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How Reverend W. K. Brooks led efforts to provide a safe place for Black kids to swim

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BATON ROUGE - This year marks the 70th anniversary of the Baton Rouge Bus Boycott, but it also marks milestones for other civil rights efforts in the capital city.

Reverend Willie K. Brooks was a preacher and a leader who acted in courage and faith to provide equal opportunity to Black children. He chose to lead not only his congregation, but to lead the city of Baton Rouge.

“He kept saying that our young Black kids were dying, swimming in the streams and rivers,” said Carolyn West, Brooks' stepdaughter. “He said, 'I couldn't take it anymore, so I had to do something.'”

In the 1930s and '40s, there was only one public swimming pool in Baton Rouge — the City Park pool — which was segregated and for white people only. It remained the only public pool in the city, until the late Reverend Willie K. Brooks decided to fight for Black kids to have the right to swim there safely.

“He was very disturbed that our Black kids didn't have nowhere to swim safely,” longtime congregant Kathy Zeno said. “He wanted to save the kids' lives.”

Brooks was already a known preacher, leader and father at First Little Rock Missionary Baptist Church.

“We grew up in the church. We were baptized by him. He christened a lot of our children. He would always take something from the Bible,” West said.

“He loved the children. He was a great leader. He could inspire you to do any and everything according to the will of God,” Zeno explained.

He took many steps toward equality. The first step was to inspire and organize, including the establishment of the United Negro Recreation Association in 1945.

The second step was to raise money. While the segregated City Park pool was financed with taxes, the UNRA collected donations to build a pool and playground for Black kids in Old South Baton Rouge in 1949.

“He was a Boy Scout instructor, a first aid instructor. He even taught first aid at McKinley High,” West said.

And the third step was to expand their efforts. In 1953, the UNRA donated the pool and surrounding land to the city's recreation committee, now known as BREC. According to the written agreement from 70 years ago, the land must always be used for the surrounding community, which includes schools and parks.

“The sacrifices he made and the people that he had met — he was able to get people to share in his dream,” Zeno said.

Although he achieved his goal of building a pool for the Black community, that was just the start. There were other organized efforts to desegregate public pools that followed.

For Brooks, the top priority was to save the lives of Black children and provide them with what they deserved — a place to swim and play without worry.

“It's all about keeping kids safe,” Zeno said.

There's a reminder of Reverend Willie K. Brooks and his dedication to Baton Rouge. City Park is now known as the City-Brooks Community Park. There's even a path connecting the formerly segregated City Park to Brooks Park swimming pool and playground.

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