Ramona Houston with her neices and nephews

Ramona Houston with neices and nephews

Fun at White Water Exposes Black and Brown Fear and Color-blind Facts

Last week I was so excited about the surprise of my sister Rhonda, husband Terreon and me taking my six nieces and nephews–ages nine, eight, seven, six, four and three years–to White Water. I absolutely love the water and eagerly anticipate our annual family day at the water park. The children were especially elated when they discovered the surprise as we entered the gates of White Water.

As we began to enter the water, Rhonda asked me if I had heard about the recent drownings of six teenagers in Louisiana. I responded no. I was shocked and sickened as I listened to my sister tell me the story about the six teenagers who had recently drowned a couple of days prior, as their family watched in horror unable to assist. She explained that one of the children had slipped into a deep part of a river and began to drown. Six teenage family members jumped into the river to save him. None of the children nor the onlooking adults could swim. I asked when did this happen and was she sure that it had happened. Rhonda responded emphatically, “Yes! It happened just a few days ago. Six teenagers drowned from two different families.” Then, Rhonda pointed to each of our children and counted, “One, two, three, four, five, six–all six of our children!” I looked at our children shocked and sickened with anguish about the magnitude of the real and imagined loss of six children and six family members. Adding to my pain was the thought of witnessing such a tragedy…

I had been in Washington, DC all week attending the National Urban League Centennial Convention. With such an intense schedule I had not seen the news in the past few days. I had no idea about the recent drownings. I looked on nervously as my nieces and nephews entered the “lazy river,” our first stop in White Water. Although they were excited, all of the children were nervous in the water, each desperately hanging on to the three adults and the inner tubes. All day I watched and took note of the fact that none of the children were quite comfortable in the water. When the two oldest boys slid down one of the long tunnel slides, both panicked as they splashed into the water–even though they could both stand up! In fact, neither of them wanted to go on the slide again! On the contrary, I have been swimming since I was four. My mother does not know how to swim, so she made sure that all four of her children knew how. In fact, all four of us were on the local swimming team (my youngest sister and brother were four and five years old at the time) and three of us became lifeguards as teenagers. It bewildered and troubled me to discover that all six of my nieces and nephews were uncomfortable in the water and lacked basic swimming skills.

After waiting a few days until I could handle it mentally and emotionally, I finally decided to research the details about the Louisiana drownings on the Internet. One of the articles explained that the drowning represented a larger issue within the African American community–69% of African American youth cannot swim or have basic water survival skills. Additionally, African American children are three times more likely to drown than the national average. (See USA Swimming Foundation Research Studies Part I and II.) I was baffled! Contributing to these disturbing statistics is the fact that swimming skills are also highly lacking among Latino youth as well, with only 56% knowing how to swim. Consequently, less than 2% of African Americans and 4% of Latinos swim competitively year-round. Despite these alarming facts, during my research I also learned about the exemplary efforts of Olympian Cullen Jones partnering with Make a Splash as well as The Josh Project, all working to raise awareness and promote swimming in the African American and ethnically diverse communities.

That day I made two commitments. One, this year I will teach my six nieces and nephews how to swim. Two, within the next twelve months I will also develop a swim program to teach other children how to swim as well.

For those of you who do not know how to swim or have children who do not know how to swim, I encourage you to take the steps to learn. IT IS NEVER TOO LATE TO LEARN HOW TO SWIM. In fact, my grandmother learned how to swim at 64 years of age at a local community college! For more information on swim classes in your community, visit your local American Red Cross (it played a major role in my development), natatorium, community center or college.

I also invite you to join my family and me as I teach my nieces and nephews how to swim. I will post blogs and videos of our process and progress. I look forward to sharing our stories and learning about yours as we all empower ourselves and others on this journey of teaching and learning how to swim. I look forward to celebrating all of our triumphs with you at White Water next year!

Categories: Opinion pieces


  1. Comment by Suzette Arnold

    Suzette Arnold Reply August 24, 2010 at 12:35 pm

    Dr. Houston:

    Congratulations to you! I am happy that someone has taken on the challege of recognizing the importance of swimming in the black community. I grew up in the Caribbean and there are many children there, (even though we are surrounded by water), who cannot swim. Let me be the first to say, I will assist in anyway I can to help you accomplish that goal. Kudos to you. My heart goes out the families of those who of lost their loved ones. Keep up the good work.

  2. Comment by Essence 73T

    Essence 73T Reply August 24, 2010 at 1:38 pm

    The statistics are staggering. Much of the disconnect with African Americans has so much to do with racism and the Jim Crow laws which required segregation of the pools. In many communities where African Americans lived there were no pools, and if there were, they were poorly maintained. You are right, Dr. Houston, we must take reponsibility for our own, which among so many other things, is requiring that our children take swim lessons as soon as possible. And because so many community colleges offer continuing education courses for adults, parents or individuals can take swim lessons as well at a minimal cost. I am proud to say that I learned to swim by going to summer camps for several years in a row, which allowed me to hone my skills . My children all learned to swim at an early age, and I still swim to this day. It’s a wonderful means of exercise as well as a fun activity.

  3. Comment by Dr. Fantara Houston

    Dr. Fantara Houston Reply September 30, 2010 at 6:06 pm

    As a child growing up in Florida, I took swimming lessons EVERY summer. Still to this day, I do not know how to swim. I have always had a fear of water. I finally over came my fear of water being over my head after enrolling in the swimming course offered at CAU. I always went to the beach and private swimming pools. Almost every house in Florida has a swimming pool in the backyard. There is a deeper reason that African Americans have such a fear of water. It goes further than just not taking the initiative of learning how to swimming. I will participate in the lessons. My sister-in-law tried to teach me about eleven years ago. I am still willing to learn. I don’t want to experience a painful and tragic episode of being helpless when my kids are in the water.

  4. Comment by Tankeeya Butts

    Tankeeya Butts Reply March 31, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Dr. Houston,

    This is an awesome story! How are the children doing? If you are ever in the Toledo, Ohio area please stop by and visit with us!

    Thanks for being caring and courageous! We love what you are doing with your nieces and nephews. Your actions will help end the generational cycle of non-swimmers in your family.

    Learning to swim isn’t just about drowning prevention. Learning how to swim improves self-confidence in both children and adults, opens doors to employment opportunities (i.e. lifeguard, swim instructor) and is an excellent form of exercise that anyone can do regardless of age, shape, height, weight etc.

    Keep “Making a Splash”!


    Tankeeya D. Butts,
    Josh’s Sister and Secretary for The Josh Project, Inc.
    Toledo, Oh

    • Comment by RH

      RH Reply April 5, 2011 at 4:20 pm

      Hi Ms. Butts, it is such a delight to hear from a family member and representative of The Josh Project! What a pleasant surprise! Thank you for the work that you are doing to empower others to learn to swim. My nieces and nephews are doing fine and cannot wait to start the swim lessons which begin this month, just in time for the summer! I look forward to posting articles about the swim lessons with my nieces and nephews. I also know that there are so many benefits from swimming beyond drowning prevention. It has provided employment opportunities for my siblings and me and it currently serves as one of my favorite forms of exercise. Thank you so much for your comments. I am absolutely delighted that this blogged reached you and your organization. Keep up the great work!

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