Corrected Through their eyes: A look back at the segregated Johnson Memorial Pool

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By Mark Eaton | aboutalexandria@gmail.com

Alexandria opened the Johnson Memorial Pool in 1952 at what was then the corner of First and North Payne Streets as the first swimming pool in Northern Virginia intended for use by African-Americans.

The pool, named for brothers Leroy and Lonnie Johnson who drowned on July 30, 1951 while swimming in the Potomac River, was dedicated after a series of swimming deaths of young African-Americans in local waterways.

The Johnson Memorial Pool became a central gathering place for African-Americans in Northern Virginia. While the pool is gone, it lives vividly in the memories of Alexandrians as a place of joy and friendship.

Michael Dantley, who was born in 1954, recalled the atmosphere following the deaths of the Johnson brothers.

“No older than the late Lonnie and Leroy Johnson when both perished in the Potomac River in 1951, due to the lack of a safe swimming facility for anyone of African descent in the Commonwealth of Virginia, nor Alexandria, I am humbled to have been able to gaze upon the checkerboard water tower that was right next to the Johnson Memorial pool, while swimming on my back in 1964,” Dantley said in an email. “Having attended morning swim classes under the instruction by the late Harry Burke [the city’s high school pool is named after him] myself and many others enjoyed its refreshing allure on summer days.”

Dantley has fond memories of some of his compatriots at the pool.

“Being no fan of the ‘deep end,’ I was mesmerized by the high diving exploits and courage of Chipper Burke, Ro Ro Burke, Wayland Taylor and Bobby Stokes. The best popcorn for a dime was out front. And being able to see the Parker Gray football team practice in late August from the side deck of the pool was a real treat for a 10-year-old,” Dantley recalled.

And Dantley reminded that the pool was for African-Americans of all ages, not just children.

“I can only imagine the party atmosphere the pool took on in the evening hours when the grown folk arrived. No doubt they truly started the pool party then, with the music cranking,” Dantley said.

Alexandrian Gwen Day Fuller said that she had “such positive memories” of the Johnson Memorial Pool and that she “made many friends there.” Fuller, who is the daughter of Ferdinand Day, one of Alexandria’s most prominent citizens of the 20th century, recalled water shows with costumes and lighting. She said swimming and diving lessons were also offered at the pool. When Fuller entered Hampton University she did not have to take a mandatory swimming course because she had learned to swim at the Johnson Memorial Pool.

Fuller said that she “can’t say enough” about the commitment of the pool’s Aquatics Director, Harry Burke, a member of Alexandria’s African American Hall of Fame.

Burke became the first aquatics director of the Johnson Memorial Pool in 1952. He organized the first black swim teams in Alexandria and conducted lifeguard certification classes. He also served as chairman of the Alexandria Society for the Preservation of Black Heritage.

Harry Burke’s daughter, Hollie Burke-Davis, recalled spending summers with her father at the Johnson Memorial Pool. She said that her father was determined that “every single child needed to know how to swim.”

Harry Burke, a long-time activist in Alexandria, worked as the Director of Educational Media for the District of Columbia Public Schools. The Al- exandria City Public Schools award for excellence in spe- cial education, the Harry Burke Award, is named for him.

A member of the Hampton University swim team, Harry Burke had a knack for theatrics which were used in the pool’s elaborate end-of-season water shows. His daughter recalled that her father constructed a flotation device so that he could float his new Ford Thunderbird in the pool complete with dry ice “smoke” and the Batman musical theme.

The pool remained popular well into the 1960s. Photographs of people using the pool were hard to find until Fuller’s recent donation of images relating to the pool to the Alexandria Library coincident with the Library’s sponsorship of the April 29 Black Family Reunion.

The joy in the faces of the pool’s users is evident.

Looking back on the Johnson Memorial Pool through the eyes of those who utilized it in the 1950s and 60s reveals that, though it was part of the infrastructure of segregation, there were also memories of joy associated with it. Those happy memories have outlived the system of segregation that compelled its construction.

Correction: This story, which was printed in the May 25 Alexandria Times, identified the
wrong namesake of the Harry Burke Award for Excellence in Special Education. The award was
named for the Harry Burke who was a longtime Alexandria City Public Schools director of Special Education from the 1970s to the early 1990s, not the Harry Burke who was aquatics director at the Johnson Memorial Pool in the 1950s and 1960s. The Times regrets the error.

 

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