Michael Parnell was looking at a black-and-white photo of his younger, slightly slimmer self inside of a diving trade publication. He said one day he realized, after having read some of the book, an instructional guide for amateur and professional divers, that much of its contents included material from thesis papers that he’d written while undergoing his own certification training.
One of the book’s authors, he said, refused to give him credit for the work. Not even a byline. The photograph, said Parnell, was about the only consolation the book’s creator was willing to cede to a black man who had the audacity to enter a profession with few minorities.
Parnell, however, is trying to change that. The 65-year-old West Side native and diving veteran owns the recently opened Mike Parnell’s Magnum Scuba, 5831 W. Madison St., in Austin. It’s the only black-owned scuba shop in the country. But getting to the point of owning a diving business, he said, was a struggle.
“When I finished diving training in 1982, I had all these credentials but the manufacturers would not give me equipment,” said Parnell during an interview conducted in his Austin shop last month. “You have to be able to be sold equipment by a professional manufacturer. They wouldn’t sell to me because I was African American. The threat from the diving industry was, ‘Which ever one of you manufacturers opens to that (black) shop, we’re going to cut our buying to you.'”
Parnell said he had a diving shop, the training, all the criteria, but nobody would come. That was, until he one interested businessman from a diving equipment company called Oceana Diving took a chance on him. Parnell shared with the man how he’d grown his reputation by offering instructional courses to different health clubs throughout the Chicago area. The idea, Parnell said, was given to him by God in a dream.
“He looked on the wall and saw my credentials and said, ‘Man, you’re more qualified than most of these dive shop owners,'” Parnell recalled. “I said, ‘Look, right now I’ve got 17 clubs I’m juggling. I’ve got them coming out of my ears.'”
Parnell would open his diving shop in a string of suburban locations before deciding to move back to the West Side — where a dearth of pools and aquatics instruction has translated into generations of blacks who can’t swim, let alone scuba dive.
Jawuan Warren was one of them.
“Jawuan was smart but he had anger problems and would get in trouble at school,” said Parnell’s wife Doris, who helps him run the business. The Parnells insisted that Warren earn his diving certification — he was 12 years old. Now, the 18-year-old South Side native has his commercial diving license.
“He’s one of the best now,” Michael Parnell said, beaming as if bragging on his own son. “That boy will make so much money it’ll make your head swim! And he’ll go on so many adventures. He’s the only black who finished his class.”
Parnell said he wants to replicate Warren’s success for other youths of color on the West and South Sides, adding that the opportunities diving offers to travel the world while earning a living are practically boundless.
The challenge, he said, is helping many African Americans overcome their aquatic-related fears. He also noted that, because diving instruction requires a lot of math and physics knowledge, there’s an added academic hurdle. Both obstacles, however, can be overcome by just confronting them, Parnell said.
“A lot of people are still harboring fear about something that may have happened to them as a child,” Parnell said. “I hear it all. ‘Well, I have heavy bones.’ I have to ask them where they get that from. I say, ‘OK, if you’re heavy-boned, what about a battleship? Isn’t it heavy?’ When you think about these things and learn the physics behind them, you realize you’ve been scared for nothing.”
Earline Thomas, 75, has never learned to swim. Her daughter, Benita Thomas, is one of Parnell’s diving students and a longtime client. The elder Thomas said part of her aquatic alienation was due to concerns about her hair.
“Back then, when I was growing up, everything was about your hair,” said the elder Thomas. The natural hair styles among African American women today weren’t the rage when she was younger. In those days, she said, all the girls wore press and curls, leaving their heads susceptible to the unhealthy marriage of chlorine and hair-straightening chemicals.
“When I had a child, I didn’t want to transfer my fears onto her,” said Thomas, whose daughter sports dreadlocks. “I made sure those things I didn’t know how to do, she knew how to do.”
Doris, Parnell’s wife of five years, only learned to swim two years ago, she said. An active runner who regularly competes in races of all distances, Doris said it wasn’t her hair that kept her out of the water.
“I grew up on the West Side,” she said. “We didn’t have many pools and even in those that existed, there was nobody to teach us to swim. My brothers were exposed to swimming because of the schools they went to, but those were the only places we had.”
Doris learned to swim while preparing for a triathlon. Each Saturday for two hours in the weeks leading up to the race, she was in a pool with a group of other women who were also training for the triathlon.
“It was a life-changing experience for me,” she said. Now, her husband, an ordained minister, is trying to realize another dream he said came from God.
“We’re going to take this to people on the West Side and expose them to something that will enhance their life, their educational background,” he said. “People just don’t know what’s involved in this.”
If Parnell is the evangelist, Doris is his living testimony. Not long after she learned to swim, her husband certified her to dive. There is a blown-up photo in the window of Parnell’s Madison Street scuba shop.
“You see that picture right there?” Parnell said, laughing as he pointed to a photo that seemed pulled from a travel brochure. Anchoring the scene is a woman in full scuba gear, poised for an Indian Ocean submersion. “That’s Doris getting thrown off of a boat in the Maldives.”
For more information on Michael Parnell’s Magnum Scuba, 5831 W. Madison St., call (773) 412-3723.