Skip To Content
  • BHM2021 badge

This Viral TikTok Breaks Down The 'Black People Can't Swim' Stereotype, And It Unlocks Yet Another Chapter Of Not-Taught-In-School History

"My grandma didn't swim for this exact reason."

By now, you’ve probably heard the stereotype that "Black people can’t swim."

NBCUniversal Television Distribution / Via

But did you know that — actually — 64% of Black children in the U.S. don’t know how to swim? This statistic was discovered in a 2017 study conducted by the Department of Health and Social Services at the University of Memphis. For comparison, roughly 40% of white children don’t know how to swim.

Recently, TikToker Maya Echols went viral after posting a video breaking down the stereotype and shedding light on its history. In it, she summarizes how "public swimming facilities such as pools and beaches were segregated by race," and how Black swimmers often faced violence from white swimmers when trying to access public pools.


My grandma didn’t swim for this exact reason, let’s not act like black people got their rights a long time ago.

♬ original sound - Maya Echols

"Through generations," Maya concludes, "not swimming became a common trait within the Black community, and parents did not teach their kids how to swim because they never swam."

You can watch the TikTok here.

She ends the video with footage from June 18, 1964, taken at a pool in St. Augustine, Florida, showing hotel manager James Brock dumping cleaning chemicals into the pool while Black people swim in protest. (Here's a still image.)

A screenshot of the video, showing swimming pool protesters at the Monson Motor Lodge in St. Augustine, Florida scream as motel manager James Brock dumps chemicals into the pool
Vice / HBO

Her video ended up receiving over 1 million views and 20 thousand comments — many from people who were "shocked and disgusted," Maya told BuzzFeed.

However, some comments also expressed confusion as to how segregated swimming pools in the 1960s impact the current statistic of Black children who cannot swim.

To help better contextualize this, BuzzFeed spoke with Dr. Victoria W. Wolcott, a professor of history at the University at Buffalo. She expanded on the TikTok and pool footage, as well as the segregation of swimming pools and 1940s activism — like swim-ins, pool riots, and what she calls the "triple whammy" that fed white concerns about desegregation at swimming pools.

Black children swimming in a segregated pool at Druid Hill Park, Baltimore, Maryland, 1955
Afro Newspaper / Getty Images

Dr. Wolcott also explained the lasting impact of segregation and Black people in perceived white spaces is very tangible today.

"So the video that she showed is a really famous one from 1964. And that is of a civil rights campaign in St. Augustine, Florida," she explained, "There's a long legacy starting from the 1940s of civil rights activists carrying out what they called 'swim-ins.' They would deliberately integrate and desegregate public swimming pools. Or in this case, it was a hotel."

A clear image from the screenshotted video showing protesters demonstrating in the swimming pool of the Monson Motor Lodge in Saint Augustine, Florida scream as motel manager James Brock dumps "muriatic acid" into the water
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

Dr. Wolcott also said that the Monson Motor Lodge swim-in happened the day before the Civil Rights Act finally got approved in Congress. “Some historians have argued that the publicity around that photograph and that particular swim-in — which was so horrific — helped to potentially push lawmakers over the edge and vote for the Civil Rights Act,” she added.

While Black people often faced violence when swimming at public pools, at swim-ins, white people would often react even more extremely by throwing bleach, nails, or thumbtacks into the pools as Black activists swam.

A beaten Black man sits in the street while police check members of the mob who attacked and stoned him during a race riot, which started when Black people were permitted to use public swimming pools along with whites for the first time
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

And these activists did not include only formal civil rights activists but often Black youth, particularly teenagers, who challenged segregation.

Photo Above: A Black man sits after being attacked by a mob during a race riot caused by the desegregation of public swimming pools.

Throughout the 1940s, there were a series of swimming pool riots. In 1949, the mayor of St. Louis decided to desegregate the Fairground Park Pool. "There's this big white riot when they try to do that," Dr. Wolcott explained.

A Black man, whose clothes are soaked with his blood, sits on the street after being beaten and stoned by the mob during the St. Louis race riot
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

The Fairground Park Pool, when it was built in 1912, was the largest municipal pool in the world, and it was only open to white people until 1949. Dr. Wolcott noted, "They had a separate Black pool that was super small and really not well maintained."

She continued, "Huge masses of mostly white teenagers and young men show up, beat up the Black folks who were trying to swim, and they end up closing the pool."

Police armed with nightsticks disperse part of a crowd of 5,000 persons during a race riot in St. Louis, June 21st
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

"That happened in other cities as well," Dr. Wolcott shared, "So you get that kind of pattern where there was some kind of separate but not equal stuff going on, and other cities just didn't have any facilities, like swimming facilities, at all for Black youth."

Like in St. Louis, segregation in swimming pools was enforced by violence. "It was enforced by the violence of white young people — often teenagers — beating the crap out of Black people who tried to get access to the spaces. And cops just ignoring that," Dr. Wolcott said. "Then, ironically, because of that violence, judges and city officials would say, 'Oh, we need segregation because when we don't have it, there's all this unruliness and disorder.' And that unruliness and disorder were white people attacking Black people. So that white violence became a justification for segregation."

Surrounded by an angry, jeering mob, a bloodstained Black man tries to fight off his attackers during a race riot in St. Louis
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

In her article in The Conversation, Dr. Wolcott wrote that in North Carolina, "The chairman of the Charlotte Park and Recreation Commission in 1960 admitted that 'all people have a right under law to use all public facilitates including swimming pools.' But he went on to point out that 'of all public facilities, swimming pools put the tolerance of the white people to the test.'"

