On July 4, 1961, Audrey Lenon was swimming at Jefferson Park pool. At the time, it was the only public pool open to African Americans in Lynchburg, Virginia. The day was hot, with temperatures in the mid-80s. One might imagine the pool was packed.
And then the police arrived.
“We were in the water and there was a ramp that you walked down to get to the pool,” Lenon, who was 15 at the time, recalled. “We looked up and it was lined with police officers. They told us to get out of the water. No explanation.”
Lenon said she and the other swimmers were “herded … like we were criminals,” told to gather their things and leave. The police refused to answer any questions.
“We asked, ‘What happened?’ and ‘Why are you closing the pool?’ but we didn’t get any answers,” she said. “We were just told to put our clothes on and the pool was closed. That’s all they said, no why it’s closed. I guess they didn’t feel like they needed to tell us. … Do they really need to give a child an explanation?”
What Lenon didn’t know at the time, what she heard later on the evening news, was that something had happened across town at the whites-only Miller Park pool. Something that had caused the police to come Jefferson Park, something that would ruin a summer holiday so full of fun and promise and essentially put an end to summer.
On that Independence Day, 55 years ago, six black boys and an adult civil rights leader tried to buy tickets to Miller Park pool, one of two city pools open only to whites. The newspapers, no doubt familiar with sit-ins happening at lunch counters all over the country, would call it a “wade-in” and “swim-in.”
The City of Lynchburg’s response to this act of civil disobedience was to close all of its pools.
In a newspaper article the next day, City Manager Robert Morrison said the pools were closed as a “matter of public safety.” The same article also listed the boys’ names and their parents’ names and addresses.
An editorial titled, “Closing the Pools,” which ran a few days later, blamed “militant Negro leaders” and their “sense of justice” for what happened that day:
Now, each of these pools has been drained. Negro leaders forcing the issue knew that this would be the result of any attempt to integrate either of the pools used by whites. Perhaps, today, they are proud of their accomplishment and consider their ‘sense of justice’ somewhat satisfied.
It’s true, the wade-in didn’t come as a big surprise to city officials. It was all part of a bigger initiative organized by local civil rights leaders to desegregate public facilities. One of these activists was Virgil Wood, who was then pastor of Diamond Hill Baptist Church.
Wood said city officials had known about the plans for a wade-in and told him the pools would be closed if they actually did it. Wood also described the city manager as a “very decent man” who seemed to be a victim of the times.
“I think he didn’t believe in the old way, but he was trapped in having to carry out what he didn’t believe in,” Wood said. “That was my impression. We also had a high level of respect for each other. We didn’t do sneak attacks. We also gave them the opportunity to do what was right before we challenged it.”
What the City of Lynchburg did that day was similar to what nearby Prince Edward County had done two years before as part of what was called the “Massive Resistance.” Prince Edward closed all of its public schools, rather than allow blacks and whites to attend school together.
The prevailing opinion was that while federal law said schools must be integrated, no one said you had to have public schools.
Regarding Lynchburg’s pools, Morrison told a reporter, “The city does not have the right to deny any citizens admission to a pool operated by the city of Lynchburg. The only way to legally prevent their admission is by closing the pools.”
Two weeks after the pools were closed, Brian Robinson, a 12-year-old African-American boy, drowned while swimming in a canal lock in downtown Lynchburg. According to a newspaper account of the drowning, he would have normally cooled off at Jefferson Park pool.
Robinson’s death was blamed on Wood and others in the local civil rights movement. An editorial in the July 23 newspaper reads, in part, “Because the pools were closed by the wade-in, as city authorities had always said they would be if such a move was made, it’s easy enough to see where the responsibility lies.”
Three city pools closed on July 4, 1961, at Miller, Jefferson and Riverside parks. Eventually, the pools were filled with dirt and grass was planted.
Today, the only visible evidence of the three pools is at Riverside Park, where you’ll find a large rectangle of sod, surrounded by a stone pool deck. In what was the deep end, you can still see the concrete sides and the metal rings, through which ropes once ran around the pool’s perimeter.
A year or so ago, the city installed an interpretive sign at Riverside Park that tells the story of what happened to the city’s pools in 1961.
As for what Lenon and her friends did on that summer day 55 years ago, after the police had locked the gate and left, it appears they tried to make the best of it.
“There was a concession stand as you were entering the pool,” she said. “The lady kept it open. It was Fourth of July. Kids needed something to do. She kept it open, so we bought food and just sat on the hill and looked at the water.”