From her neck hung the first gold medal won by an African-American woman in an individual swimming event, another marker on the long way to becoming a nation that fully honors the principles on which it was founded.
“The gold medal wasn’t just for me,” she told an interviewer after the ceremony following her big win in the 100-yard freestyle on Thursday night. “It was for people that came before me and inspired me to stay in the sport. For people who believe that they can’t do it. I hope I’m an inspiration to others to get out there and try swimming. You might be pretty good at it.”
She was just nine days past her 20th birthday and she was a universal leader by example; intensely focused, disciplined and hardworking, grateful to those who helped her and humble in her faith.
“I am so blessed,” she said.
To say “Make America Great Again” to her would necessarily be saying to go back to a time before this moment.
To go back a century in her hometown of Sugar Land, Texas, would be to go to the era of convict leasing, when black inmates from the prison there were consigned to the surrounding sugar cane fields as if there had been no Emancipation Proclamation and slavery had never ended. A significant number of them were serving big sentences for small infractions of “the black codes,” such as failure to yield to a white person on a walkway. Not broken windows, but broken lives.
“Sugar Land has a hidden secret and it’s not sweet,” Reginald Moore—a former corrections officer and presently the guardian of the old prison cemetery and an authority on the convict leasing system—told The Daily Beast on Friday.
The working conditions changed little after convict leasing officially ended in 1910. The lock-ups were termed “hardly fit for the stabling of hogs, much less for men.” A moment of unreasoning hope did come when a train rumbled through the town each midnight. The locomotive’s headlamp would shine into the Sugar Land prison with what one unnamed songwriter took as a symbol of freedom. He immortalized it with “Midnight Special.”
“Let the Midnight Special shine her light on me,Let the Midnight Special shine her ever-loving light on me.”
The inmates in the 1920s included the great Huddie “Leadbelly” Ledbetter, who sang on the warden’s porch for a visiting governor to secure the promise of a pardon. Other convicts sought to escape by crossing the Brazos River, but almost none of them could swim and they often drowned.
In the meantime, Sugar Land had become a company town almost wholly owned by the Imperial Sugar Company. The company housed black employees in shacks without indoor plumbing until after 1961. The Federal Housing Administration then began providing low-interest loans paid by sugar company payroll deductions to replace the shacks with brick houses that had kitchens and bathrooms and running water. The area was officially called Mayfield Park, but the white citizenry of the time continued to know it as something else.
“I was in my teens before I learned the real name,” recalls Milton Strickland, now 69. “The rest of us just called it N---er Town.”
A related phrase was used for an upper section of the balcony at the nearby Palms Theater. Black moviegoers had to use a “colored” ticket window and ascend a set of exterior steps on the side of the building that led to an area up by the projection booth that was marked off with with a three-foot wall.
“N---er heaven,’” Strickland remembers it being called.
Strickland says the lone public swimming pool in town during his teenage years was an indoor one at the elementary school that was open to swimmers in the summer.
“As far as I know, blacks did not go in there,” Strickland says. “I don’t believe Mexicans did, either. They may have had a day I don’t know about.”
But in 1966 the schools were desegregated and the Palms Theater would have been as well if it had not been torn down. A new swimming pool admitted children of all races.
When 11-year-old Simone Manuel joined the First Colony Swim Team, she was judged only by her ability and dedication. She did notice that there were no other children who looked like her at the meets. She went with a question to her mother in the kitchen of their tidy, classically American brick home.
As recounted by The Washington Post, her mother, Sharron Manuel, did not have an immediate answer and the two of them sought one on the internet. They printed whatever seemed informative or insightful and studied it all.
“I think it was really helpful for her because it enlightened her that the reason a lot of blacks haven’t been involved in swimming was that in the past we didn’t have access to facilities,” her mother told The Washington Post. “It wasn’t something where we didn’t have the physical ability to do it. It was access and exposure. It was a history lesson for me as well because I didn’t know either.”
And Simone Manuel kept swimming, swimming, swimming.
Eight years later, in March of 2015, she finished first in the women’s 100-yard freestyle at the NCAA championships. Another young African-American woman, Lia Neal, finished second. Another, Natalie Hinds, finished third. And the three of them stood on the podium, the first such 1-2-3 finish.
But that hopeful image was followed two months later by video of another young African-American Texan in a swimsuit. This was a 14-year-old at a pool party in McKinney who was constituting no apparent threat when a uniformed cop forced her flat on the ground and drew his gun.
The cop soon after resigned, but the incident became one of a series that has led to a crisis between people of color and the police. That has, in turn, caused some people to actually listen to Donald Trump when he tries to tell us that things have never been worse and that he will Make America Great Again.
And then on Thursday night, Simone Manuel stood on the podium at the Rio Olympics with her gold medal as the national anthem played and tears ran down her cheeks.
Here was the perfect truth in a season of lies.
We may have far to go, but we have come so far from where we were. America has never been greater and it will become greater still, as surely as there will be more firsts.
Maybe even a first woman president.