In commemoration of Black History Month, we will honor the legacy of African-American athletes from ASN's family of schools throughout February. Today: Chicago State's Fred Evans.
For nearly five minutes the crowd at Southwest Minnesota State College's pool stood and cheered Fred Evans.
They witnessed history as Evans won the 100-yard breakstroke at the NAIA swimming championships in April 1975. The Chicago State sophomore became the first African-American to win a national swimming championship.
It's the sports moment judged the greatest in Chicago State history for debunking a ridiculous stereotype.
As Sports Illustrated reported in its April 14, 1975, Scorecard:
Evans' victory alone will not make a dent in the widely held notion that blacks are physiologically unsuited for swimming. This is an assumption that recalls the once-cherished belief that black trackmen, while natural sprinters, were not meant to be distance runners. Swimming's version has it that blacks tend toward physical characteristics—heavy bone structure, dense muscles and the like—that make them what coaches call "sinkers." ...
Swimming, observes Olympic hero Don Schollander, "is mostly a country-club sport, and country clubs discriminate." Peter Daland, coach of NCAA champion Southern Cal, says, "Pools and coaching aren't available to a wide segment of the population. Besides, disadvantaged families are oriented to sports with a professional outlet, where there's a payoff at the end." Sherm Chavoor, U.S. Olympic women's coach in '72, says, "Blacks don't swim because it's in their minds; they've been led to believe, mistakenly, that they can't."
That they can is demonstrated by the history of top-level African American swimmers. It starts with Evans, who was also a three-time NCAA Division II national champion in the 100-yard breaststroke and national record holder from 1975-77, according to USA Swimming.
As The Washington Post noted in 2015, Chris Silva was the first African-American swimmer to make the U.S. national team in 1982. The honor roll includes:
- Sabir Muhammad, who broke 10 American records in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
- Anthony Ervin, the first African-American to win Olympic gold, in the 50 free at the 2000 Sydney Games.
- Maritza Correia, a Puerto Rican of African descent, the first to set a world record.
- Cullen Jones, the second African-American swimmer to win an Olympic gold medal at the the 2008 Beijing Games.
Evans, an advisor for USA Swimming's Make a Splash initiative and the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s African American Outreach Program, was just the first wave.