Local effort works to recognize segregation in Lawrence, years-long struggle for first integrated swimming pool
One of the stark markers of segregation in Lawrence was that white children swam in a private pool with a snack bar and lifeguards while Black children often resorted to the muddy Kansas River. And in the case of 12-year-old Wray Jones, ended up drowning in its waters.
The river can hide its undercurrent, and on a summer afternoon in 1955, Wray, taking a break from fishing along the riverbank, was swimming only about 30 feet from the shore when he appeared to be pulled below the surface, according to Journal-World archives. Wray’s brother Amos said he thought Wray was swimming under water, but then he saw air bubbles break the surface and his brother didn’t come up again. An attempt by another boy to rescue Wray was unsuccessful, and his body was pulled lifeless from the water 30 minutes later.
Wray was not the first Black child to drown swimming in the river, but his death came at a time when civil rights activists were bringing more attention to the lack of integrated recreational facilities in Lawrence and helped to underscore the unequal options in the city, according to an article by Rusty Monhollon on the Kansas Historical Society website. However, despite the efforts of two local groups, which included picketing outside one of the city’s private segregated pools and legal action, it would be another 14 years before the city opened an integrated public swimming pool.
Now some Lawrence residents are working to create an informational display about the efforts of local activists to create an integrated swimming pool, bringing attention to the city’s de-facto segregation and the years-long struggle to chip away at it. Historian Virgil Dean, one of the Lawrence residents working on the project, said that despite the city once being the center of the Free State movement and its distance from the Jim Crow laws of the South, many privately owned businesses, including movie theaters, restaurants and swimming pools, would not serve the city’s Black residents.
“That’s the kind of segregation there was, and it was really widespread,” Dean said. “In addition to that kind of thing, it was kind of an attitude. People clearly let people of color know what the boundaries were in terms of what kind of integration or segregation would be practiced.”
That included the Jayhawk Plunge swimming pool, which skirted 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 Monhollon. In advertisements, the Plunge described itself as a “socially selective and friendly pool,” and in practice that meant Black children and their families could not purchase a general admission ticket or participate in the city’s water safety program.
State Rep. Dennis “Boog” Highberger, who has also been working on the project, said the project started a few years ago, following the death of former Lawrence Mayor Richard “Dick” Raney. He said it was initially suggested that the city’s public pool be named after Raney, who was mayor when the City Commission sought to address the city’s lack of an integrated public swimming pool. However, Highberger said the idea evolved from there and became a broader effort to recognize the local activism that helped change public opinion about segregation and was critical in the creation of the city’s public integrated pool.
“It’s an important story for people here to know; it’s an important part of our history,” Highberger said. “And the more aware we are about how we got here, the more progress we’ll be able to make.”
In 1960, civil rights activists with the Lawrence League for the Practice of Democracy and the local NAACP protested segregation at the Plunge by picketing outside its entrance. Signs held by picketers included messages such as “Equality for All” and “Discrimination Degrades Democracy.” Still some residents vocally opposed the pickets 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. In the end, the Plunge closed rather than integrate and was soon bought by another owner who continued to operate the pool as a private club that did not allow Black customers.
Dean said the story has relevance today and is an example of people in the white majority falling back on other arguments to defend racist practices and being slow to recognize issues that don’t directly affect them.
“I think it’s an example of the kind of complacency that affected a lot of people, that allowed that kind of segregation and discrimination to be practiced in a city like Lawrence,” Dean said. “People aren’t really ready to act, often, until they are really forced to.”
But activists persisted. In the summer of 1967, various members of the Black community put increasing pressure on city officials to resolve the swimming pool issue, according to a working draft of the project’s informational display. That included several Black high school students who testified to the city’s Human Relations Commission. The HRC later recommended and the City Commission approved a temporary lease of an existing pool for public use while pursing a permanent solution. Later that same year — following the failure of similar initiatives in 1956, 1961 and 1963 — local voters narrowly approved a bond issue to build a public swimming pool.
The Lawrence Municipal Pool, now known as the Outdoor Aquatic Center, opened in the 700 block of Kentucky Street 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.
Highberger and Dean are both members of the local chapter of the NAACP, and the NAACP’s history committee has since officially adopted the project, according to NAACP History Committee Chair Kerry Altenbernd. The creation of the historical marker for the city’s public pool comes amid ongoing efforts to create two other markers, one for the 1882 lynching of three Black men and another for the police killings of two young men amid racial and political unrest in 1970.
Altenbernd said in an email to the Journal-World that together the three markers help tell a more complete history of the city, helping to allow for reconciliation and healing.
“Approving and installing all these markers and memorials is a very positive step towards Lawrence providing official recognition of dark chapters in its history,” Altenbernd said.
Highberger said that the project has received $1,000 of funding from the City of Lawrence and already succeeded in fundraising a $1,000 match. He said the group is working on finalizing the text and images of the working draft, and the hope is to get the historical marker installed this fall. The project is scheduled to go before the city’s Historic Resources Commission for consideration on Sept. 17.