‘An important symbol’: marker outside Lawrence public pool tells history of local effort against segregation

photo by: Rochelle Valverde/Journal-World

A marker tells the history of a segregated pool in Lawrence and community activism against segregation and in support of an integrated public swimming pool. The marker is outside the entrance of the public pool those efforts led to, now known as the Lawrence Outdoor Aquatic Center, 727 Kentucky St.

The marker outside the Lawrence public pool serves as a reminder that an integrated public pool — where children of all races were allowed to swim — did not come without a struggle and, in fact, took more than a decade of activism to accomplish.

One of the consequences of that inequity occurred on a summer afternoon in 1955, when 12-year-old Wray Jones drowned while swimming in the Kansas River. Meanwhile, not far away, white children swam under the watch of lifeguards at a swimming pool. Though Wray was not the first Black child to drown this way, his death contributed to opposition to the pool and local activism that would eventually lead to the opening of Lawrence’s first integrated public swimming pool.

The Lawrence branch of the NAACP, civil rights activists with the Lawrence League for the Practice of Democracy, university students and Black students at Lawrence High School all protested or otherwise spoke out against the segregated pool, the Jayhawk Plunge, and pushed for an integrated pool. However change came slowly, and it took 14 years since the death of Wray — and three failed ballot measures to issue bonds for a public pool — before those efforts would come to bear.

photo by: Courtesy of Kansas University Libraries Digital Collection/University Archives

In this July 3, 1960 Journal-World archive photo, people picket outside the Jayhawk Plunge, a segregated swimming pool. At far left, a man’s sign says “Equal taxes unequal rights.”

photo by: Courtesy of Kansas University Libraries Digital Collection/University Archives

A man holds a picket sign outside the Jayhawk Plunge swimming pool in this July 1960 Journal-World archive photo.

As the Journal-World reported in 2020, several community members, including historians and members of the local NAACP, have been working on a project to erect a marker about the local activism against segregation in Lawrence — which included the pool as well as other privately owned businesses, including movie theaters and restaurants — and the efforts toward an integrated public swimming pool. Kerry Altenbernd, NAACP member and coordinator for the project, said the group wants to make sure everybody understands how important the pool is to Lawrence history.

“It is an important symbol in the changing attitudes in Lawrence over race, and over who is allowed to be full Lawrence citizens and residents and who aren’t,” Altenbernd said.

The marker was installed last year, and the group that worked on the marker, the Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project Coalition, will hold a dedication ceremony on Sept. 11 that will include remarks from local leaders and those involved with the project.

Altenbernd said speakers at the event would include the Rev. Verdell Taylor and several people who worked on the project, including historian Virgil Dean, State Rep. Dennis “Boog” Highberger and Watkins Museum of History Executive Director Steve Nowak. Altenbernd said Lawrence NAACP President Ursula Minor would speak about her experience as a child before the public pool opened, and her brother, Barry Barnes, will read a poem. A statement from one of the LHS student activists, John Spearman Jr., will also be read. Mayor Courtney Shipley will cut a ribbon for the marker, and Altenbernd will open and close the ceremony.

The Jayhawk Plunge swimming pool, at Sixth and Florida streets, skirted local laws against public segregation by calling itself a private club even though, in addition to memberships, it sold general admission tickets and even hosted a city-sponsored water safety program, according to an article by Rusty Monhollon on the Kansas Historical Society website. Those who protested against the pool and segregation in Lawrence included Lawrence educator and local NAACP president Jesse Milan, Spearman and others. The Lawrence League for the Practice of Democracy and other community groups also pushed for the city’s fair housing ordinance and other issues.

photo by: Rochelle Valverde

The marker tells about the people and community groups that protested the segregated pool and advocated for an integrated public pool.

photo by: Courtesy of Kansas University Libraries Digital Collection/University Archives

In this Journal-World archive photo form July 3, 1960, a woman holds a picket sign saying “July 4th means..?” during a picket outside of the Jayhawk Plunge, a segregated swimming pool.

Pickets outside the pool and subsequent activism kicked off debates across the city, and some residents vocally opposed the protests and the idea of integration, defending segregation in letters to the editor, not in racial terms, but by appealing to property rights and individual freedoms. But activists persisted, and in 1967, after members of the Black community put increasing pressure on the city, the Human Relations Commission recommended and the City Commission approved a temporary lease of an existing pool for public use while a permanent solution was sought. Later that same year, local voters narrowly approved a bond issue to build a public swimming pool, finally overcoming three previous unsuccessful attempts in 1956, 1961 and 1963.

The Lawrence Municipal Pool, now known as the Outdoor Aquatic Center, subsequently opened on June 2, 1969. The opening came almost 14 years to the day since Wray, who died on June 3, had drowned in the Kansas River.

The Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project Coalition was also involved in the recently installed marker that commemorates the three Black men who were lynched from the Kansas River bridge in 1882. Like that effort, Altenbernd said the coalition’s goal for the pool marker is to recognize past racial injustice in Douglas County, not only to ensure such things don’t reoccur, but to spur conversations and healing in the community.

“That’s another reason to do it, is to open up dialogue and start the reconciliation process,” Altenbernd said.

The dedication ceremony for the marker will take place at 4 p.m. on Sunday, Sept. 11, at the entrance of the Lawrence Outdoor Aquatic Center, 727 Kentucky St. Watkins Museum of History will live stream the ceremony via its Facebook and YouTube pages.


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