Days before a historic college swim meet between N.C. A&T State University and Howard University, I stopped by A&T’s pool to gather information for a game preview.
The Aggies women’s swimmers filed into the Corbett Sports Center pool, rocking a variety of hairstyles representative of black culture. Some of the young ladies had braids, others sported a range of curly-girl styles.
They began practicing to a stream of Rihanna songs I could only assume were from the superstar singer’s newest album, “Anti.”
It was the blackest black-girl practice I’ve ever seen, and I was just as inspired as I was saddened by this team’s story.
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The Aggies were preparing for their final regular-season meet – ever. They bowed out with grace and positivity, despite the effects that might lie ahead.
A&T’s race against the visiting Bison on Feb. 6 marked the close of its program, a cut that was announced in 2013. Several communities backed A&T swimmers as they fought to keep one of the only surviving black-college swim programs in the country.
But they weren’t just fighting for A&T.
They were fighting for scores of young swimmers across the Triangle, across North Carolina and even across the nation. They wanted to prove it’s possible for black girls to swim, well and competitively and – most significantly – in college.
The Aggies used their platform to defy stereotypes about black people and swimming: Black people don’t or can’t swim and black girls don’t swim because they don’t want to mess up their hair.
I saw with my own eyes Aggies, draped in unapologetic blackness, diving into deep waters, practicing sprints, perfecting form and indulging in fellowship – all in the pool.
Aggies senior Victoria Orr said she was enlightened when she started swimming for an HBCU (historically black colleges and universities).
“It was just an eye-opener,” she told me. “I was stuck in the dark. I would say, ‘Why am I swimming? No black people swim like that.’ My whole team was white, so it was just really amazing to see this. They’re from Philly, Maryland ... and I didn’t realize they were all around.”
That’s the thing: Black swimmers are all around and they need more representation, not less.
Only one option
I was unsuccessful in a short quest to find a young Raleigh swimmer who was either affected by losing one of the last of two black-college swim programs or could speak about the subject. While several area swimmers are indeed headed to compete in college, I’m afraid those who want to swim for an HBCU literally have one option.
And that’s Howard.
Like Aggies senior Dominique Crable said, “The Howard coach can’t recruit everybody.”
Aggies swim coach Shawn Hendrix said though many of her athletes were recruited through the program’s 17 years, she’s had dozens who simply wanted to attend an HBCU and could swim. She said it was quite lucky to land quality swimmers.
“(Some of) these girls were former swimmers,” Hendrix said, “but they had intentions of coming to the university anyway. They were a real blessing, to be honest.”
The longtime A&T coach said this season’s group was her fastest ever, so above all else, she’s proud to go out this way.
As sentimental as it sounds, the actuality is disheartening: Only one of the country’s 107 black colleges will have a swimming program. A&T boasted the country’s only all-black women’s team.
Its athletic conference, the Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference, couldn’t sponsor swimming at the other 11 schools, which led to the cut. Howard is also in the MEAC. Though swim programs across the nation are on a decline, the reality for black colleges in general are more grave.
Because of struggles with “unequal government funding, declining enrollment and poor leadership,” many black colleges face unprecedented crises, according to a 2015 report from Businessinsider.com. Eleven percent of America’s black college students are enrolled in HBCUs, and those schools make up 3 percent of all colleges and universities. So they’re important.
On top of that, there were 45 percent fewer recipients of federal loans for graduate students and dependent undergraduates at HBCUs, making enrollment harder to retain because of costs, according to the report.
Some athletic departments take a hit because a lack of funding, sponsorship and support.
But it’s what we need. Not only to have diversity in the types of sports we see at black colleges, but to have representation for those waiting in line.
The Aggies swimmers, the Bison swimmers, Maritza McClendon and Cullen Jones, just to name a few, show us that what was once considered impossible is possible. They debunk myths so we can see the light. They breathe life into the meaningful slogan, “Representation matters.”
That’s why it matters.
Jessika Morgan: 919-829-4538, @JessikaMorgan