As a Wilmington native growing up just miles from the beach, Dr. Philip Brown learned how to swim at a young age. But he discovered later in life that not everyone had that same opportunity, particularly if they were Black.
When Brown’s own children started to swim, he got involved with Northside Elite Aquatics (or NSEA) Swim, a competitive swim team in Wilmington. In 2018, that team took on a bigger purpose, led by Brown, who is New Hanover Regional Medical Center’s chief physician executive: They began offering free swim lessons to any child who wanted them at the Earl Jackson Pool on Wilmington’s Northside.
Northside is a historically underserved neighborhood with predominantly Black residents and an average annual household income of just over $26,000. Many of the parents living in that community, despite also spending their whole lives in this coastal town, didn’t have any of the swimming experience or opportunity for lessons that Brown enjoyed as a child.
When NSEA Swim began offering lessons in 2019, almost 30 children showed up for the first day, Brown said. But what really struck him was how their family members wanted to learn to swim, too.
“Before the end of those lessons, I had parents of the kids asking me, ‘When can we learn to swim?’” he said.
Even though swim lessons would “open up this whole new world of opportunity” to their children, the parents knew their children could still find themselves in trouble at the beach or a pool. And if that happened, they couldn’t help.
“The adult swim lessons program was born immediately,” Brown said. “We’ve now taught as many as four generations of families in the same pool.”
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A history of exclusion
Swimming as a recreational activity became popular in the United States in the early 1900s, but Black people were excluded for many reasons. In the South, Jim Crow laws kept local municipal pools segregated. Elsewhere in the country, whites constantly harassed Black people at pools, sometimes to the point of violence.
After integration laws were widely passed, white neighborhoods commonly built private pools, and municipal pools saw fewer swimmers and often closed.
All of this led to generations of Black Americans who weren’t skilled swimmers – and that meant they struggled to feel comfortable teaching their children to swim, too, perpetuating the cycle.
Brown saw this national issue play out in his hometown, especially among the Northside community. Brown attended fifth and sixth grades in Northside because of busing in New Hanover County Schools, and he’s still in touch with many of his classmates from that time.
Drownings are the second leading cause of death among children under 14, and Black children are five and a half times more likely to drown than their white counterparts, Brown said. That’s what motivated him to begin offering the free swim lessons in the Northside neighborhood. In his conversations with residents, he’s learned that almost every person in that community has a friend or family member who has drowned.
“That has really been a tremendous motivation for us, because it doesn’t have to be that way,” he said. “We can definitely change that statistic.”
NHRMC officially joined Novant Health in early 2021. NHRMC, Novant Health, and NSEA Swim all have a common goal of health equity and reducing disparities in historically oppressed communities. By introducing a diverse group of children to the sport who might not otherwise have the opportunity to learn to swim, NSEA Swim can help break the cycle of drownings in Black communities.
The NSEA Swim team is already one of the most diverse swim teams in North Carolina, with the goal of becoming the No. 1 team for diversity, Brown said. Beyond racial diversity, the team also has swimmers with physical disabilities and visual and hearing impairments.
And the Wilmington community is embracing that. Brown remembers a swim meet at UNC Wilmington (held before the COVID-19 pandemic began). The stands were packed, and hundreds of swimmers were competing. Almost all of them were white – except for two Black swimmers from NSEA Swim.
When they began to swim the 50-meter freestyle, they received a standing ovation from every person in the stadium, Brown said.
“Our humanity is ultimately intertwined,” Brown said. “Maintaining those connections across communities and keeping that closeness is really what NSEA Swim is all about.”