In 1949, riots erupted in St. Louis when the city desegregated its public pools. As many as 5,000 white swimmers attacked black youths who tried to swim in the newly integrated pools. The unrest injured 20 people and took 400 police officers to break up.
A few years later, Kansas City’s public pool at Swope Park, its crown jewel, opened in 1941 as a whites-only facility and became the target of an NAACP lawsuit on behalf of three black children who wanted to swim there. Instead of integrating the pool, the city shut it down. In courtroom proceedings at the time, a city representative said pools in particular needed to be segregated because of “the natural aversion to physical intimacy inherent in the use of swimming pools by races that do not mingle socially.” Regardless, the city integrated the pool peacefully in 1954, after an appeal to the United States Supreme Court in the Brown v. Board of Education case fell in favor of its young, black petitioners and toppled segregation.
The road to aquatic equality was rocky in Missouri’s two biggest cities, but by 1954, both reluctantly accepted that all races could access the public swimming facilities. However, Lawrence in northeast Kansas took much longer in providing equal access to public pools.
As late as 1960 Lawrence’s residents refused to fund a municipal-owned swimming facility. Lawrencians voted down municipal pool ballot measures in 1949 and again in 1964. The closest equivalent to a public pool for black children was the Kansas River, where many drowned. White children, on the other hand, swam at the Jayhawk Plunge. Officially, “The Plunge”, owned by Bertha Nottberg, operated as a private club and was thus exempt from civil rights legislation as exemplified in Brown v. Board of Education; unofficially, Nottberg sold single-day tickets for 25 cents to children who were not members as long as they were white.
A Lawrence group called LLPD, Lawrence League for the Protection of Democracy, took issue with Nottberg’s discriminatory practices. The group, led by University of Kansas Professor of Economics Harry Shaffer, looked to pressure the city to pass an ordinance claiming pools were included in the public entities covered in recent Civil Rights legislation. The city dragged its feet due in no small part to the pool’s technically private standing.
A group of about 30 black residents loosely affiliated with LLPD, perhaps spurred into action by the unhurried response of the mostly white leadership, began picketing Jayhawk Plunge on July 4, 1960. Nottberg put slats in the pool’s chain-link fence so swimmers could not see the picketers.
Nottberg, fearful of the negative economic impact of being a political flashpoint, and of operating an integrated pool, offered to sell her pool to both the city and the LLPD. Neither entity was interested.
The biggest counter-argument to forcing Nottberg to integrate the pool was one of politics. The city, as well as the LLPD’s opponents, were deeply uncomfortable telling Nottberg how to run her private business, even though it was functioning as a public pool. According to historian Rusty Monhollon, opponents of an integrated Plunge were more concerned with private property than race:
“The effort to take the Plunge also testified to the potent forces impeding racial equality in Lawrence and the limits of liberalism in challenging those forces. White racism was one such force. But many Lawrencians defended segregation through their opposition to the activist, liberal state and a steadfast belief in the rights of individuals to use their property however they wanted.”
Indeed, soon after the picketers took up residence outside the pool, a counter-protest covered the ticket booth: an anonymous Nottberg ally plastered the pool with flyers that said “what happened to the personal rights of private industry to operate at a profit?” and “KU does have a pool, what’s wrong with it?” The flyers sent a clear message: the protesters were “outsiders,” affiliated with KU and not Lawrence, agitating a local business owner and trying to tell her what to do with her business and hard-earned money.
On July 11 of that same year, someone put 11 carp in the pool and 11 more on LLPD president Shaffer’s doorstep along with a threatening effigy, followed up with telephoned death threats.
On July 12 Nottberg closed the pool, citing financial losses. She leased it to Kansas City businessmen who ran it more like a private club, erasing any possibility of integrating that particular pool.
It would take several more years for Lawrence to pass a referendum and build an integrated municipal pool. For the black children of Lawrence, finally, the time would come to be able to take a dip on a hot summer day without needing to fend off the currents of the mighty Kansas River.
Learn more about Kansas’ Water Story at Water/Ways Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition, on display in at the Eudora Community Museum from June 24 to August 6, 2017, and its partner exhibitions.
This article is based primarily on Rusty L. Monhollon’s article “Taking the Plunge: Race, Rights, and the Politics of Desegregation in Lawrence, Kansas, 1960,” written while he pursued a PhD at the University of Kansas. The article can be read in full here.