Mary Blackstock has no idea when she learned how to swim. In fact, the Louisiana native says she doesn't remember "ever not knowing how to swim."
Blackstock, 88, was born in between the great wars. Her father was a dentist, her mother, a stay-at-home mom. She says her mother couldn't swim and was afraid of the water. But her father's family owned a paddle-boat. They transported sugar cane and cattle to New Orleans. The family home was on a hill at Babylon Bayou, and that's where Mary Blackstock and her siblings would swim every evening — but only when her father was home from work. He was the one who would throw the kids in the water.
Swimming, Blackstock says, changed her life.
When she went to Louisiana State University in 1943, her oldest brother was already there. He told Mary that his swimming coaches were impressed with his abilities and signed him up to train Army men how to survive in the water. World War II was well underway. When Mary arrived at LSU, she was signed up for similar duties as her brother's. She taught swimming all through college.
Blackstock is her married name. She and her husband Dr. Mathis Blackstock moved to Austin in 1954. They were very active in the community and spearheaded social causes. For instance, Dr. Blackstock convinced members of his church to transform their building's basement into a shelter for homeless youth. Later he was instrumental in the creation of the People's Community Clinic, where he cared for indigent patients.
'I'll go create a demand'
Mary remembers one day her husband Matt, as she called him, came home and told her a high school senior from Austin High School had drowned during their senior trip, The Blackstocks were devastated. Through the Red Cross, Mary had been coaching children in swimming in North West Austin. But that night, she called the Red Cross and told them she was going to start coaching at Givens Pool in East Austin. She says their response was "there's no demand for swimming teachers at that pool."
Blackstock chuckles while she remembers those late night conversations. "I'll go create a demand," is what she remembers her response was.
In the early ‘70s, swimming pools in Austin had been integrated for only a few years. Blackstock knew the relationship between whites and blacks was still stiff. So she decided to team up with the leader of the Black Panthers in Austin. "His name was Larry Jackson," Mary remembers. "And he had a breakfast club, and I knew where it was." When Jackson opened the door both were surprised at what they saw. Blackstock, who is 5' 8" and white, showed up unannounced. Jackson, a short black man, was not expecting her, says Blackstock.
After talking for a few minutes, Jackson said he'd spread the word in the community and bring whoever was interested the following morning to the pool.
When Mary Blackstock showed up the following morning, she taught her first class of 5 or 6 kids how to swim. "And they loved it!" she says, "They'd never been in the pool before.”
The kids loved it, but officials at the Red Cross didn't. She says they would call every night and ask her to cancel the training. One time they called and said the kids were getting in the pool for free and that was not acceptable. So Blackstock started to pay their fees out of her own pocket. Then, she remembers being told the children were swimming in cut-off shorts, and that was against the policy. Blackstock and a non-profit bought the children bathing suits, and the calls stopped.
Throughout this time, she says she enjoyed the support of the community. She even signed her daughter up to coach there.
Mary Blackstock coached until she was in her late 70s.
Things are changing
For many years, there wasn't a concerted effort in Austin to teach children of color how to swim. But things are changing. This year, the City of Austin sponsored two water safety classes in July, part of a small first attempt to keep children safe. And there are plans to do it again next year.
Water deaths are an epidemic around the country, more than 3,500 a year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention's latest numbers. Since the problem is so widespread, there are some national efforts to provide free or low cost swimming lessons to children. The YMCA is one of the entities providing the lessons. There's also an initiative through the USA Swimming Foundation called "Make a Splash."