This led him to conclude, "'Public order is more important than rights of Negroes to use public facilities.' In practice, Black swimmers were not admitted to pools if the managers felt 'disorder will result.' Disorder and order defined accessibility, not the law."

When speaking with BuzzFeed, she also pointed out, "For the public pools, [Black people] were paying taxes. They're paying taxes, and they're not getting access to the facilities where their tax money goes."

"There's this triple whammy," she explained, when discussing white concerns about desegregation at swimming pools — namely sexuality, disease, and unruliness.

A Black teenager, David Isom, 19, walks along the edge of a white-only pool, breaking the color line in one of this city's segregated public pools which resulted in officials closing the facility
Bettmann / Bettmann Archive

"There's a question around sexuality. White women being vulnerable because they're scantily clad and all of that. [There's] a question around disease and stereotypes about Black people and disease. And [there's a question] about unruliness. In the spaces of leisure, people are letting their hair down, they're relaxed. Maybe in the beach situation, there may be alcohol and concerns that that has to be more tightly controlled. So all of those things go together," Dr. Wolcott continued.

As a result of segregation, the rates of drowning for Black children were significantly higher. "Because Black people often didn't get swimming lessons (like in high school) and didn't really have access to pools, they would have to swim in what we call natural waters, like rivers, and they would drown," Dr. Wolcott expanded.

A photo of Black youth swimming in a segregated pool in Baltimore, MD
Afro Newspaper / Getty Images

She revealed that all of this has had a lasting impact on society today. "High schools don't have swimming pools for the most part anymore — that’s partly due to desegregation. You don't have these lavish public pools that you used to like when they were largely white only pools."

Once pools became desegregated, Dr. Wolcott confirmed that white people started retreating to their private backyard pools, just as Maya’s TikTok states. “Overall, what happens in the post-desegregation period — so late '60s, '70s — is you get a lot of privatization."

The construction of a private swimming pool in someone's backyard in the 1970s
John Dominis / The LIFE Picture Collection via

After desegregation, many pubic swimming pools were left unmaintained as white swimmers stopped going. Instead, they began swimming in private swimming clubs, gated communities, or backyard swimming pools — all of which became increasingly common. So while some community pools began requiring membership fees, many public pools closed after desegregation.

"That was deliberately put in place all across the country to act as a kind of gatekeeping, kind of skirt the rules a bit," Dr. Wolcott said, caveating that some Black entrepreneurs tried to open up separate facilities for Black people, but they didn't receive as much capital investment. (On the other hand, the YMCA receives tax exemptions.)

While some commenters on Maya's TikTok dismissed segregated swimming pools as a thing of the past, the lasting impact of segregation and Black people in perceived white spaces is very tangible today. "We've seen that with everything from the birdwatcher at Central Park, the two guys at the Starbucks in Philadelphia, and then much more tragically, Trayvon Martin, who was in a kind of white space — a gated community," Dr. Wolcott informed.

A still of Christian Cooper, the Black birdwatcher, while he's a guest on The View
Abc News / Walt Disney Television via Getty

"So there's a direct relationship to that long, long period of segregation — nationally, not just in the South — and the association of certain spaces with whiteness. So when Black people are in those spaces, they might get harassed, arrested, or worse. That continues to this day," she elaborated.

Moreover, there are still numerous instances today of white people demanding that Black people show them identification or key fobs, as seen with 'ID Adam,' 'Key Fob Kelly,' and more.

There's also intergenerational trauma and the fact that, as Maya says in her video, "Not swimming became a common trait within the Black community, and parents did not teach their kids how to swim because they never swam."

Black children hold hands, wearing swimsuits and standing in a row on the shore of a beach, facing the ocean
Me789 Studio / Getty Images

"Growing up with an extended family in a community where learning how to swim isn't just one of those things that you do when you're a kid — in a way that you do in a white family — then that's not something that you're going to necessarily seek out as you're older," Dr. Wolcott acknowledged.

When speaking to Maya about her TikTok and why she created it, she told BuzzFeed, "I felt like it was so extremely important to spread this knowledge so that hopefully our generation can end cycles or habits that have been hindering us for so long. I hope this encourages the Black community to teach their kids to swim, or motivates them to actually learn to swim themselves."

Another image of Maya Echols, standing in front of a hedge
Maya Echols / Via

She shared that she herself only learned about this when discussing her TikTok series about slavery’s impact on Black people today with her parents, “They suggested that I talk about pool segregation and proceeded to [talk] about the experiences that my grandparents had.”

Maya added, "Growing up, I observed how my family members and a lot of my Black friends did not know how to swim." She initially found this odd since she had learned to swim at four years old, but at the same time, she said, "I never really thought anything of it because that is very normal in the Black community."

“The school system fails to teach youth how bad slavery and segregation was. A lot of things that happened decades ago, or even hundreds of years ago, still affect Black people today,” Maya stated, adding that she hopes her TikTok series helps shed light on what wasn’t taught in school.

Maya Echols posing in jeans and a tank-top
Maya Echols / Via

She ended, "The school system is set up to make white people feel comfortable. Point blank period. If you really want to educate yourself on these subjects that are neglected, everything is at the tip of your fingers. We are so lucky to be able to Google anything that we are curious about. Knowledge is power!"

"Kudos to Maya for doing this and for bringing this history to light," Dr. Wolcott concluded, "The fact that people reacted so strongly [to the video] is really important. We need to understand that segregation isn't just about Mississippi [or] Georgia. It's national, and it happened everywhere in the U.S. It has long term ramifications. One might think that after the Civil Rights Act, everything was hunky-dory, and that's just not the case. So we need to grapple with that history."

BuzzFeed Daily

Keep up with the latest daily buzz with the BuzzFeed Daily newsletter!

Newsletter signup form