Friday, February 28, 2014

Does This Mean All Children? A.W. Roberson Part 3

by Kristine Schmucker, HCHM Curator

This post concludes our series featuring the life of A.W. Roberson. To read Part 1 click here, and Part 2 here

Perhaps nothing illustrated the continuing racial discrimination in Harvey County like the swimming pool at Athletic Park.
Athletic Park Municipal Swimming Pool, Newton, 1951
In April 1934, the citizens of Newton approved a $30,000 bond for a new municipal swimming pool in Athletic Park.   Construction began and a year later the new pool opened for business. Attendance on the first day was good with between 250 and 300 people.  Sadly, not everyone who wanted to swim was allowed entrance to the pool. Several young black men were turned away from the pool's entrance.  For the next  16 years black and Hispanic residents were excluded from the pool. 

Throughout the 1930s and 40s the local chapter of the NAACP worked to gain equal access to the public pool for all through legal means. A.W. Roberson, representing the NAACP, Mr. and Mrs Aldace Mercomes and Mrs. Ray Wagner attended Commission meetings to request that "colored people be allowed to use the Swimming Pool." Each time "no action was taken by the Commission."
(City Commission Regular Session, 26 July 1949. A past blog post on the Athletic Park Swimming Pool highlights the legal struggles for equal access.  )

Despite these efforts the situation had not changed a great deal by 1950. 

Roberson and others were not ready to give up.  Roberson read a notice in the Newton Kansan regarding the opportunity for children to take Red Cross swimming lessons at the pool.  He inquired at the pool, "Does this mean all children?"  

At first he did not get a response, but he kept asking different people and finally reached the chairman of the Red Cross who met with the city council.   The council agreed that if Roberson could get the parents of the white children to agree, black children could take lessons. The local chapter of the NAACP worked to get permission from white parents, but they had a difficult time finding people that were willing.  Finally, twenty-two parents consented to allow the black children to take swimming lessons with their children. 

Black residents were still not allowed to come and swim in the pool during normal business hours.

Roberson again began to talk with people and plan.  It was decided to send five black girls, ages 10 - 15, to the pool in their bathing suits, with towels and admission money. As expected, the young girls were not allowed in. They were told that they would need to talk to the city manager.  The city manager and city attorney called a special meeting of the city council to discuss.  After an executive session, it was announced that "the pool be open to all races on an unlimited basis." (City Commission 15 August 1951)

The first day of integrated swimming went well, with a record attendance of 17 black and 729 white swimmers.

Athletic Park, Newton, June 1965
In later years, Roberson reflected that "it might be that I was a little pushy.  But that's how you get things done sometimes."
He also noted: 
"It is just a matter of getting people together.  It is amazing how much fuss people raise until they finally get to know each other.  Then, everything is fine." (A.W. Roberson, Newton Kansan January, 15 1987)

Throughout his life, Roberson continued to speak up for equality. He regularly attended city commission meetings to voice his concerns for fellow Harvey County residents.  Shortly before his death, his daughter noted that he had been concerned about "police and community relations" and although he attended a meeting he "couldn't participate because he didn't have the strength. But he really wanted to."

A.W. Roberson passed away 28 May 1992 at the age of 82. Roberson was remembered by family and friends as a man who  "put God first in everything . . . believed in equality" and "was more concerned about other people than himself."  

  • Newton Kansan 29 May 1992 - announcement
  • Newton Kansan 1 June 1992 full obituary
  • Newton City Directories 1948, 1952, 1954
  • United States Census, 1940
  • United State Public Records Index, 1 August 1986 Residence
    • 1213 N Walnut St/ Newton, Ks
  • United States Social Security Death Index
  • City Commission Regular Session, 26 July 1949
  • City Commission Regular Session 15 August 1951
  • Newton Kansan, 15 January 1987
    • Bartel, Matt, "Roberson Tells of Struggle for Housing Here" and "Roberson Worked for Equal Rights Here"
  • Kreider, Robert S.  Looking Back into the Future. Bethel College, North Newton, Ks, 1998 
    • 1978:  A.W. Roberson-Peacemaker.  Originally appeared in the Mennonite Weekly Review, 2 April 1978
  • Lehn, Cornelia.  Peace Be With You.  Newton, Ks: Faith and Life Press, 1980.  
    • "Ministry of Reconciliation: A.W. Roberson, 1944", p.100.
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1 comment:

  1. I was thrilled to read this story. I wish my memories were more clear today. When Mr. Roberson was in hospital and very ill, I went to see him. During his hospitalization I stayed with him during the day sometimes; we would sing and talk. He told me about his work to unite the community and it was thrilling to hear.

    His sweet wife was in a care facility and he (when he was well) took her flowers and a treat. He was so worried about her being alone and him there, sick. After he passed I visited her several times and then she, too, became frail and ill. I remember that their daughter was some distance away and worried that her mother would be alone. The nurse called me and asked me to come sit with Mrs.Roberson, which I was happy to do. It was such a privilege and a gift to me to have known them.