Connecting Swimming To: 12 Years a Slave, Solomon Northup, The Underground Railroad And The Lack Of Diversity In Aquatics

Guest Contributor, Bruce Wigo, International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF) CEO, is an author, attorney, and the former Executive Director of USA Water Polo. 

I tend to view the world through a watery lens. It’s a trait Buck Dawson, the first director of the International Swimming Hall of Fame (ISHOF), passed on to me. Like the six degrees to Kevin Bacon, I think swimming can be connected to just about anything important that has ever happened or is happening in the world. From the Aquatic Ape theory of evolution to the just released Hollywood film, 12 Years A Slave, the “underground railroad” and the lack of diversity in aquatics today.

solomon northupI first encountered Solomon Northup’s amazing autobiography, Twelve Years A Slave, back in 2005. I had just been hired at ISHOF and what led me to Northup’s story was an obscure connection that existed between two of ISHOF honorees: the great 18th Century philosopher, statesman, inventor and author, Benjamin Franklin, and another renaissance giant, the Frenchman Melchisédech Thévenot, who wrote a book entitled, The Art of Swimming, in 1696. Knowing that Franklin had relied upon Thévenot’s book to teach himself how to swim in his youth, I was curious to read it upon finding an original copy in ISHOF’s Henning Library and was surprised to find the following paragraph in the author’s preface:

Both the Grecian and Roman Histories are full of Narratives of the Undertakings of these sort of Divers. But to come to our times, it is most certain that the Indians, and the Negroes, excel all others in these arts of Swimming and Diving. It is to them the Ladies are obliged for their Ornaments of Pearl; they are the Divers who fish for them; they are also very useful for recovering Anchors and Merchandizes that have been cast away.

I came to learn from further research, primarily from the logs and journals of the early explorers and merchants who made first contact with the peoples of sub-Saharan West Africa (1451) and Americas (1492), that the natives they encountered lived near the water, traveled on the water, fished, and had other intimate interaction with waterways, necessitating parents to teach their children to swim as a means of self preservation, often before they could walk.

As the reputations of African swimmers became known, Africans were taken to Europe as swimming instructors and to the Americas where, after Native Americans were wiped out by diseases, they were forced to harvest pearl oysters, conch, coral, and sponges, and to serve as salvage divers recovering goods from shipwrecks. From the 16th through the 18th centuries teams of enslaved African swimmers were kept in the colonial ports of Havana, Vera Cruz, Cartagena, and Panama ready to depart on short notice to recover sunken treasure and other valuable cargoes. Their aquatic skills often provided an avenue to freedom as a means of escaping bondage, but also enabled them to earn their freedom in the whaling and other maritime industries they helped to foster in the 18th and 19th centuries.

It was while researching this lost history, I discovered Twelve Years A Slave.  According to Professor Kevin Dawson, a specialist on aquatics and the African diaspora at the University of California, Merced, at the time Solomon Northup was born, in 1808, most African Americans learned to swim and Solomon was no exception.  Born free, he told in his book how he practiced in the clear streams that flowed through Saratoga Springs, NY, until he had become an “expert swimmer and, felt at home in the watery element.”

In the early days of slavery, most slave owners permitted their slaves to swim after working in the fields. But when it became apparent that swimming provided a means of escape, swimming was discouraged and many slave children were prevented from learning to swim by their owners. Perhaps the most famous aquatic escape occurred in 1831, when a Kentucky slaved named Tice Davids eluded his master by swimming across the Ohio River to freedom in Ripley, Ohio. It was from this incident (swimming – not an actual train) that the organized system of escape became known as the “underground railroad.”

Not having seen the movie yet, as it will not be released in Florida until November 1st, I hope the importance of swimming in Solomon Northup’s escape and his ability to swim are depicted in the movie.

So what happened over the past 200 years that changed the racial landscape and makeup of swimming?

The drowning of thousands of Europeans and European Americans became a serious public health issue in the latter half of the nineteenth century. This fact, combined with the loosening of Victorian morality that made many people feel ashamed and/or fearful of showing their bodies led to the mass learn-to-swim movement of the early twentieth century. Safe swimming holes and beaches that African and Native American swimmers had enjoyed for centuries, and the great swimming pools that were built, were segregated for Whites only. As more African Americans were excluded or drowned in unsafe swimming areas, the practical response for water safety became the parental commandment to “stay away from the water,” and for many families of African descent the great aquatic tradition of African culture was destroyed by Jim Crow generations ago.

It is my belief and hope that this little known fact of history will help rekindle an interest in stopping the generational cycle of non-swimming in some families and that they will ensure that their children learn to swim, not only because it was an African tradition, but for water safety, better health, a better quality of life and because it is really fun.


ISHOF LogoThe International Swimming Hall of Fame is a not-for-profit educational organization located in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. Our mission is to promote the benefits and importance of swimming as a key to fitness, good health, quality of life, and the water safety of children. We will accomplish this through operation of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, a dynamic shrine dedicated to the history, memory, and recognition of the famous swimmers, divers, water polo players, synchronized swimmers, and persons involved in life saving activities and education, throughout the world, whose lives and accomplishments will serve to inspire, educate, and be role models for all those who participate in the Hall of Fame’s experience and programs.


Bruce Wigo was named President and CEO of ISHOF on Friday the 13th of May, 2005.  He is lawyer who has had success in turning around financially troubled non-profit businesses. In 1991, he took over as the Executive Director of USA Water Polo and helped bail out the nearly bankrupt sport’s federation.  In his thirteen years as ED, he increased membership from less than 8,000 to more than 30,000, more than tripled the annual budget to over $3.5 million and raised over $1.5 million for the establishment of a water polo national training center in Los Alamitos, CA.  His oldest son, Wolf Wigo, is a three time Olympian, is currently the head water polo coach at the University of California at Santa Barbara. Daughter Lauren is the corporate yoga instructor for Allen & Company in New York City and his two younger sons, identical twins Drac and Janson, are NCAA All-American water polo players at Stanford University.

You can support the International Swimming Hall of Fame at this link. 

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cynthia curran

Well,Jesús David “Jesse” Vassallo Anadón[note 1] (born August 9, 1961) is a former swimmer and world record-holder who competed at the 1984 Olympic Games for the United States. In 1997, he became the first Puerto Rican to be inducted into the International Swimming Hall of Fame.[1] From 2004 to 2009, he served as the president of the Puerto Rican National Swimming Federation (Federación Puertorriqueña de Natación (FPN) Widepadia.[ The only non-Anglo that swam for Mission Viejo or swam in Orange County that made the olympics. The next best is Ms Cindy Tran who is a top college swimmer but weak in meters. It the way the ball bounces.

That’s actually a really fascinating turn about. So strange how history works, and how the past doesn’t always align with the present the way we’d expect it to. Thanks for sharing!


Good knowledge Bruce.

ED of USAWP Lol…sounds like an impotent position? Could be one explanation for why the sport has trouble expanding? Is this why Serbs call us soft?

About Gold Medal Mel Stewart

Gold Medal Mel Stewart

MEL STEWART Jr., aka Gold Medal Mel, won three Olympic medals at the 1992 Olympic Games. Mel's best event was the 200 butterfly. He is a former World, American, and NCAA Record holder in the 200 butterfly. As a writer/producer and sports columnist, Mel has contributed to Yahoo Sports, Universal Sports, …

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