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Austin will name bathhouse after woman who helped desegregate Barton Springs Pool

Barton Springs Pool in Austin.
Michael Minasi
KUT News
The bathhouse at Barton Springs Pool will get a new name.

Joan Means Khabele was a senior at Austin High School in 1960 when she and other Black students were told they weren't allowed to swim in Barton Springs Pool during their senior picnic.

In protest, she jumped in.

That kicked off a summer of activist "swim-ins." Two years later, the pool and other city facilities were integrated.

Means and the other activists are to thank for the welcoming environment at Barton Springs Pool, city officials and local historians have said. Today, it's a place where people from all over the city — and the world — come to swim and recreate. It's considered the "crown jewel" of Austin.

And last week, the Austin City Council approved naming the bathhouse at Barton Springs Pool after Khabele.

Scott Cobb, a lifeguard, is responsible for her nomination.

“Where she was not able to walk through that bathhouse, it now will bear her name,” he said during a City Council meeting last week. “I think that is a fitting honor for all those teenagers back then, and the teenagers today, who stand up for what’s right.”

The approval comes just two years after the city declared April 9, 2022, as Joan Means Khabele Day.

A portrait of Joan Elizabeth Means Khabele taken while she was a senior at Austin High School 1959-1960.
Courtesy of Austin Parks and Recreation Department
Born and raised on Austin's East Side, Joan Means Khabele became an activist after she and Black classmates from Austin High were denied entry to a school event at Barton Springs Pool.

Khabele was born and raised in East Austin. She was the eldest child of civil rights activists Bertha Sadler Means and James Means. The couple founded St. James Episcopal Church in the 1940s — one of the city’s first integrated congregations, according to KUT’s previous reporting.

She was among the third group of students to integrate Austin High School. After graduating, she earned degrees from the University of Chicago and UCLA, worked in the Peace Corps, taught in several African countries and later returned to Austin, where she raised her family.

Khabele died from leukemia in October 2021 at the age of 78.

Council Member Paige Ellis, who represents the area, said segregation at Barton Springs Pool “is a very real part of our history that we have to confront.”

“We have to continue to make sure that this bathhouse functions for everybody that needs to use it, as it goes through its remodel,” Ellis said. “And that we honor the history of Barton Springs and Joan Means Khabele.”

Natasha Harper Madison applauded the bathhouse's renaming.

“I think it's important to recognize those who take bold and brave steps in the face of injustice,” she said. “It’s one of those marks on Austin’s history that we are not proud of, but the ability to in 2024 be moving toward reconciliation for some of those wrongs of our past does make me proud.”

Several other council members praised and supported the renaming. It also received support from many in the community.

Racism and segregation in Austin dates back many years before Means jumped into Barton Springs Pool. In 1928, an all-white City Council adopted a plan that forced Black and Hispanic residents to East Austin. Segregation continues today as people of color are displaced. Over the last several years, the city has been working to right the wrongs of the past.

The bathhouse is being renovated, but is set to reopen in 2025.

Luz Moreno-Lozano is the Austin City Hall reporter at KUT. Got a tip? Email her at Follow her on X @LuzMorenoLozano.
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