Meet the Mahogany Mermaids, the Swim Club Reclaiming the Pool and Correcting the History
It began, in a way, with a monogram. "I'm a Southern girl," Nadine Ford says. "We've got to get everything monogrammed."
The monogram was for her swim bag, which Ford toted while training for her first triathlon in 2014. She wasn't a serious swimmer then, so she and a group of girlfriends would hit the pool together, learn strokes from YouTube videos, and help each other train. When it came time to get her swim bag monogrammed, the accomplishment warranted more than initials.
"You know what?" Ford said on a whim, "Instead of my name, put 'Mahogany Mermaid' on there."
Now, seven years later, the Mahogany Mermaids are a U.S. Masters Swimming team in Charlotte, N.C. with 80 members, almost all of whom are Black women. (Several men—usually brothers or husbands of members—have joined, too.) The head coach is none other than Ford, the original Mahogany Mermaid, who went on to earn several coaching certifications.
To Ford's knowledge, the Mahogany Mermaids are the only adult Black swim club in Charlotte.
"The U.S. Masters, our governing body, believes in inclusion and diversity. And we've been able to show them how we fit into the organization," Ford says. "By doing this, other Black women are seeing this and saying to themselves, 'Hey, I can do this, too.'"
For some Mahogany Mermaids, it's an introduction to the sport. After years of segregation under Jim Crow, public pools and beaches weren't desegregated until the 1964 Civil Acts Right Act. Even after, many towns closed pools or made them private rather than allow Black swimmers. When integrated groups of swimmers performed wade-ins to peacefully protest segregation—similar to lunch counter sit-ins—some were arrested, beaten with pipes and chains, and even had acid dumped in the water near them.
The history is recent, and the effects remain. Even today, Black children are three times more likely than White children to drown. Some Mahogany Mermaids were once the kids who didn't have pool access. Ford wants to get more people in the water, whether they grew up swimming or never tried it before.
"I just want people to swim, to not drown, and to enjoy it. Even if they don't enjoy it, I want them to try it," Ford says. "Listen, I hate beets and I don't run, but it took trying them to know that beets taste like dirt and running is useless unless something is chasing you. I want people to swim, to experience it. Maybe they won't like it, or maybe they'll say swimming is the greatest thing ever, next to pizza."
While some Mahogany Mermaids are new to swimming, others are lifelong swimmers perfecting their sport or training others. Connie Oliphant, 81, swam on her college swim team and became one of the first Black physical education teachers in Charlotte. She coached swimming for decades.
Ford called Oliphant out of retirement to become a Mahogany Mermaids coach. It took little convincing for Oliphant to return poolside.
"It's keeping my brain and my body moving," Oliphant says. "And it's important for elderly people: They go downhill when they stop doing things and stop feeling needed. When Nadine begs me to come, oh my gosh, that is so exhilarating for me. It's making me feel needed. I had no idea that anybody needed me in the pool. When I get there and get that reception—and when the ladies even ask for me when I'm not there—I'm amazed."
The club gives women—from ages 21 to 81—what they need, in different ways. For some, it's a chance to excel in the sport they love. For others, it's a chance to reclaim a pastime that was denied to them as children. For all, it's a chance to grow as individuals and create community. The skills that the Mahogany Mermaids learn in the pool—and the bonds that form there—create ripple effects beyond the water.
"It's amazing. That's what happens when we get together as Black women. We know the struggle, and we feel it," Oliphant says. "Maybe it's not just a struggle with swimming, but maybe it's a personal issue, maybe we're having a job issue. But to struggle, to get over the hump, and to perform to your own satisfaction and that of your teammates? That's what makes it so special when we get together."
Along with swimming, Ford shares articles and books with the club that teach the history of Black swimming. It's a rich history: 17th century West Africans were expert swimmers and divers whose aquatic skills amazed Europeans; before the Civil War, more Black Americans could swim than White Americans. Even the term "Underground Railroad" comes from swimming: Tice Davids, an enslaved man, escaped in 1831 after he dove into the Ohio River; his enslaver assumed he drowned and said he'd disappeared on an "underground road." Rather, Davids swam to his freedom.
"Jim Crow happened. It was terrible. It was horrible, but we can't let that stop us. Let's look before Jim Crow, when we were diving to the bottom of the ocean, when we were teaching Europeans the freestyle," Ford says. "I tell [the Mahogany Mermaids]: This is your story. This is your DNA. Claim it. Claim it and be it."