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

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

The nonprofit’s latest play in process will tells the story of when Lynchburg filled in its public swimming pools with concrete in 1961 to block swimming rather than allowing Black and white people to swim together.

Playwright Josh Brewer stumbled upon the segregation story by accident while exploring Lynchburg one day last summer, when he saw a filled-in former 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.”

Several Lynchburg residents who remember the public pools being filled in and other experiences of segregation and racism in the city have been working with Brewer and the Endstation team to develop the play in a manner that brings justice and facilitates a better future.

Prior to integration, Jefferson pool in Lynchburg was designated for Black people and Miller and Riverside Park pools were for white people.

Some Black teens in Lynchburg protested segregation by jumping into the 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.”

The city’s justification for filling the pools with cement at the time was to avoid the violence that would occur if Black and white people came together, said Lynchburg native Hylan “Hank” Hubbard, who was spending the summer of 1961 in Washington with his uncle when he learned a pool was filled in in his home city on the Fourth of July.

“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 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.

For White, Lynchburg offered many painful lessons on what it was 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.”

Experiences like White’s should be amplified, especially amid a national reckoning spurred by police killings of Black people that has concentrated focus on racial injustice, 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,” Brewer said. “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 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.”

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

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