Story and Photos Ja’lyn Jones Data News Weekly Contributor
Only 2 percent of rowers are Black. Brannon Johnson, the owner of the first and only Black-owned and operated rowing club in the country, is working to change that statistic. Johnson teamed up with two-time African American Olympian Rower David Banks to expand access to water sports.
“One of the consequences of what our history [involves], is that water wasn’t really accessible and when it was, we were treated with extreme violence,” Johnson said as she led the Community Rowing Event on Friday, Jan. 19th in partnership with the New Orleans Rowing Club (NORC) and Xavier University on Bayou St. John.
Johnson’s BLJ Community Rowing of Philadelphia is training the Xavier’s new rowing team, which plans to collaborate with St. Augustine University in Raleigh, N.C., which also launched a Rowing Program in 2022. Besides Xavier and St. Augustine, the only other historical rowing team at HBCUs was at Howard University in the mid-1960s.
“It was a worthwhile endeavor just because getting rowing in HBCUs is a huge part of BLJ Community’s initiative, and we have partnered with Diversity in Aquatics, |so| getting rowing at HBCUs and just getting education around it is a huge objective for us,” Johnson said.
Young rowers showed up at the NORC Boathouse to train on ergometers and were able to head out on the water as Johnson and Banks demonstrated the dynamics of rowing.
“[It’s] unfamiliarity,” Banks said about the hesitance in the community to embrace water sports. “A narrative has been told that is not true about the water. Before, Black people were the divers. That narrative got flipped due to racism, Jim Crow, segregation, everything,” Banks said, “so it’s about changing that narrative and bringing the access and opportunity back.”
As a form of fitness and quality of life, Johnson shared how the sport of rowing can be implemented in everyday life.
“I think this was a wonderful showing of what we can do together. If you want to go fast, go alone, but if you want to go far, go together. I think you saw a really nice synergy of what happens when people put egos to the side and do their part to solve a problem that we’re all trying to find a solution to,” Johnson said.
As an Olympian Trailblazer in rowing, Banks added that the sport provides empowerment.
“In this sport, it taught me a lot that if you try, [if] you fail, and then you push through, then you’re like I can do this. You feel kind of big. You feel like a champ. You reach these new levels, and you feel like you’re on top of the world,” Banks said.
The new Xavier Rowing Club hopes to train sufficiently to be ready for a Spring Competitive Season and to represent for HBCUs at rowing events.
“I think in some ways it is what we call a proof of concept. People want to learn, we have the space to do it, and we can replicate this again…and keep expanding rowing into the Xavier community and beyond,” said Dr. Elizabeth Manley, a NORC Member, Professor of History, and Chair of the History Department at Xavier who is leading the initiative.