Twenty-year-old Simone Manuel made history during the 100m freestyle swimming event Thursday evening at the Olympic Games in Rio when she and Canadian swimmer Penny Oleksiak won in a tie, with an Olympic record time of 52.70 seconds.
Simone Manuel is now the first African-American woman to win a medal in an individual swimming event. And that medal is gold.
But her win is not just meaningful for herself—it’s a huge moment for black people in the United States. As the Texas native said in a post-swim interview:
This medal is not just for me, it’s for a whole bunch of people who have came before me and who have been an inspirational for me… Maritza [Correia, the first black woman to break an American record and the first black woman to earn a place on the U.S. Olympic swim team], Cullen [Jones, the first African-American to hold a world record (4×100-meter freestyle relay) in swimming]. And it’s for all the people after me, who believe they can’t do it… And I just want to be an inspiration to others—that you can do it.
The fact that it’s 2016 and Simone Manuel is the first black American to medal in an individual swimming event is not surprising if you know anything about American history.
As writer Evette Dionne notes in a piece for The Revelist, public pools in the United States were not traditionally built in black neighborhoods, and public pools have a shameful history of racial segregation. In the 1950s and 1960s, public pools were turned into private pools just to keep black people out of them. Jenée Desmond-Harris wrote a post for Vox appropriately titled “Keeping black people away from white swimming pools is an American tradition“, and it highlights this atrocious, systemic racism. Jeff Wiltse, the the author of Contested Waters, a book about the history of controversy surrounding America’s public pools, has said that in some cases, integrating swimming pools was even more contentious than integrating schools.
In an NPR interview, Wiltse explained:
So, there were two ways in which communities racially-segregated pools at the time. One was through official segregation, and so police officers and city officials would prevent black Americans from entering pools that had been earmarked for whites. The other way of segregating pools was through violence.
And so, a city like Pittsburgh, it did not pass an official policy of racial segregation at its pools. But rather, the police and the city officials allowed, and in some cases encouraged, white swimmers to literally beat black swimmers out of the water, as a means of segregating pools, as a means of intimidating them from trying to access pools.
According to Smithsonian Magazine, in Las Vegas in the 1950s, Sammy Davis Jr. took a swim at a hotel and, “afterward, the manager drained the pool.” So yeah, Simone Manuel’s win is a big deal, and a highly emotional moment.
You can watch Simone Manuel’s medal ceremony here.