When audiences settle in at the filled-in remains of the Riverside Park pool to watch a play next week, they’ll be part of an emotional, at times uncomfortable and tragic airing of wounds from a pivotal chapter of civil rights in Lynchburg.
There, Endstation Theatre Company will be showing its second run of “Buried Deep: The Lynchburg Pools” onsite — one of several settings where it recounts those turbulent changes in 1961 and beyond. The show sets scenes within scenes as a cast of modern citizens gather in a ritual to gain deeper understanding and explore their own emotions swirling around the history they’re revisiting.
It starts with a splash that sent reverberating ripples across the community: a “wade-in” by a group of seven Black swimmers at the whites-only Miller Park pool on July 4.
At the time, Lynchburg’s white residents were, like many others, actively resisting integration attempts. The first Black students wouldn’t start integrating public schools until the following year and it took a full eight years until the schools were considered “fully” integrated.
But the Hill City wasn’t a total stranger to the bolder statements of civil disobedience. A group of six college students, two of them Black attendees of Virginia Theological Seminary, had dared enter a segregated downtown lunch counter in 1960. Dubbed the “Patterson Six,” they ended up serving 20 days in jail on trespassing charges, and other “sit-ins” at whites-only spaces followed.
About the play
When: May 16-21, 6:30 p.m.
Where: Riverside Park
Tickets: Available here.
Five months after their sentencing came the wade-in, setting off a chain of events that the production dissects and digests piece by piece: the draining and eventual filling of all city pools, the drowning of a local Black boy in a canal lock, the opening of integrated pools, and other actions that would push and pull at connections between the city’s residents.
Playwright Josh Brewer said it was important to focus on a community’s processing of historic scars, not just on the history itself. The cast regularly reads off headlines and excerpts from newspapers at the time — which reveal inherent biases — and then unpacks the fallout in a very personal way.
“It’s something they’re doing to keep it alive — the idea that history is in the past is a statement of privilege,” Brewer said. “It is an attempt to make it always be alive because…the reality is there is a very large portion of the U.S. that is very disenfranchised in the activity of swimming.”
Given a close-knit, smaller community like Lynchburg, he said the show examines the lasting effects of what happened. True to that purpose, it’s ended with an open discussion that engages the audience.
Kevin Gates, who teaches government and economics at Virginia Episcopal School, said he was “totally blown away” by the show last year and pushed to bring it to the school in some way, teaching lessons around it to his students earlier this spring.
The post-show discussion was the most powerful element for Gates.
“A woman spoke who was there at the time, an elderly white woman who said she wanted to apologize and did not have the courage to,” he said. “You could’ve heard a pin drop in the whole theater.”
Patrick Earl, Endstation’s executive director and an actor in the production, said last year’s run of “Buried Deep” was nearing capacity by the end. Using grants, the company is performing it at Lynchburg high schools before its second public run.
Airing out this particular piece of local history was something that struck Brewer while strolling through the transformed relic that was once Riverside Park’s pool. With about a week left in his residency at Endstation pre-pandemic, he binged on research and connected with others for historic resources to build the story with.
Brewer’s project started out as a one-act play, but filled out through feedback, rewrites and plenty of video calls during the worst of lockdown.
“The immediacy of ‘Buried Deep’ really struck a chord and it was something that Endstation and the community really connected with,” he said.
Now, with the Riverside pool site trimmed down and spruced up, it’s fitting that the audience will be sitting within its old footprint for the show’s second run.
Both Brewer and Dennis Whitehead Darling, director, said they anticipate an easy switch over to the new stage. Darling said it will emotionally ground the work and add to the storytelling, lending to his goal of deeply engaging viewers.
For Brewer, it’s a point of powerful symbolism.
“I think for me, the thing that stood out the most was the destruction of the pools,” he said. “And for me, that was an element that seemed so cruel to me, that it really drove it home. And we talked about the idea of filling the pools as an element of trying to hide the past.”
The pool closures were definitely the sorest part of Audrey Lenon’s recollection of that time.
A regular at the Blacks-only Jefferson Park pool — a popular summertime weekend hangout spot — she was 15 years old, dejected and confused when the July 4 closure hit.
“I was at the pool in the water, and I look up and police officers were walking down,” she said. “They blew whistles and told us to get out of the water.”
After asking the officers why, she said one “told me to shut up, go in the locker room and get my clothes and get out of the pool. And so that’s what I did.”
Still with no explanation for the upheaval, Lenon lingered at the park, settling for some snacks from a park concession stand at a shaded table.
“We just stayed in the park and talked and looked at the water we couldn’t get in,” she said.
It wasn’t until she returned home that she learned about the wade-in, which was part of a larger desegregation movement organized by Virgil Wood — the pastor of Diamond Hill Baptist Church, an avowed civil rights activist and a fellow to Martin Luther King Jr.
“My teenage mind was upset because he took away our summer,” Lenon said, though she added that she understood why the wade-in happened. “It was just a sad time.”
City officials filled in the three public pools, and they remained filled in when Lenon left town for college. Looking back, she said it was a waste and the city could very well have simply closed them and reopened them after discussions. Instead, they built two new pools at the city high schools years later — of subpar quality, according to Lenon.
Plus, some white subdivisions had their own pools to escape to. It wasn’t until 1986, when Lenon’s late husband Paris was working as Lynchburg Parks & Rec’s assistant director, that the Hill City could count the Miller Park pool as a fully integrated, outdoor public pool.
Local newspapers in the ’60s bemoaned the sit-ins and wade-in as radical acts that disrupted the delicate and slow work of improving race relations in the community, and editorials blamed the civil disobedience for the boy’s drowning death.
“They didn’t want us to mingle,” Lenon said. “And a lot of times, if adults leave something alone, kids can work things out better. But as soon as they had the wade-in, they called the city manager and he called the police.”
That city manager, Robert Morrison, is one of many whose stances are examined as the characters in “Buried Deep” step in and out of their shoes over the course of their ritual. And as they engage in a form of group therapy on stage, so too did the cast engage in deep and formative discussions during readings, Darling said.
And it’s vital for him that viewers feel that empathy from a story they bear the responsibility to tell “accurately, honestly, earnestly, passionately.
“Anytime there are stories that are dealing with history that’s being uncovered or stories that have been whitewashed or erased because of racial tensions … or a way of erasing history that tells stories of people of color, I’m very passionate about telling those stories,” he said.