One man leads to another
Last December, I received an email from a man named Charlie Simmons. Charlie was about to give a lecture on the history of Africans and African-Americans in swimming at Fort Bragg, U.S. Army. He wanted to know if he could use our film in his lecture. I wrote back and told him that our film was not complete — and asked if we could come film his lecture. He agreed.
Charlie had a celebrated military career — as a paratrooper and a diver, as well as Special Forces Officer — and one of his unique contributions is that he taught swimming to military personnel. During the course of our time with him, he often mentioned his own coach from when he was growing up in Brooklyn in the 1940’s — Gerry Donaldson. He urged us to visit Gerry. Finally, in June, we got the chance.
Gerry Donaldson was a swimmer, lifeguard, and coach. He lived in Harlem and worked in pools all over New York City, including in Brooklyn, where he met young Charlie. Charlie asked if he could join the swim team, but there wasn’t one. Unable to resist Charlie’s enthusiasm, Gerry formed a swim team, and made Charlie the captain. Gerry also became a mentor to many of the young men he coached — encouraging them to go to college, to the army, and above all, to be good men. At the end of our moving interview with Gerry, he said casually, “The guy you really want to meet is my twin brother Frank.”
We were able to meet and film Frank tonight. Frank was the first black person to swim in the New York Athletic Club swimming pool. He was not a member, but an invited guest at a swimming and diving meet in 1955. He remembers that the meet was a “diamond meet” — because there were diamonds in the trophies. At the time, African Americans and Jews were not allowed to swim at the New York Athletic Club, so his coach wrote an open letter to the New York Post, asking that his team be allowed to dive there. The NYAC consented, and Frank was one of two who competed.
I forgot to take still photos of these men, but as soon as I can, I will get video stills and post them here.
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