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After almost drowning in the river as a child in Florida, lifelong educator Pearl White has taught thousands of children and adults how to swim at “The Y” for nearly 50 summers.

Pearl: My World is a one-hour documentary that not only honors a woman who has dedicated her life to instilling life skills to generations of children in her community, but also expands on–and even upends–the singular narrative of Black Americans’ fraught relationship to swimming and water.

Once a threat to her own life as it had barely begun, water became Miss Pearl’s friend, her muse, her classroom, her meditation, her world. One sweltering summer afternoon in 1939 or 1940—one struggles to remember the exact year—Little Pearl, not older than two, fell into the dark waters of the Saint Johns River at Jacksonville, Florida, almost drowning while her father swam to the rescue and her mother looked on in horror. Over the next eight decades, Miss Pearl learned to love the water, emulating the glamorous Hollywood swimming star Esther Williams as much as the Black swim champions she trained with at the Jefferson Street Pool during her youth, frolicking in the surf of segregated American Beach in the 1950s, coaching high school swimming and diving teams for much of her teaching career, and teaching thousands of children—and many of their parents—how to swim for nearly 50 summers at the James Weldon Johnson Branch YMCA, in the heart of Jacksonville’s Black community.

● Presidio Pictures:

Associated Members

Ernest White II, Producer


We are grateful for the generous support of our sponsors:

Massachusetts Cultural Council
Lowel Cultural Council
Cabot Family Charitable Trust
Liberty Mutual Foundation
City of Boston Arts and Culture