Wade in the Water: Drowning in Racism & FEMME | film-maker
Wade in the Water: Drowning in Racism - From seaweed to lost beach balls, sun-seekers bump into all sorts of surprises swimming along Florida’s iconic beaches. For Black swimmers however, there’s a complex history floating off Florida’s blue waters – one of segregation and violence, but also one of protest and resistance. FEMME is focused on and inspired by Latin American women in South Florida.
[announcer] This time on "Film-Maker."
This program is brought to you in part by Oolite Arts.
What Miami is made of.
And by Friends of South Florida PBS.
"Wading in the Water: Drowning in Racism" is the story of the struggles that took place
here in South Florida to desegregate the beaches and the swimming pools.
And also about the spiritual connection that people of African decent have had from the
beginning of time with the water.
[woman] Would you believe me if I told you Black freedom lies at the bottom of the deepest
That if you swim far enough, deep enough, fast enough, past the blue and into the black,
you will find the abandoned treasures of our ancestors waiting patiently to be reclaimed.
All you have to do is swim.
So as we stand here at this mangrove forest at the beach, it reminds me of what the existence
was for Indigenous people, Black and Brown people throughout the Americas, north and
south, throughout the Caribbean, as well as Africa and any tropical climate near the equator
throughout the world, where Black and Brown people had relationships with the water.
Because most civilizations were founded near major bodies of water.
Most people on a daily basis had a relationship with water daily.
By choice they set up their habitats near and on water, and when I saw on water, I mean
literally, there's some African tribes and some tribes in other parts of the world that
created huts on stilts to be in the water.
On the water, under the water, and when I saw under the water I also mean literally,
and we were talking about ancient times, precolonial, pre slave trade, pre European conquest, where
the Indigenous people were still intact in their everyday lifestyle, and they would swim
on the water, they would navigate on the water also with canoes and small boats, they would
swim under the water, where they would dive down and get crustaceans for part of their
ceremonies, and for food, for sustenance.
Some of these things were also traded, so then they had relationships with other people,
so they traveled on the water.
They used water for bathing, for hygiene, for recreation, for leisure, and for spiritual
So there was a deep, daily relationship with water and that was the norm.
Even here in the Americas, the Indigenous people here in South Florida, the Tequesta,
they inhabited all this land here.
These facts are not in dispute, we've learned this over the time that this information was
being collected and gathered by a collection of researchers and resources that brought
it to our attention, we now know it's undisputed fact that Black and Brown people, people of
the African diaspora were powerful, solid swimmers.
They had a swimming culture, they had a water culture, they had a marine culture, if they
were near the coastal areas, they had relationships with lakes and rivers.
Then something disrupted that.
So their dominance as the swimmers of the world and the aquatic people of the world
was impacted by European conquest.
[reporter] Arrested Negro and white demonstrators clad in bathing suits, jumped into the pool.
Brock, frantic with rage, began dumping an acid cleaning agent into the water, apparently
without harmful affect to the uninvited swimmers.
Finally, an off-duty policeman leaped into the pool and began swinging at the demonstrators.
The swimmers were dragged roughly from the water to waiting police vans.
DCKV newsman, Roger Burnham who filmed these scenes was manhandled and threatened by a
white observer, he was struck twice by law enforcement officers.
As the value of water for every day living for sanitation and for recreation started
to go up for European Americans in the early part of the 19th century, late part of the
18th century, and a mechanism went into place to teach people to swim to be safe around
water, and this mechanism was done with private and government funds.
It was done on a massive scale, and it was done all across the nation.
So to get people to fall in love with water, there was this whole mechanism of marketing
and to create a culture and a sense of fun and joy around water, not just for water safety,
though water safety was at its foundation, but it was geared toward white people.
And then we come up to the second World War, where African Americans were enlisted and
drafted into the military just like whites, and when the wars were fought over seas across
water, there was a very important need for people to learn to swim for the soldiers and
sailors to learn to swim.
And in these swim lesson classes, African Americans who came into the military were
judged to be 80% non-swimmers, and when I say, go back again, what does swimming mean,
swim 100 yards without stopping, and stay in the water afloat for 15 minutes.
So 80% couldn't do it, but by the end of the second World War, most of the soldiers and
sailors were taught to swim and when they came back here in Florida and everywhere,
they demanded the right to have access to swimming facilities.
[woman] I didn't know how to swim.
Drowning faster than I could remember how to hold my breath, my lungs filled with the
ocean until I was her and she was me.
Until it was only her salty, sweet, suffocating voices of my people telling me not to let
her in, like I had her voice telling me to just let go.
My grandmother telling me to relax, that everything would be just fine as I battled the ocean
for my soul, I could've sworn I heard my grandmother telling me to wade, wade, wade in the water.
Quite often, during slavery, many, many, many places around the United States and in the
Caribbean, there was a water culture, there was still a connection to water.
But as time went on and water became coveted more and more by whites, and they wanted to
build on or near waterways, they wanted to inhabit them for themselves, they wanted to
keep Black and Brown people away, because Black and Brown people were seen as inferior,
and whites were superior, so during segregation and colonization, and even South Africa for
example had the same practices.
So they had all white beaches, just like here in Florida, you had all white beaches.
