Petersburg lake closed since segregation likely to stay off limits to swimming

PETERSBURG, VA (WWBT) - It was a beautiful place to relax in Petersburg - but 60 years ago Willcox Lake closed for good when African-Americans asked to integrate the park. Now a city official says it's unlikely the Lake will ever reopen for swimming.

During the "Roaring 20s" into the 1950s, a beach, a lifeguard station and bathhouses dotted the shore of Willcox Lake. But the fight for equality during the Civil Rights Era made them disappear.

It's a little-known fact that when 32 African-Americans tried to open Willcox Lake to everyone, Petersburg's all-white city council simply shut down the entire lake. The fight went to federal court, but Petersburg removed all funding for the Lake's budget beginning in 1955.

"There was no reason to close it down," said Petersburg resident Anthony Trisvan in an interview Friday. "The Lake closed because of black people? Come on, that's water."

What's even more surprising to life-long residents like Trisvan is that the Lake is still closed. One of the original buildings remains, but the people, the boats, and the wooden walkway in the Lake, are all gone.

A chain-link fence has kept people out for decades, but interest recently revived to open the area to swimming once again. That hope may be fading fast.

In an email Friday from Petersburg spokesperson Joanne Williams, "the lake will probably never be open for swimming because of the liability to the city."

Petersburg City Attorney Brian K. Telfair said in a phone interview Friday the process is not over. He added Williams' email statement was not authorized.

"If Willcox Lake did re-open for swimming, we would have to do multiple studies," Telfair said. Aging wooden platforms would have to be ripped out, and much would have to be rebuilt to make the area safe.

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