“I haven’t seen an honestly prejudiced person yet.” Ending segregation at Lincoln’s public swimming pool

Above photos: left: Joseph Ishikawa (courtesy of Jesse Ishikawa); right: Rev. Trago T. McWillams (History Nebraska RG2411-3675)

Above photos: left: Joseph Ishikawa (courtesy of Jesse Ishikawa); right: Rev. Trago T. McWillams (History Nebraska RG2411-3675)

Joseph Ishikawa came to Nebraska from a Colorado internment camp during World War II. As a city employee in 1946 he challenged a longstanding policy barring African Americans from the municipal pool. When a multiracial coalition pressured city leaders, officials claimed they didn’t support the rule… even as they resisted changing it.

Jesse Ishikawa, Joseph’s son, writes about the controversy in the Fall 2018 issue of Nebraska History Magazine. Jesse, a retired attorney living in Madison, Wisconsin, supplements public records and newspaper reports with his father’s notes and correspondence from the time. The result is a vivid portrait of how racial prejudice functioned in a northern city.

The son of Japanese immigrants, Joe Ishikawa was born in Los Angeles and grew up in the racially-mixed East Hollywood neighborhood. He graduated from UCLA in 1942. In post-Pearl Harbor America, Ishikawa and other West Coast Japanese-Americans faced incarceration due to prejudice and wartime paranoia. US citizenship did not protect them.

Ishikawa spent six months behind barbed wire in California and Colorado, but he was one of the lucky ones. He was able to shorten his internment by being accepted into graduate program at the University of Nebraska—one of the few universities at the time to accept even a limited number of students of Japanese ancestry.

Lincoln’s African American community, meanwhile, faced racial prejudice every day. Northern segregation wasn’t usually as blatant as its Southern counterpart, but it was real. When the Lincoln municipal swimming pool opened in 1921, Rev. Trago T. McWilliams brought his 12-year-old son to swim—and was turned away. He protested to Lincoln mayor Frank Zehrung to no avail.

Mayor Zehrung didn’t defend the policy. He blamed other people. Sure, it seemed unjust, he said, but “there were comparatively few colored people in Lincoln and . . . a much larger number of white people would feel that it was unjust to permit Negroes to use the pool.”

This is exactly the sort of reasoning that Joe Ishikawa encountered a quarter century later. After the war Ishikawa worked for the city’s recreation department. When he learned that black children were not admitted to the city pool, he resigned his position in protest.

Lincoln Municipal Pool, July 11, 1935. History Nebraska RG4290-1408

Lincoln Municipal Pool, July 11, 1935. History Nebraska RG4290-1408

Bear in mind that the pool was not whites-only. African Americans were the only non-white group barred. Ishikawa was welcome to use the pool himself. But having been unjustly imprisoned because of racial prejudice, Ishikawa felt duty-bound to oppose prejudice wherever he found it, even if it wasn’t directed is his particular group.

“Please do not regard this as a hostile move on my part against any individual,” he wrote to his boss. “I do not think that any one person is any more responsible than any other citizen of the community for allowing such an injustice to exist, and I am taking this method as a citizen of this community to try to rectify my part of this wrong.”

Ishikawa began mailing letters to city officials and building a coalition to fight the rule—which had been allowed to stand for 25 years despite being illegal under Nebraska law. The city’s director of recreation, James Lewis, accused Ishikawa of stirring up trouble. Lewis claimed that he was not prejudiced himself, but he worried that if the rule was changed, “other people” might object.

“It’s always other people,” Ishikawa remembered thinking. “I haven’t seen an honestly prejudiced person yet.”

And that—and not open expressions of racism—was the main obstacle that segregation opponents faced. A multiracial coalition of local leaders began to pressure the city council. Prominent among them was Rev. Trago O. McWilliams, son of Trago T., and who as a 12-year-old had been turned away from the pool shortly after it opened.

The group was prepared to file a lawsuit, but tried political pressure first. Ishikawa’s comments about Lewis provide a clue to their strategy:

“Mr. Lewis is extremely political in the worst non-Aristotelian sense of the word. He is afraid of what he calls ‘trouble.’ At the same time, he regards me as a trouble maker. The implication is that if our side creates a greater degree of ‘trouble’ for their not opening the pool than can be caused by their opening the pool, he would switch his stand.”

“Trouble” came peacefully through publicity and well-attended city council meetings. The group embarrassed the city council into doing the right thing.

And the much-feared “other people” got over it.

— David L. Bristow, Editor


Read the entire article (PDF): “The Desegregation of the Lincoln Municipal Swimming Pool,” by Jesse S. Ishikawa, from the Fall 2018 issue of Nebraska History Magazine. 

Household Plus History Nebraska members receive four issues of Nebraska History Magazine annually.

Become a Member!

Our members make history happen.

Join Now

You May Also Enjoy

The 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address – March 4, 2011

The 150th Anniversary of Lincoln’s First Inaugural Address – March 4, 2011

Marker Monday: Mari Sandoz

Marker Monday: Mari Sandoz

How ‘Equality Before the Law’ became our state motto

How ‘Equality Before the Law’ became our state motto

About History Nebraska
History Nebraska was founded in 1878 as the Nebraska State Historical Society by citizens who recognized Nebraska was going through great changes and they sought to record the stories of both indigenous and immigrant peoples. It was designated a state institution and began receiving funds from the legislature in 1883. Legislation in 1994 changed History Nebraska from a state institution to a state agency. The division is headed by Interim Director and CEO Jill Dolberg. They are assisted by an administrative staff responsible for financial and personnel functions, museum store services, security, and facilities maintenance for History Nebraska.
Explore Nebraska
Discover the real places and people of our past at these History Nebraska sites.

Upcoming Events

View our new and upcoming events to see how you can get involved.

Become a Member

The work we do to discover, preserve, and share Nebraska's history wouldn't be possible without the support of History Nebraska members.

Latest Hall of Fame Inductee

The Nebraska Hall of Fame was established in 1961 to officially recognize prominent Nebraskans.

Listen to our Podcast

Listen to the articles and authors published in the Nebraska History Magazine with our new Nebraska History Podcast.

Nebraska Collections

History Nebraska's mission is to collect, preserve, and open our shared history to all Nebraskans.

Our YouTube Video Collection

Get a closer look at Nebraska's history through your own eyes, with our extensive video collections.

Additional Research Resources

History Nebraska Research and Reference Services help connect you to the material we collect and preserve.

Support History Nebraska
Make a cash donation to help us acquire, preserve, and interpret Nebraska’s history. Gifts to History Nebraska help leave a legacy and may help your taxes, too! Support the work of History Nebraska by donating to the History Nebraska Foundation today.

Volunteers are the heroes of History Nebraska. So much history, so little time! Your work helps us share access to Nebraska’s stories at our museums and sites, the reference room, and online.