BATON ROUGE, La. (BRPROUD) — Every day there are nearly 10 accidental drownings in the U.S., according to the CDC. That’s 3,500 people every year who die in water. Within these numbers is a startling fact: the fatal drowning rate of Black children is three times higher than white children.
Not too long ago, a man without a life jacket took his last breath in the Mississippi River. Several weeks prior, three young lives were lost to the same waters, forever. The drownings are happening in creeks and streams too, and in many cases, the victims didn’t know how to swim.
According to the Louisiana Child Death Review Report, drowning was the third leading cause of death for children up to 14 years old between 2017 and 2019. 2020 was one of the deadliest in recent history. That year the state experienced a 60% increase in child drownings. Last year, 25 children died.
“It’s a much more significant problem for minority youth,” said Christian Engle, president and CEO of the Capital Area YMCA.
The CDC says the fatal drowning rate of African-American children is three times higher than white children.
“At the YMCA we offer some lessons at all of our locations,” Engle explained. “Our total initiative around doing that is to not only teach children how to swim but also how to be safe in water.”
The YMCA and the USA Swimming Foundation found that 64 percent of Black children cannot swim compared to only 40 percent of white children. The question then becomes why? The agencies cite cultural and historical factors.
“In a lot of minority families, a lot of the reason that their children don’t know how to swim is that their parents don’t,” Engle said.
Generations of adults who can’t swim, brought on by decades of segregation. In the 1950s and 60s, the Capital City, like so many other parts of the country, was right in the thralls of Jim Crow. At the time, the city had two public pools.
“History can’t predict the future but it can inform the future,” said Melissa Eastin, head of special collections for the East Baton Rouge Parish Library. “Of course, neither of those pools were available to our African American communities.”
As a result, Black kids would swim in the Mississippi River, creeks, and drainage ditches. Many of them drowned. Soon local freedom fighters protested! On July 23, 1963, 30 to 50 African Americans attempted to enter the City Park Pool. Five activists were arrested that day. A “Swim in,” they called it.
“Younger activists were becoming more insistent on equality, and this effort was lead by members of the NAACP in town,” Eastin said.
To overcome segregation, Brooks Park was created, and in it sits the City Brooks Park pool. It was a place created for Baton Rouge’s Black community to swim. It’s one of the few public pools open today in the city, and it reminds swimmers, like Dr. Herman Kelly Jr., of why he wants to keep teaching children how to swim.
“Swimming grabbed me when I was younger. It is my passion,” Kelly explained.
Dr. Kelly is an underwater legend, often swimming 1,500 yards a day. He’s a champion athlete and a Florida native who’s spent years in Baton Rouge, encouraging children of color to jump in.
“You learn self-discipline. You learn to wake up early, you learn to work hard, and you learn to have confidence in yourself,” he said.
Kelly says parents should start them off young, just like Bryson Barrett, a 19-year-old swimming instructor at the A.C. Lewis YMCA.
“I began swimming in middle school. I started working here since 2019, and been here ever since,” Barrett said.
Barrett also competes, showing younger Black children, that they can do it too.
“I just want them to be comfortable in the water. A lot of people are afraid of the water,” he said.
Bryson says he wants to beat back misconceptions too, so that their first dive, won’t be their last.
“I want people to get rid of that stereotype that Black people can’t swim. I tell them to be bigger than the water.”
BREC says the City Brooks pool is open Wednesday through Sunday from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. They also offer private lessons. BREC’s Liberty Lagoon is hosting the world’s largest swim lesson day on June 24th, from 8 a.m. to 9 a.m.