Civil Rights

The Closing of Willcox Lake

In 1951, Governor John Battle warned that Virginia might close its state park system rather than accept integration. The Willcox Lake swimming facilities had been segregated since they were established. In July 1953, a petition, signed by thirty-two African American citizens, calling for “unrestricted use” of the facilities was presented to the Petersburg City Council. The citizens were represented by African American Attorneys James Overton, of Portsmouth, and J. Hugo Madison, of Norfolk. The following month, a suit was filed against the City of Petersburg in the Federal District Court in Richmond. In the Spring of 1954, the case was tabled when the court was informed by the City of Petersburg that it had closed the facilities. In May 1955, a Federal District Judge dismissed the suit because the Petersburg City Attorney based on the statement of the Petersburg City Attorney that the facilities had been closed since September 1953. Attorneys Overton and Madison called for a permanent injunction against the city to prohibit its officials from barring African Americans from the facilities is they were ever opened in the future. Many petitioners felt the impact of their public support on their jobs and their livelihoods. On August 16, 1954, Mr. Alphonso McCain lost his position as Executive Secretary of the Harding Street Branch Y. M. C. A. based on the position that no employee of the Y. M. C. A. should participate in any public controversial issue. John Meade, the superintendent of the Petersburg Schools at that time, gathered all of the teachers together telling them that if they spoke out on this issue “you have no job.” To this Calvin Pollard responded “at least we are able to pray.Eventually, the park’s other facilities were integrated, but the swimming area has never reopened


One of Petersburg Legends Historical Park and Nature Conservancy’s main attractions was the swimming area on Willcox Lake, with its large bathhouse and docks. Typical of the Jim Crow era South, the park’s recreational facilities, which also included walking trails, picnic areas, and ball fields, could be enjoyed only by Petersburg’s white residents.

City Council