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Remembering the first public swimming pool in Northern Virginia constructed in Alexandria for African-Americans. From The Alexandria Times, May 25, 2023.
Alexandria opened the Johnson Memorial Pool in 1953 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, wrote:
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. 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. 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.
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.
Native Alexandrian Gwen Day Fuller said that she had “such positive memories” of the Johnson Memorial Pool and that she “made many friends there.”
Fuller recalls water shows with costumes and lighting and that swimming and diving lessons were 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.
Burke’s daughter, Hollie Burke-Davis, recalls 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.” Burke, a long-time activist in Alexandria, worked as the Director of Educational Media for the District of Columbia Public Schools.
Burke, who was on the Hampton University swim team, had a knack for theatrics which were used in the pool’s elaborate end-of-season water shows. His daughter recalls that her father constructed a flotation system and floated his new Ford Thunderbird in the pool complete with dry ice “smoke” and the Batman musical theme.
Here, courtesy of Lynnwood Campbell, is the program from the August 22, 1956 fourth annual water carnival at the Johnson Memorial Pool:
The pool remained popular well into the 1960’s. 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 April 29 Black Family Reunion.
It may be odd, or paradoxical, to regret the disappearance of a segregated public facility. Fortunately, the memories of the joy associated with the Johnson Memorial Pool have outlived the system that compelled its construction.
A Johnson Memorial Pool Gallery
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