Honoring the Activist Who Sparked the Integration of Barton Springs Pool

The city celebrated Joan Means Khabele life and legacy last Saturday

Joan Means Khabele's daughter, Inonge Khabele, speaks at a ceremony April 9 honoring her mother who helped end segregation at Barton Springs Pool (Photo by Jana Birchum)

Barton Springs Pool, one of Austin's most iconic and beloved places, was segregated along with Zilker Park until 1962. As an Austin High School senior in 1960, Joan Means Khabele became the first Black person to jump into the pool in an act of protest, which led to swim-ins at the pool that paved the way for integration.

The city of Austin Parks and Recreation Department honored Khabele's life and legacy Saturday, April 9, in a ceremony at Barton Springs. Austin Mayor Steve Adler called it an "important moment for us to take stock of someone who represented our city at our best, and helped make us who it is we aspire to be in this city."

Khabele's mother, Bertha Sadler Means, was one of Austin's most prominent civil rights icons. Khabele's daughter, Inonge, shared that she grew up in Barton Springs and has known this pool her entire life. Thanks to her mother's efforts, four generations of her family have now gone on to enjoy this place, she said.

But there are many Black Austinites who have never dipped their toes in the natural pool's refreshing waters because history's shadow still hangs over the park, said Dr. Larry Wallace Jr., the first African American mayor of Manor. "Today is an example of how far the city of Austin has come, but it still needs to go further."

Remembering the past is not enough, Wallace noted. "By honoring the legacy and life of Joan, we are recommitting ourselves to her spirit and mission for creating a more equitable and united city. Not an East and a West Austin, but one Austin."

Saundra Kirk, who participated in the swim-ins, explained how she and a few other Black students at the old University Junior High School on the UT campus, which closed in 1967, were allowed to swim in Barton Springs Pool for one day. "I believe I might have been the first one to integrate, to actually put a toe in the water, but it would've stopped there had it not been for Joan and her resolute actions and follow-through," she said.

“I believe I might have been the first one to integrate, to actually put a toe in the water, but it would’ve stopped there had it not been for Joan.” – Saundra Kirk

"Joan's interest in having that be a right that was continued for all of the members of the Black community is what allowed the full integration to happen," Kirk continued. Kirk is herself part of East Austin's civil rights history; her mother, Willie Mae Kirk, was a founder of the Mothers Action Council, which led early 1960s protests to integrate Austin's public facilities, and later led efforts to create the new and preserve the old Carver Branch Library. (Her brother Ron Kirk is the former mayor of Dallas and U.S. Trade Representative under President Obama.)

The ceremony ended on a high note – the sound of Barton Springs lifeguards blowing their whistles, inviting everyone to jump into the pool. Community members shared oral histories at the event that will become a part of an exhibit that aims to tell the full history of Barton Springs, said Jessica Gil­zow of the Parks & Recreation Department.

The department also hopes to install a permanent historical marker at Barton Springs next year to acknowledge Khabele and other community members who contributed to desegregating the pool and the park, Gilzow told the Chronicle. "We have to acknowledge the fact that not everyone feels comfortable coming to Barton Springs because of the history of segregation," Gilzow said. "And we see acknowledgment and representation as being a way to make it a more welcoming space for all people."

Joan Means Khabele attended the Uni­ver­sity of Chicago, earned a master's degree in African studies from UCLA, and taught at universities in Zambia, Botswana, Lesotho, and Nigeria. She and her husband, Paseka Edwin Khabele, who is from Leso­tho, had three children – Dineo, Inonge, and the late Letsie "Khotso" Khabele, the founder of Austin's Headwaters School, formerly known as Khabele School. Khabele died of leukemia last October, at the age of 78.

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