Racism, fear, and a Kansas City pool

Preparing for a career in advocacy and social policy, Jesse Burbank searched for an undergraduate research topic that meshed with his interests, one that illustrated social conflict over race, gender, and class in the Midwest.

He found that nexus in a 1950s-era civil rights battle in Kansas City, Missouri — the desegregation of Swope Park Pool.

Burbank, then a KU junior, got help and a research award from the KU Center for Undergraduate Research. He tapped KU faculty for ideas and dug through KU library databases. “When you strip away all pretense, the city wanted to keep the pool segregated for two reasons: miscegenation and the potential for race riots,” he says.

The city’s legal arguments centered on the “natural aversion to physical intimacy inherent in the use of swimming pools by races that do not mingle sociably,” one of many transparent attempts to prevent intimate contact between different races, Burbank says.

The city also claimed it was a public safety issue — St. Louis had attempted to desegregate one of its main swimming pools in 1949, resulting in a riot, Burbank says.

“Part of my analysis focused on placing the legal case in the broader context of the NAACP’s legal efforts, which, to my knowledge, no one has done before,” he says.

Thurgood Marshall, then chief attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, came in to personally litigate the 1951 Swope Park Pool case.

Marshall, who would go on to be the first African-American member of the U.S. Supreme Court, won in federal district court in 1952. The city appealed, but lost. The Supreme Court rejected the city’s final appeal.

Despite worries of race riots, there was no violence when the pool was finally opened to all residents in 1954, Burbank says.

Meanwhile, Marshall and the NAACP used the Swope Park Pool case to add to legal precedent against segregation and the doctrine of “separate but equal,” Burbank says. Only a few months after the Swope Park Pool case ended, the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education landmark decision ended public school desegregation, Burbank says.

“My project also focused on the (Swope Park Pool) case’s implications for how the government of Kansas City viewed its own black residents — not as citizens worthy of the city’s finest public amenities, but as anticitizens who represented what a citizen ought not to be — impure and unclean. The presence of black patrons at the Swope Park Pool would run contrary to this conception of who was a true member of the polity and who was not.”

Now a senior, Burbank plans to enter law school in fall 2017. He says his overall KU experience and the academic experience of producing research broadened his understanding of how the world works.

“It’s truly rare to find a large university with such a vibrant sense of community and such a strong sense of purpose,” he says. “I’m proud to be a Jayhawk.”


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