Black History Month: Lee Pitts, A Swimming Pioneer who has Taught Thousands to Swim

Black History Month: Lee Pitts, A Swimming Pioneer who has Taught Thousands to Swim

By Nailah Ellis Timberlake//Manager of Communications, Multicultural & Foundation  | Monday, February 29, 2016

Lee Pitts is an award-winning swim instructor who has been involved with swimming and water safety for over 20 years. He has spent his career creating swim education programs for minority youth to combat the high percentage of drownings within the African-American community.

Pitts grew up in the Collegeville Housing Projects in Birmingham, Alabama, as one of seven children raised by a single mother.

Pitts’ entry into the world of swimming came when he was six years old and a fan of a 1960s TV series called Flipper. “I wanted to swim like the boys on TV and that summer I was determined to do so.”

There was a local pool in his neighborhood that offered swimming all summer but cost 50 cents a day.

“My mother couldn’t afford to give me the 50 cents I needed, so I would get up early in the morning and walk around my neighborhood looking for bottles,” recalled Pitts. “I would look in bushes, under benches, everywhere until I had enough.” 

Pitts became a regular at the pool. Lifeguard Gice Little took notice of him and would sneak him in on the days when he couldn’t collect enough bottles to pay the entry fee. Gice told him that he taught the free swimming class in the mornings that Pitts could take the class and swim for free for the rest of the day.

“I ended up being one of the better swimmers in the class and Gice let me help teach the fundamentals to my age group class,” said Pitts. “I was about six or seven years old and I was the kid who demonstrated everything.” 

Pitts years later used the same technique with his swimmers, “When students see it done by someone who looks like them, who they grew up with, who they can relate to, it conveys swimming in a simple way, especially for those who are still new to the sport.”

Pitts eventually joined a competitive swim team, got his lifeguard and water safety instructor certification and years later became the only swim instructor to be inducted in the Boys and Girls Club National Hall of Fame.

“There weren’t many swimming role models back then, so for me, swimming was recreational and a way to make money over the summer and after school,” said Pitts. He spent his summers lifeguarding and teaching until he decided to attend Talladega College on an academic scholarship. 

At Talladega, students were required to pass a swimming requirement in order to graduate. 

“I figured it was going to be an easy A,” laughed Pitts. “My plan was to act like I couldn’t swim and then progressively get better over the semester. But there were a lot of pretty girls in my class and my ego kicked in, so I started showing off and swimming laps.” 

When word got around that he was swimmer, students who needed the swimming credit to graduate started knocking his dorm room door, asking him to teach them how to swim. He started holding classes on Saturdays and Sundays and estimates that he helped close to 300 of his classmates learn to swim and graduate on time while he was at Talladega. 

“I was no better than anyone sitting in those bleachers on that first day of class,” said Pitts. “It was just that I got an opportunity as a little boy to learn a valuable skill and I took advantage of it.”

After graduating from Talladega College with a Bachelors in Business Administration, Pitts moved to Atlanta to obtain his Masters in Economics from Clark Atlanta University. He maintained ties to swimming by working at a swimming pool teaching swim lessons to kids. 

He eventually moved to Detroit and started working in finance and began to go to a local YMCA to work out. He noticed that the pool wasn’t being used and when he inquired about it, he was told that they didn’t have a swim program and couldn’t get any lifeguards to work at that location because of the surrounding neighborhood. 

“I initially left the pool thinking that I’d find somewhere else to swim,” said Pitts. “But it bothered me and a few days later, I called the Manager and told her that I would help her start a swim program.” 
Pitts agreed to teach a free lifeguard training class but everyone who signed up had to commit to taking a job working at that pool for two years after receiving their certification. 

“I felt like I had a responsibility to help and my contribution would be to train these swimmers so that they could give back to their community.”

Pitts eventually moved to Florida and founded The Lee Pitts Swim School in 1991, where he provides free swim lessons to disadvantaged youth.

“I always wanted a place where kids could come in and learn to swim for free,” said Pitts. “There are not enough of us going into the pools and coaching our kids.”

“My friends growing up weren’t allowed to come to the pool because their parents were afraid that they would drown,” said Pitts. “Minority swimmers can be successful if given an opportunity at an early age.”

Pitts also produced, directed and starred in an award-winning video entitled, Waters: Beginner’s Swim Lesson for Adults and Children with Lee Pitts. It is the only swim lesson video that features an African-American swim instructor and African-American children. 

“My video focuses on the fundamentals. It’s about being able to save your life and enjoy aquatic activities,” said Pitts. “Children these days don’t face the barriers that I faced so it’s about access and instruction.”

Pitts has taught thousands of children to swim over his long career. 

“Sports are passed down from generation to generation. In the African-American community, certain sports are popular and swimming historically hasn’t been one of them,” explained Pitts. “We haven’t been able to pass swimming skills down to our children. What I’m doing is passing it down.”

Pitts believes that it’s hard for low income people to get introduced to aquatics. 

“Those bottles that I collected to pay for my pool entry are why I’m standing here now. They helped me emerge from the heart of the ghetto,” reflected Pitts. “Those bottles are the story of my life.”

Pitts is currently the host and executive producer of an award-winning television talk show called Lee Pitts Live. Now in its 25th season, the show has received five NAACP Image Awards, the Hodges University Diversity Excellence Award, and the Southwest Florida’s People’s Choice Award. 

“Who would have thought that a boy from the housing projects in Birmingham, Alabama, would have the career that I’ve had!” exclaimed Pitts. “I just want to be able to give back to my community and leave a legacy where young children realize their swimming skills can open up so many doors.”


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