V. Saundra Kirk
Mother encouraged me to get in the water, saying: “I don’t care if you swim, but be the first one to put your foot in that pool.” And standing on the lowest step for pictures, I was.
Integrating Barton Springs: A Conversation with V. Saundra Kirk
Following the 1954 Brown vs Board of Education decision in which the Supreme Court ruling legalized school integration, the Austin Independent School District (AISD) began developing a desegregation plan. Many school districts adopted the stair-step approach that integrated schools starting with first graders and continued to add students in the first grade class each succeeding year (bottom – up). AISD board members and administrators reasoned that under such a plan, only the youngest children would ever have the chance to experience integration, and older ones would still be educated in separate schools. The AISD Desegregation Plan was adopted in 1955. So, Austin schools began stair-step desegregation with 12th grade seniors, and then added the next lower grade each successive year (top-down).
Top-down integration reached my level in 1958, just in time for me and other transfer students from Kealing Junior High in East Austin to attend the 9th grade at University Junior High School. So, Vicky Kirk (as I was called then) along with friends, Sandra Anderson, James Means, Lois Lyons, and Clarence Holmes became token black students amidst a large student body of white and Hispanic children.
Our ninth-grade experience was pleasant and relatively uneventful, until toward the end of the school year, when our principal, Marshal Ashley, called the black students into his office for a quiet meeting. He told us that we were lucky because we would have a certain day off from school. But, we knew that was the day our other classmates would attend the long-anticipated senior picnic in Zilker Park. At that time, blacks were not welcome in Zilker Park, and Barton Springs was still not integrated.
Not surprisingly, the parents of our token squad were outspoken civil rights activists. So, when we reported our exclusion from the class event, my father, Lee Kirk, Mrs. Ada Anderson, and Mrs. Mattie Lyons Bell held individual meetings with Principal Ashley to register outrage against this affront and to demand either changes to the Parks Department rules, or changes to the picnic. In addition, Sandra Anderson, Lois Lyons, and I each had private conversations with Principal Ashley urging him to find a way for his black students to attend the senior outing.
Because High Schools had been desegregated for several years, similar discussions were being held regarding the senior activity in Zilker Park for Austin High School students. A lot of negotiations went on behind the scenes between parents, AISD, the Austin City Council, and the Parks Department. The result was that black students at UJH and Austin High officially integrated Barton Springs pool that Spring.
I remember that it was a “minor” media event (it felt like a big splash to us). The five of us positioned ourselves on the steps leading into the pool where we posed for pictures. My mother had bought me a new bathing suit, swimming cap, and a round carry all bag, white with red trim, to hold my swimming accessories. Since I was a bit shy, Mother encouraged me to get in the water, saying: “I don’t care if you swim, but be the first one to put your foot in that pool.” And standing on the lowest step for pictures, I was.
During the 1960s, a group of African American women founded an activist organization called “The Mothers’ Action Council.” Founding members included, Willie Mae Kirk, Ada Anderson, Bertha Means, and Mattie Ruth Lyons Bell, mothers from that small squad of UJH integration students. They were outspoken about specific violations and impediments to full human and civil rights in the Austin community. Among many other distinguished honors, in 1968, Austin Mayor Jeff Friedman appointed my mother, Willie Mae Kirk to be the first African American on the newly formed Human Rights Commission. Mother later served 17 years on the City’s Library Commission, and was honored in 2012 with the renaming of the Oak Springs Library and its dedication as the Willie Mae Kirk Branch Library.