The Incredible Histories of Charles And Charlie

Courtesy of International Swimming Hall of Fame and Challenger Community News, Western New York.

The exploits of Charles Jackson French and Charles Chapman, Jr. are part of open water swimming lore that was part the International Swimming Hall of Fame‘s Black Swimming History Exhibition [see here].

The Exhibition told of the long-lost aquatic history of sub-Sahara Africans in previous centuries who were considered for centuries among the world’s greatest swimmers.

The International Swimming Hall of Fame shared the history of enslaved African swimmers and divers who worked hard to create enormous wealth by harvesting pearls and recovering sunken treasures in the water. The exhibition also featured Charles Jackson French [shown above], a World War II hero [see Bruce Wigo’s article on French here].

The exhibition also featured Charlie ‘The Tuna’ Chapman, an African-American pioneer in the open water swimming world, who was the first African-American to swim across the English Channel in 1981 as a 27-year-old in 12 hours 30 minutes. He received the International Swimming Hall of Fame’s Gold Medallion Award. In 1983, he swam butterfly around Alcatraz Island and swam to Aquatic Park in San Francisco Bay. In 1988, he completed the first butterfly circumnavigation swim in the 45.9 km Manhattan Island Marathon Swim in New York finishing in 9 hours 25 minutes. A year later, he replicated the swim freestyle in 9 hours 35 minutes.

But for Chapman to achieve his success, it took a team of dedicated supporters, emotionally, operationally, logistically, and financially.

Chapman, nicknamed Charlie The Tuna, profoundly and lastingly understood and appreciated the team concept that empowered him to achieve successes in the open water.

One of my dad’s last requests was to always remember the committee,” said his son to the Challenger, an African American newspaper located in western New York.

The local committee, a group of business people, friends and volunteers, helped make his dreams of becoming the first African American person to do a number of open water swims come true.

Professor Ernie Olson at the California State University, Sacramento who taught Chapman remembers how he trained. “His regimen included swimming against the current in the American River, mountain river cold with a strong current. Amazing guy.”

For a story on his heralded career, read The Challenger news here.

Members of The Committee included Leo Richardson, Joe Gist, Reverend Echols, Willie Mitchell, Charles Chapman Sr., Ed Rutkowski, Charlie The Tuna (8th from left), Ted Kirkland, George K. Arthur, Dave Collins, James Pitts, Alice Saffron, Bridy Mitchell, and Minnie Gillette are shown above. Not shown are Clifford Bell, Dr. Leon Henderson, Cecilia Henderson, Rick James, and Jan Peters.

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