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Developing play highlights chapter of racial divide, fight for civil rights in Lynchburg history

Developing play highlights chapter of racial divide, fight for civil rights in Lynchburg history

Endstation Theatre’s Playwrights Initiative is bringing the story of Lynchburg’s 1960s public pool closures to the stage in an upcoming play, exploring a history of segregation and racism and the fight for civil rights on a local level.

Endstation Theatre, a nonprofit organization, with Randolph College, focuses on local storytelling through plays. The organization’s Playwrights Initiative brings playwrights to Lynchburg to write, workshop, and produce a play telling stories with local community ties.

The latest play in development tells the story of when Lynchburg closed down its public swimming pools in 1961, allowing no one to swim rather than having Black and white swimmers together. The three pools were filled in by 1968 after several years of disuse.

Playwright Josh Brewer stumbled upon the segregation story by accident while exploring Lynchburg one day last summer, when he was developing a different play with Endstation Theatre. At Riverside Park, Brewer saw a filled-in former public swimming pool, accompanied by a plaque explaining its history.

“I came across this story, and it kind of snowballed out of that,” Brewer said. “I think that it is a tragic and layered story. I think, as the year has progressed, a number of issues the pool closing has spoken to are becoming more and more clear in our own society. It is still immediate; it is still fresh.”

Today, some Lynchburg residents remember the public pools being filled in and other experiences of segregation and racism in the city. Several have been working with Brewer and the Endstation team to develop the play in a manner that attempts to do justice to events of the past and facilitate a better future.

Lynchburg native Hylan “Hank” Hubbard was spending the summer of 1961 in Washington, D.C. with his uncle when he learned a pool was closed in his home city on the Fourth of July.

Summer was pool season in Lynchburg as individuals sought to escape the heat. Public pools, like schools and most other public services, were segregated at the time. Jefferson pool in Lynchburg was designated for Black individuals and Miller and Riverside Park pools were for white individuals only.

Some local Black teens protested segregation by jumping into whites-only pools.

“We did that, because we knew what was going to happen,” said James “Jim” White, who was 16 years old when public pools were filled in and who participated in jump-ins at the Riverside Park pool. “If we jumped in the pool, they were going to make everybody get out of the pool because they had to take all the water out and replace it, because Black folks had been in it. They couldn’t allow Black folks to jump in the pool and ‘contaminate’ the water. So that meant they had to close the pool down for that day, and nobody could swim. And that was our objective in the first place.”

As soon as White and his friends entered the water, white swimmers jumped out, he recalled.

“They saw us jump in; they jumped out. And the n-word was very prevalent. They wouldn’t stay in the pool with us, even though we were probably in there less than 30 seconds.”

Rather than integrate the public pools and allow Black and white swimmers together, the city of Lynchburg decided to close down all of the public pools altogether. After several years of disuse, all of the public pools were filled in.

“This event spoke volumes, because folks said, ‘If we’ve got to integrate, then nobody will swim.’ So they shut down all the pools,” Hubbard said.

The reason the city gave for its decision, Hubbard said, was that “violence” would erupt if Black and white individuals came together.

“It’s that whole notion of 'separate but equal' which they used to promote,” Hubbard said. “We got the ‘separate’ part right. We didn’t get the ‘equal’ part right.”

This was not the first time Lynchburg officials prevented attempts at integrated events, Hubbard said. The reaction of filling in pools rather than integrate them was not surprising.

The former National Conference of Christians and Jews hosted an integrated dinner for students from the all-Black Dunbar and all-white E. C. Glass public schools during Hubbard’s high school years. The event went so well that the group wanted to have a dance for high school juniors and seniors at the two schools, but the event was stopped before it could take place.

“The Jewish community actually tried to put some Black kids and white kids together in a format where we could talk a little bit, get to know each other,” Hubbard said. “We proposed the notion of having a dance. Once again, the leaders said, ‘Nope. If we have a dance with Black kids and white kids, there’s going to be fights, and it’s going to be disastrous.’”

Looking back, Hubbard said those missed opportunities would have helped many young people as adults. “We would not go off into the world without knowing somebody other than your own race,” he said.

Pools were not the only places where Black individuals encountered segregation and racism in Lynchburg.

White recalled having to sit in the back of buses during the same time period, and one specific experience a couple years before his pool jump-ins stands out to him, where he said he began to realize what it meant to be Black in America.

“I remember the bus filling up,” he said. “My grandmother and I were sitting right at the back door, and this young white girl with two kids walked up to my grandmother and said, ‘N-----, get up. Let me sit down.’ That was the rule. The bus filled up all the way to the back, those Black folks who were sitting in the back had to get up and let white people sit down. I remember my grandmother’s fingernails almost going through my thigh. She said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ She got up. That’s what growing up Black in America meant at a young age for me. And here we are again.”

In 1965, Lynchburg City Council authorized putting in pools at E.C. Glass and Dunbar schools, which would have been integrated, archived photos show. But the sting and memory of segregation still lingered.

Racial tensions have risen to the forefront of society in recent months, spurred largely by the killings of Black individuals. The incidents sparked protests against racial injustice and police brutality in Lynchburg and around the world, and added renewed momentum to the Black Lives Matter movement as many seek justice and racial equality.

This perhaps makes Brewer’s play more timely than ever.

Brewer said listening to the experiences of Black individuals who lived through these events, and who still experience lingering racism in modern day, is the key to telling the story of the pools and raising awareness of the realities of racism on a local level.

“I am very aware that I am an outsider to this story,” Brewer said. “Part of my job is to make certain that when my voice is in place, that I’m using it appropriately and that I’m not stepping on the existence of the story for other people. This is not any one person’s story; it’s a community story, and it’s my job to be an amplifier of it. To make certain that those voices are being represented honestly and fully is very much what my job is.”

The play’s characters are inspired by real-life Lynchburg residents’ experiences facing segregation and racism in the city, Brewer said.

Hubbard, now 73, hopes raising awareness of history not only of the public pools incident, but racial tensions throughout the ages in both Lynchburg and the entire United States, will help facilitate productive conversations and social change.

“It’s important that we talk about it,” Hubbard said. You have to be passionate about it, but you also have to really be able to talk about it and get through the full conversation without fighting. It could really be helpful in just helping people understand why we are where we are now.”

Brewer is based in Chicago and divides his time between there, Lynchburg and Memphis, Tennessee.

Matt Silva, artistic director of Endstation Theatre, aims to have a staged reading of the play at Riverside Park at the filled-in pool. The theatre will also seek a person of color to direct the production as the process moves forward over the next year.

Shannon Kelly covers Bedford County. Reach her at (434) 385-5489.

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