Trailblazer in the swimming pool

Jackson was first Black to compete in high school state championship meet

By David Elwell
The Decatur Daily

Back in the day there was a community swimming pool called Paradise on Washington Street in northwest Decatur. That pool served the Black community during the days of segregation.

Paradise Pool was indeed a paradise for Lorenzo “Sonny” Jackson. His father, Lorenzo Jackson, managed the pool for the city during the summer months.

“I could spend all day, every day at the pool,” Sonny Jackson said. “That’s where I fell in love with swimming.”

It was swimming that propelled Jackson to an athletic career that allowed him to break barriers that once seemed unbreakable.

In 1970, Jackson was the first Black to ever compete in the high school state championship swimming meet. In his senior season in 1973, Jackson missed being the first Black to win a swimming state championship by just .2 seconds in two different events.

It’s been over 50 years since Jackson broke a color barrier on the University of Alabama campus where less than 10 years earlier the state’s governor stood in the schoolhouse door to deny Blacks the opportunity to enroll.
“I started out swimming with the city swim team before I got to high school,” Jackson said. “I didn’t see another Black person competing in a swim meet until I got to college at Texas Southern.

“When Decatur integrated in 1965-1966, that meant I could go to Bluehaven pool (the formerly white only pool in Delano Park). I wanted to try out the diving board. We didn’t have one at Paradise. It just so happened that the swim team was practicing that day. I had friends on the team and they invited me to swim with them.”

Jackson attended Saint Ann Catholic School through the eighth grade. One of his close friends was Michael Gunner, who was already on the city swim team.

“Sonny was the only Black on the team, but I really didn’t think anything about it,” Gunner said. “He was just my friend Sonny. We were having fun together like we always did at school.”

By age 14, Jackson decided that swimming was his sport. He no longer wanted to play football. It was a huge decision because his father was the long-time coach at Decatur’s Lakeside High, the city’s school for Blacks.

“I was just mediocre at football and I thought I could be something in swimming,” Jackson said. “My parents supported me 100 percent. Dad said he wanted me to be the best swimmer I could be so he came up with a special workout program for me like a track sprinter would have. This was in the summer when I practiced twice a day with the swim team.”
In 1971, Alan Orendorff, a former Florida State swimmer, was hired by Decatur as the city’s Aquatics Director, which included coaching the city team and the high school teams for Austin and Decatur.

“I was 21 and it was my first big job,” Orendorff said. “We had 15 kids at the first meeting. When I told them we were going to practice the next morning at 5:30 and then later in the day after school, they looked at me like I was crazy.”

Orendorff didn’t know what to expect. After 20 showed up for the first practice, the team quickly grew to 40 and then 60 and then over 100.

Jackson became the team’s top sprint swimmer in the 50-yard and 100-yard races.
“I remember before our first meet that Sonny was really scared,” Orendorff said. “I told him to just go wide open and see what he could do. He finished second in the 50 and the 100. I thought that was pretty good after just one year of working with me.”
While racial barriers had begun to fall in the 1960s and early 1970s, there were still some around competitive swimming. Jackson heard one story about a city draining its pool after he had competed there in a meet.
“The swim team embraced me and they tried to protect me,” Jackson said. “I remember seeing a father whipping his son because he lost to me.”
Orendorff said he would not allow racial issues to be a problem for the team.

“I never understood what the color of anyone’s skin has to do with what kind of person they are,” Orendorff said. “The only real issue in my two years there was a letter from a place where we had a meet scheduled that said only whites were allowed in their pool. I tore it up and threw it away and we didn’t go to that meet.

“The next year I got another letter from that same place. This time it said that all swimmers were allowed in their pool. The word ‘all’ was underlined. Again, I tore it up and threw it away.”

In his junior season, Jackson finished fourth at state in the 50 and sixth in the 100. He took aim at winning state championships in those events to close out his high school career. He came about as close as one can get without winning.
“I remember being by the pool cheering him on,” Gunner said. “We knew we were watching something special, but to me it was still just my friend Sonny.”

Gunner went on to be a swimming coach. He retired from coaching at Bob Jones in Madison in 2016 after winning 10 state championships.

“What made Sonny so good was his awesome kick,” Gunner said. “His unbelievable foot flexibility and strength in his quads made him a great sprinter.”

Orendorff left Decatur following the 1973 season. He still remembers Jackson’s final high school meet.

“Just competing in the state finals at the University of Alabama was a big deal for Sonny and a lot of other people,” Orendorff said.  “Winning a state championship would have been even more amazing and he came so close.”

Jackson had many offers to swim in college. He chose Texas Southern, a historically black school with a strong swimming tradition.

“I had teammates from places like Los Angeles, Detroit and Philadelphia,” Jackson said. “They all grew up swimming for Black swim teams. They were never the only Black person in a swim meet like I was.”

Jackson returned to Decatur after college. He retired from the Decatur Fire Department after 30 years with the rank of Administrative Chief.

“I didn’t get into swimming to change anything,” Jackson said. “I just loved spending time at the swimming pool.”

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