After more than half a century, Petersburg City Council has approved a motion to reopen Wilcox Lake, which was previously closed in 1958 to prevent desegregation in the area. City Councilwoman Treska Wilson-Smith brought the motion forward this year, after previously attempting to pass it five years prior.
“The council of 1958 made a decision to close the lake so as to prevent African Americans from swimming with others,” Wilson-Smith said. “Something was in our book that upheld racism. I feel that I must do what I can to preserve the history of the African-American in Petersburg.”
Sixty years ago, Wilcox Lake was a popular recreational swimming facility – but only for white people. In 1958, some of Petersburg’s African-American residents wanted to open the lake up recreationally to everyone. In response, the city council (which at the time was all-white), closed the lake and the entire swimming facility down. Wilcox Lake has been closed to the public ever since, preserving the area’s segregated past well into the 21st century.
June 19 marks the date Petersburg City Council approved the lake’s reopening. The date holds an extra amount of weight, coinciding as the date commemorating the emancipation of the last remaining slaves in the U.S., nicknamed “Juneteenth.”
“Juneteenth is the celebration of the end of slavery,” Wilson-Smith said. “And this motion is the end of a segregated act by [Petersburg City Council].”
Despite overturning the previous 1958 motion in a “monumental” decision last week, the present-day Wilcox Lake might not be much more than a pretty view. In 2013, Petersburg spokeswoman Joanne Williams told NBC12 “the lake will probably never be open for swimming because of the liability to the city.”
Even though it may not reopen as a full-blown swimming facility again, the decision to reestablish Wilcox Lake as a public recreational area is a step in the right direction for Petersburg.
The 1958 decision to close down Wilcox Lake was not too surprising, given the racial tension that existed in Petersburg at the time. The New York Times reported, “Petersburg had full-dress segregation into the 1960’s, including separate Bibles in courtrooms and separate entrances and reading rooms in the library.” The city did not integrate schools until nearly 15 years after the crucial Brown v. Board of Education decision in favor of desegregation – quite the opposite of the call for racial integration with “all deliberate speed” in the 1955 Brown v. Board of Education II decision.
Despite “integrating,” Petersburg implemented “freedom of choice” plans like many other school districts at the time, giving students the right to choose to attend white or black schools. The policy kept schools naturally segregated, as most students chose to stay at the schools they already attended.
We’d all like to think desegregation is a problem of the past, and that all there is left to do is overturn outdated motions like that of Wilcox Lake. However, the Richmond-Petersburg area still has a major problem with isolation of certain racial groups – most prominently in education. A 2013 report conducted by the The Civil Rights Project at UCLA found nearly 20% of all schools in the Richmond and Petersburg districts were “intensely segregated,” and 40% were “stably segregated” in 2010.
The lines of segregation see overlap in race and economic status; the report found that the average black student attended schools where low-income students made up more than half of the school’s enrollment. Meanwhile, their white counterparts attended schools where low-income students only made up a quarter of the school’s enrollment. Virginia’s major metropolitan regions have experienced surges in multi-racial diversity, but the CRP report found school districts across the state lacking in integration of their African-American and Latino populations.
Regardless of the long-overdue desegregation of Wilcox Lake, where race relations in central Virginia are concerned, there’s a lot of work left to do. Still, it’s nice to see Petersburg working to heal the wounds left by the city’s legacy of racism.