Austin to officially rename bathhouse at Barton Springs for civil rights leader

AUSTIN (KXAN) — City council members approved on Thursday a resolution to change the name of Barton Springs’ bathhouse, gracing it with the name of the woman who led the movement to desegregate the public pool in the 1960s.

Joan Means Khabele was part of the first groups of black students to integrate into Austin High School in the 50s. Flipping through the Austin High yearbooks from 1958 to 1960 at the Austin History Center you will find a student who was actively involved in her school.

Means Khabele was a part of student council, a reporter for the school newspaper, and a treasurer for the debate team. During her time at Austin High, it was a tradition for the senior class to have a picnic at Zilker Park and a swim at Barton Springs toward the end of the school year.

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Means Khabele recollected about her excitement for the picnic in an interview with PBS back in 2014. She said in the interview, “Everybody had been looking forward to the senior pics for eons.”

The principal of the school told Means Khabele that she and her fellow black students were not allowed to swim at the pool because of the laws in place. She and her friends decided they were going to do something about that.

Khabele Means recruited her friends and other teens to sign a petition to open the pool and park to everyone. An article from the Austin American-Statesman in July 1960 showed Means Khabele, along with Derie Bownds and 15 other teenagers, spoke to city council requesting it to desegregate the public pool.

The City of Austin said Means Khabele was the first person to ever protest the law by jumping into the pool. These were called swim-ins, and they happened throughout the summer of 1960 and continued even after Joan left for college. Students from Austin High, University of Texas, Huston-Tillotson, and St. Edwards all joined in on the swim-in protests.

In 1962, the city’s parks department decided to desegregate the pool because of the movement started by Means Khabele. After high school, Joan went to the University of Chicago and eventually served two years in the Peace Corps, teaching English in Ethiopia.

She married, raised a family, and passed away in 2021 at the age of 78. In 2022, the city honored Means Khabele at Barton Springs.

Scott Cobb, a former lifeguard at Barton Springs, started the application to have the bathhouse renamed to honor the legacy of Means Khabele.

“They owe a debt of gratitude to Joan and her teenage friends who organized those swim-ins in 1960, because without them changing the values of Austin, and showing Austin the future — this is the future,” Cobb said.

He hopes that whenever people come to Austin’s “crown jewel,” they will see Joan’s name and learn about what she did, keeping her legacy alive for generations to come.

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