JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – We are digging deeper into the disparities the Black community faces when it comes to swimming in Northeast Florida.
It was a skill that was largely denied to Black Americans, especially in the Segregated South. There was a time when there was no pool for Black people to use in Jacksonville.
It gives more insight into how Jacksonville’s past creates a ripple effect with drowning rates today.
87-year-old Warner Singleton learned to swim in metal water tanks on philanthropist Eartha White’s property on Moncrief Road in the late 1940s.
“They had a big tank — like those above-the-ground pools are now. It was just one level, one depth,” Singleton said.
The metal tanks, which historians said were also used for baptisms, were some of the few options for Black Americans in Jacksonville during segregation.
Another place where black children could swim was part of a city trash site called ‘Brown’s Dump.’
It was a reservoir full of chemicals on Pearce Street near the former Mary Mcleod Bethune elementary school.
84-year-old Pearl White remembers children getting in that water.
“All of it was polluted,” she said. “The kids didn’t really know anything about polluted water or what it could do to your skin, even if you swallowed some or inhaled some could do to your lungs or any of your bodily organs. Some of them did, they were just trying to cool off.”
The city pool in the Springfield neighborhood, which first opened in 1922 was whites-only.
“We never went. We were afraid. We didn’t in Springfield Park period. Day or night,” she said.
White said the racial tensions were palpable.
“In the back of your mind, you always got that little feeling that something might happen to me over here if I’m over here. I don’t know so I’m not going,” White said.
Clemson University professor and Jacksonville native Abel Bartley wrote a book on the city’s past and said local leaders drew a hard line in the sand when it came to water.
“What you have is a long history of African Americans being denied access to things that are important. Water was one of the defining lines,” Bartley said.
Efforts to change that started in 1948, when councilman Claude Smith promised black community leaders the city would build them a pool, if they voted for him instead of the black candidate.
“One of the things that they had argued for since the 1940s, was that they wanted a swimming pool, a place for their kids to go during the summer months,” he said.
Smith won the election and the pool on Jefferson Street was built shortly after in 1951.
“On the first day, it was loaded,” Singleton said.
“This was an outlet for us. It was safe for you to be,” White said.
Singleton and White climbed the ranks, getting certification after certification right here at the pool.
“All we thought about was training other people to become swimmers,” Singleton said.
Saving lives and teaching swim lessons along the way.
“Every time you turn around somebody was in there struggling. From the beginning. After a while, it became less and less and less, because more being were learning how to do it,” he said.
White said the Jefferson Street pool helped contribute to more Black people learning how to swim.
“We had swim lessons every morning from 10 to 12. This place would be packed,” she said.
Singleton eventually made history as one of Jacksonville’s first Black lifeguards.
He said the Jefferson Street pool did more than just create swimmers.
“It was very, very, I guess you could say enlightening. Making us want to be people. We wanted to be more than what we were here,” he said.
He eventually became co-captain of the Jefferson Street Swim Club, the city’s first Black swim team.
White was on the first women’s team.
“There weren’t any other Black teams for us to participate against anyway, so we had to compete with each other. And it was just fun,” she said.
A key figure in training Singleton and the team was Jacksonville’s first Black aquatics director Julius Guinyard, a man who spent countless hours mentoring neighborhood kids at the pool, which also doubled as a recreation center.
“Without Julius Guinyard, a lot of people would not be who they are,” Singleton said. “That’s what he was. He was a big father-type figure to these people out here.”
The pool is now named after him.
“It’s an honor for this pool to be named after him,” Singleton said.
Despite the progress made by having the Jefferson Street pool in the neighborhood, Bartley says the stain of segregation surrounding swimming pools, continues to create a ripple effect in the Black community.
Most Black people still don’t know their way around the water.
“Being able to swim versus not being able to swim, that was what put one group in a superior position and another group in an inferior position. There’s never been an incentive to make up for the ground that was lost,” Bartley said.
Singleton is hopeful, especially seeing that the Jefferson Street pool is still here, after all these years.
“It just feels good to be here to see that thing has still survived,” he said. “When I walked in, I just felt a warm feeling, that, hey, I was a part of this whole mechanism that went here, from the beginning.”
Singleton and White still swim in their 80s and have taught hundreds how to swim here in the community.