Zeba BlayVoices Culture Writer, The Huffington Post
L TO R: Simone Manuel’s and a Protesters in 1964 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. (Bettman via Getty Images)
There are levels to Simone Manuel’s epic Olympic win on Thursday. The 20-year-old has become the first black woman to win a gold medal in an individual swimming competition in the history of the Olympics. Tying for the gold medal with Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak, Manuel also set an Olympic record with a time of 52.70.
What the Texas native has managed to accomplish during her time in Rio is most definitely historic ― but it’s also weighted with meaning that extends far beyond the Olympics.
There is an infamous photo from 1964, of a motel manager named James Brock pouring acid into the swimming pool of his Saint Augustine, Florida, motel. Below him, black and white protestors attempting to integrate the segregated pool scream in shock and fear.
The photo is a visceral reminder of the everyday realities of segregation in the United States. Black people weren’t even allowed the dignity of cooling off in a pool or at the beach without being segregated and denied access.
According to The Guardian, during the 1920s and ‘30s thousands of luxurious public pools were opened all over America. All of them were segregated. When desegregation began in the ‘50s and ‘60s, government officials withdrew funding for desegregated pools. White pool-goers ultimately fled for the perceived comfort and “safety” of private, segregated pools and the rundown public pools left over for black people were gradually closed down.
Today, there’s a stereotype that many people, including some black people, subscribe to: “Black people can’t swim.” Of course, that isn’t completely true. Many black people, throughout the diaspora, know how to swim.