An Olympic swim team

By Bonitta Best
Updated: May 29, 2009

CARY, N.C. — Before city swimming pools were open for black people in Raleigh, there were backyard pools. Places black children could go to learn to swim while Jim Crow laws shut them out.

Some of those early swimming pioneers were honored at a community breakfast back on Friday, May 22nd at Embassy Suites in Cary as part of the National Black Heritage Championship Swim Meet Memorial Day weekend.

The five honorees could fill an Encyclopedia of black history as they told of swimming in places, or “holes,” where the water was unsanitary and no lifeguards were present if anything happened.

Yet, their love of swimming and dedication to teaching others kept them going.<

Let’s meet them:

• Weston B. Butler attended Washington Junior High in Raleigh. He was certified as a junior lifeguard at an early age, and taught swimming lessons for the Boy Scouts, Girl Scouts and neighborhood church groups. A 31-year veteran of the U.S. Army 82nd Airborne Division, a segregated unit in Springlake (near Fayetteville), Butler instructed troops in water survival training.

“The day they built a swimming pool in Chavis Park was a marvelous day,” Butler said. “Swimming is one of the most wonderful skills you can have.”

• Yvonne Lewis Holley, a native of Raleigh, was the second female to be hired by Raleigh Parks & Recreation. She was employed as a lifeguard at Chavis Park Pool in the late 1960s and early 70s. She paid her way through college at Howard University by managing indoor swimming pools for the D.C. Department of Recreation.

“Black lifeguards were a scarce commodity back then,” she said. “When the economy went bad and other people couldn’t find a job, I could always find one in a pool.”

• Lee Lewis, and brother of Holley, joined Raleigh Parks & Rec. at age 14. (They thought he was 16.) He attended N.C. Central on a tennis scholarship and later joined the swim team. In ’73 he relocated to Washington, D.C., and worked as a pool manager until returning to N.C.

“We would pile kids in cars and take them swimming,” he said. “It was dangerous watching us swim at Chavis because we would grab people fully clothed and throw them in the pool.”

• Tanya Rene Moore-Boone was born with swimming in her genes as both parents were avid swimmers and instructors. Moore-Boone became a Red Cross certified junior lifeguard and water safety instructor at the young age of 11.

After watching her best friend almost drown, she quickly became a lifeguard. She has taught swimming and lifeguard instruction ever since, including at St. Augustine’s College and Shaw University. Moore-Boone is a co-founder of the N.C. Aquablazers, a minority AAU year-round swim club that sponsors the heritage swim meet.

“It’s been our dream to get as many kids as possible to learn how to swim competitively and to have fun,” she said.

• Ruth Palmer, a N.C. A&T graduate, has been involved in swimming for 21 years. In 1988, she decided to teach youth swim lessons at the African American Cultural Complex on Sunnybrook Road. To date, Palmer has taught over 3,000 black swimmers in the Triangle alone.

“My greatest reward is to teach senior citizens how to swim and see the look on their faces,” she said.

The Aquablazers hope to make the community breakfast an annual event.