the 20′s. The beaches have always been open to all races… and black people still can’t swim. So, the “access to a pool” theory is totally inaccurate. I worked the beach as a life guard for years and lived on this beach my whole life and taught people how to swim for 10 years and I can see a definate cultural difference here. Black people are more rigid and tend to “flop around” more, lacking grace in the water. They also PANIC easier. They spook easier, get upset easier, and just lack gracefullness in general. I don’t know how many black children and black ADULTS I have pulled out of the water in my lifetime. It just seems to me that swimming is a natural instinct that comes with being white. It seems like I have always known how to swim. I don’t even remember learning! I think most white people can relate to this as where blacks need to be taught and there have been black people that I tried to teach that just couldn’t be taught. Just saying what I have seen in my 52 years experience… not being racist at all. If I was, I’d just’ve well had let them drown, not save their lives.

    • Bekii Qinan

      I’m African American–so why can me and the majority of my family swim. In fact, my uncle was on a swim team in the 1950s. So you can’t judge every black person in the whole world by your small experience. You may not thing you’re racist but you are ignorant.

    • suprmon

      Didn’t you just read the article? Are you clueless? The article just said that after so many years of blacks being alienated from swimming in beaches and swimming pools, the desire to swim died amongst the African American community. After so many years of being denied something, the normal psychological response is to lose the taste for it! The example you give about your particular experience (if it was true) was the exception, not the rule! And if you felt that way as far as “letting them drown while teaching them” is concerned, why did you even bother teaching them in the first place? They certainly could have done without your valuable services!!!

  • John Smith

    This may all be true but fails to explain why the same phenomenon of swimming being a white thing is duplicated in all non-white cultures such as India and Africa, especially so in places prone to frequent flooding.

  • John Smith

    No-one says non-white people can’t swim, the question is why they never want to learn, even when they know it could save their life.

  • zach

    I agree with igraba

  • zach

    I am white, and have known how to swim since I was 2, and am a very good swimmer, but rarely ever see black people at the pool, or swimming. I also never see many whites playing basketball, or winning many running events in track over black people… I’m pretty sure that God made every race a little different. Black people can obviously run faster and jump higher than white people! (majority). While white people can swim faster and better than black people! (majority)

    • suprmon

      Here we go again with the stereotypes again! I believe anyone can be exceptionally good at whatever they’re passionate about if given the chance and put in the motivation. With those factors anyone can aspire to be the best at anything they set their hearts to regardless of race or gender. So, white men can jump, and also I hear there are African-Americans playing in the NHL now!