Jones' Freestyle Medley Gold Continues Unsung Black Swimming Tradition, Historian Dorsey Says

Alisa Giardinelli

Historian Allison Dorsey:
Jones' Medley Gold Continues 
  Unsung Black Swimming Tradition

by Alisa Giardinelli
08/12/2008

When Cullen Jones helped seize the gold medal in the men's 4x100m freestyle medley, he did more than contribute to a riveting, historic race. He also helped counter a longstanding stereotype.

Cullen Jones

Hewitt/Getty

 

"Numerous fantasies abound - swimming is a 'white' activity, blacks have heavier bones and therefore cannot float, blacks can't coordinate their breathing underwater, etc.," says Associate Professor of History and Black Studies coordinator Allison Dorsey. "Such tales are both false and decidedly ahistorical."

This fall, students in Dorsey's African American History: Slavery to Freedom class will learn that Africans carried to the Americas as slaves possessed mastery of many skills - including swimming. "Just as their native skills with cattle herding, farming, fishing, hunting, and architecture were exploited by their masters to create the wealth of the Americas, enslaved swimmers made significant contributions to all forms of maritime industries," she says.

Dorsey also notes that the recent film Pride tells the story of African American swim coach Jim Ellis' efforts to bring swimming to children in Philadelphia's urban center. "As demonstrated by Coach Jim Ellis, gold medalist Cullen Jones, and thousands of Africans centuries ago, swimming is an exhilarating and enriching sport that has long been a part of the black tradition."

Learn more about the history of Africans and swimming in Kevin Dawson's "Enslaved Swimmers and Divers in the Atlantic World." (swarthmore.edu account required)