Black and Brown people could not go to that beach.
They had to be relegated to somewhere else that was dangerous or they had nowhere to
And before Brown Versus The Board of Education, there were movements in some cities and African
Americans went in large groups and were resisted by white people, whether it be at beaches
or at pools.
And a lot of the great pools that were built before the war closed down, because of the
racial animosity that was taking place and justifiably.
White people didn't go to them, the places were no longer economically viable.
And then you had Brown Versus Board of Education, and still swimming facilities, because of
the fear of the white population of mixing the races, and the genders together, that
this would be something that would be sexually taboo.
White people didn't want white women swimming with Black men, and vice-versa, because of
the attraction of opposites.
So a lot of the great pools closed down, and in an effort to save the decisions of Plessy
Versus Ferguson, of separate but equal, white communities like here in Fort Lauderdale built
a pool for African Americans to use.
So there were colored YMCAs, there were colored pools that were built, and there were vibrant
swim teams and swim programs and activities around these pools in Black America.
And there were leagues and swim leagues here in Florida, there was a colored high school
swimming state championships that was a national AAU colored championships that was mostly
Black YMCAs participated in.
So Dr. Von D. Mizell was a member of the historically Black neighborhood of Sistrunk, and at that
time, if you can imagine, the neighborhood had to have its own hospital, it's own school,
because whites didn't wanna service Black people.
Black people could leave the Black neighborhood to service white people, and in order to get
to Fort Lauderdale Beach at the time, you had to have an ID card issued by the police
department that said you could have access to go over Dixie Highway, to get to the beach,
to clean somebody's house or deliver some product or to do some kind of work.
You had to have an ID card.
But they didn't have access to the water.
And this is a direct result of losing access to the Galt Mile.
But Dr. Von D. Mizell and Miss Eula Johnson Clark, they were civil right activists, and
I believe she was the lead of the NAACP, they organized and said listen, we have to do something.
To live in Florida and can smell the beach, but can't access the beach is unacceptable.
And we pay taxes, we work for the white people, we want access to water.
So they organized and in the 1950s and '60s, went in to Fort Lauderdale Beach, got in the
water, and were subject to beatings and arrests by the police, to draw attention to the racial
The Fort Lauderdale government responded quickly, because they didn't want that negative attention
as they were trying to grow the industry of coming to Florida for fun and relaxation.
They didn't want all that violence and things going on, so that's when they created the
historically Black beach in Dania Beach in response to the Dr. Don V. Mizell protests
and Miss Eula Clark Johnson, and that's why the park is named after them today.
Even though it was a historically Black beach, the person who the park was named after was
the lawyer for the city, a white guy, who filed the papers.
That's all the did, he filed the papers, his name was on the paperwork to establish this
as the Black beach, and it was named after him, John Lloyd.
John U. Lloyd State Park.
And it's just five years ago that the name was changed.
And it was given credit to and homage to the history, the civil rights activists who demanded
and asked for that beach.
So what we lose when we don't access the water as a people, as a culture, as a society, there's
an economic loss.
There's a spiritual loss when we don't have a relationship to water.
There's a physically health and wellness loss.
There's a social loss.
There is a tradition loss that anchors us to the past.
We lose that connection to ourselves from the past and it's measurable, and that's a
[woman] Just like her Sunday hymns, I saw her clapping with the choir, smiling through
her scriptures, singing along like it would save her life.
I think she saved my life.
Her voice brought me back up to the surface and back to her.
I found freedom at the bottom of the ocean.
Almost cost me my life.
Too big to bring back with me, so instead I brought back a piece of the sea, logged
in my soul forever follows me wherever I go, so I know there is a piece of me in this great
A piece of monster in me, and therefore, it can never hurt.
For now, whenever I hear the ocean's call all I hear is the sound of my ancestors telling
me to just keep swimming.
All I hear is my grandmother's voice telling me everything will be just fine.
All I hear is freedom.
The story found me a fear years ago, I decided to add swimming to my exercise routine.
I was introduced to Diversity in Aquatics, Thaddeus Gamory, he introduced me to Bruce
Wigo of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, I spent some time combing the rule of
set archives, and this story was born.
My dream project is to expand "Wade in the Water: Drowning in Racism" into either a series
or feature length documentary.
I heard that Chris Rock recently learned how to swim, and it would be fun to have him as
part of the documentary.
Absolutely, film should give back to the community.
This film is used as a tool to dispel negative stereotypes.
The film is a tool that hopefully will even save lives, as hopefully it will encourage
people who don't know how to swim, to learn how to swim.
Hello, my name is Carla Forte.
And I'm the director for "Femme."
It's an experimental film that talks about women in South Florida.
Women, Latinas, and equality.
All the stories came from women from the community.
So I have been working with around 20 women from South Florida.
I made an open call from women from the community, so they came to me and we started doing interviews,
talking about how they feel oppressed in some way, in the past, in the present.
To get deeper on each story and to know more about them and their everything, where they
come from, where they are living right now, what are their desires, you know, favorite
A lot of elements that compliment that whole story.
I think the highlight in the production was all the emotions that came from women.
We're about women's rights.
[announcer] This program is brought to you in part by Oolite Arts, what Miami is made
of, and by Friends of South Florida PBS.
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