The Lawrence Aquatic Center opened in 1969, providing relief to all from the brutal summer sun. More than 50 years later, the pool remains a beloved spot for people trying to escape the heat: drop slides, diving boards and a lap pool mean fun for all ages when temperatures skyrocket.
The pool’s history, however, is fraught with a struggle that runs parallel to the fight for civil rights in the 1950s and ‘60s.
A marker that commemorates the years of effort that went into creating a desegregated swimming area was installed in front of the pool’s entrance last year. It will be formally dedicated this Sunday.
Prior to 1969, Lawrence lacked an integrated public pool: only the Jayhawk Plunge existed.
The Plunge, owned by Bertha Nottberg, excluded Black people by marketing itself as a private swim club despite the fact that it regularly sold single-admission tickets to white patrons. Nottberg at one point claimed that she would close the Plunge to everyone before opening it to Black patrons, so their only choice was to swim in the dangerous and polluted Kansas River.
One sizzling Friday afternoon in 1955, less than a mile away from the Jayhawk Plunge on Sixth and Florida streets, 12-year-old Wray Jones was celebrating the end of the school year with a dip in the Kaw. His brother Amos and friend Charles Steele watched Jones as he slid under the brown water’s surface. Chaos ensued as Jones remained under; a young boy from Topeka dove into the water after him; Amos and Steele froze; a stranger called the police.
His body was recovered about 30 minutes after he disappeared. Medical personnel tried in vain to resuscitate Jones as white people lounged oblivious at the pool just to the west.
“When Wray died, our grandmother wouldn’t let us go over to the Kaw River because of the undercurrents,” said Randy Dowdell, 73. “I almost lost a brother to those undercurrents.”
Dowdell was born and raised in Lawrence and currently resides in Dallas, Texas. The retired union worker remembers everything about growing up impoverished in the ‘50s: the regularity of racial slurs, brutal police attacks, the KKK’s constant presence (“We went to school with them … they were our politicians, and when we were picketing they threw stuff at us,”) and the years of protesting that finally led to change.
Lawrence residents voted “no” to issuing bonds that would allow for the construction of an integrated pool in 1945, and again in 1956. The city’s tolerance of the Plunge’s policy of segregation was the straw that broke the camel’s back.
According to the text “Taking the Plunge: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Desegregation in Lawrence, Kansas, 1960,” by Rusty Monhollon, “Wray Jones had not been the first youth from Lawrence to drown in the Kaw, but his death was especially poignant because it came at a time when many citizens of Lawrence were knocking down the walls of racial segregation in their community.”
In 1960, Jesse Milan, who had previously served as the president of the Lawrence League for the Practice of Democracy (LLPD), stepped in to help organize the ongoing protests against segregation. University professors, students and the new Lawrence-Douglas County chapter of the NAACP joined the protests as well.
Dowdell said white involvement in the push for civil rights encouraged more Black people to join. He spoke of the anger and confusion he felt when his grandmother and father told him to stop participating in the protests. He didn’t understand that they weren’t attending because they were afraid of losing their jobs and being targeted or killed by police.
“Our grandma told us, ‘You leave those white people alone,’ and we said, ‘They need to leave us alone,’” Dowdell said. “We were a force to be reckoned with. There were seven of us out there, all boys. We didn’t take any stuff.”
In 1967, after years of protesting, Lawrence voters finally approved bonds that allowed for the construction of the pool to begin. The Lawrence Aquatic Center officially opened to all members of the public on June 2, 1969.
The fight for racial justice didn’t end there, however. Even when the pool opened, it was still semi-segregated: Black people weren’t allowed to take swim lessons, use the diving boards or go off the slides.
Dowdell said it took another 10 years for Black people to feel fully accepted.
“We all settled down, but the pain and the stains are still there,” Dowdell said.
The Lawrence/Douglas County Community Remembrance Project Coalition, Lawrence Kansas Branch NAACP and city will hold a dedication ceremony for the historical marker at 4 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 11 at the Outdoor Aquatic Center, 727 Kentucky St.
The ceremony will open and close with Kerry Altenbernd, coordinator of the LDCCRP Coalition, and Rev. Verdell Taylor. Speakers will also include Ursula Minor, president of the local NAACP branch; Barry Barnes; Annette Dabney, reading a statement from John Spearman, Jr.; Boog Highberger, Virgil Dean and Steve Nowak on the creation of the marker; and a ribbon cutting with Mayor Courtney Shipley.
Although the marker acknowledges a history that may otherwise go untold, it’s important to remember that the pool’s past is a small piece of a huge story. Countless Black people have lost their lives as a result of systemic racism, and their stories go far beyond any marker’s word count.
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Chloe Anderson (she/her), a contributor to The Lawrence Times, is a senior at the University of Kansas majoring in film and media production and minoring in journalism. She’s a freelance photographer, writer for Climbing magazine and the associate multimedia editor for The University Daily Kansan.
You can view her portfolio, articles and commissioned work here. Read more of her work for the Times here.