Our View: An unexpected light

Our View: An unexpected light
The Johnson Memorial Pool was named for brothers Leroy and Lonnie Johnson, who drowned in the Potomac River on July 30, 1951. There were no public pools open to African Americans at that time. (Photo/Alexandria Library)

Sometimes grace notes sound in the unlikeliest of places. Such is the reminder from Mark Eaton’s story in this week’s Alexandria Times, “Through their eyes,” on page 13.

This story, the second in a series Eaton has written about Alexandria’s Johnson Memorial Pool, tells of the days in the 1950s and 1960s when African Americans from Alexandria and surrounding areas gathered at the segregated pool.

The pool’s very existence was rooted in the racism of that era and in tragedy – it was opened in 1952 following the drowning deaths of the Johnson brothers in the Potomac River the year prior. Because it opened two years before the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark “Brown vs. the Board of Education” decision, and desegregation slowly began in the years that fol- lowed, the pool had a fairly short lifespan.

But it’s also clear that the pool, which was a congregating center for African Americans from all over Northern Virginia, held a special place in the social lives of those who utilized it. Like wildflowers that spring up at the scene of a former battleground, those still alive today who frequented the Johnson Memorial Pool have beautiful memories of summer days spent swimming and socializing there.

As part of the celebration of the Black Family Reunion last month, Gwen Day Fuller, daughter of the iconic Alexandrian Ferdinand Day and a local leader in her own right, donated a tranche of photos of the Johnson Memorial Pool to the Alexandria Library. A few are included with the story in this week’s issue – including one of a beautiful 13-year-old Day Fuller lounging by the pool.

It was an insult to African Americans in Alexandria that, unlike their white counterparts, they had no public pool in which to swim prior to 1952. And it’s a tragedy that many African Americans, not just the Johnson brothers, perished while swimming in the Potomac River during the Jim Crow era.

And yet, like the sunshine on those long-ago summer days, an unexpected light lingers in the memories of those who frequented the Johnson Memorial Pool.