The life and legacy of Austin activist Joan Means Khabele

Joan Means Khabele in her high school photo

Joan Means Khabele (center) was in the third small group of students to integrate Austin High School in the 1950s. | Photo provided by Austin Parks and Recreation

Table of Contents

When Joan Means Khabele jumped into Barton Springs Pool on a warm afternoon in 1960, it was an innocuous act in itself, but one with a powerful meaning. Joan wasn’t supposed to be in the water, because in 1960, Barton Springs Pool was still segregated — and Joan was a Black woman.

In the coming months, Joan’s swim would spark several others to join her in the cool waters in protest over the unjust policy. It would also, in a matter of years, lead to the desegregation of the Austin landmark. But Joan didn’t yet know how powerful that one leap would be. That afternoon, she just kept swimming.

Austin Parks and Recreation will celebrate Joan’s bravery + legacy this Saturday at Barton Springs Pool. Here’s what to know about the event and Joan’s life in Austin.

A portrait of Joan Means Khabele

Throughout her life, Joan earned two degrees, worked in the Peace Corps, and taught in several African countries before moving back to Austin. | Photo provided by Austin Parks and Recreation


Joan’s history

Joan was born into a family with a strong legacy of supporting Black Americans. Her mother, Bertha Sadler Means, was a civil rights activist, and her parents helped create St. James’ Episcopal Church in East Austin, one of the city’s first integrated congregations. Her great grandfather, the Rev. James Sadler, was also known for founding the Valley Mills freedom colony after emancipation.

In the 1950s, Joan joined the third small group of students to integrate Austin High School. In her final year, she attended a senior picnic at Barton Springs Pool, where she was not allowed to swim due to the pool’s segregation policy. It was at that event that she made her historic act of protest, jumping into the pool despite its rules.

The movement of swim-ins that followed, taking place weekly throughout that summer, rallied others to push authorities into changing the pool’s stance. By 1962, Barton Springs Pool was officially integrated.

Throughout her lifetime, Joan earned degrees from the University of Chicago and UCLA, worked in the Peace Corps, and taught in several African countries. She eventually moved back to Austin and had three children and eight grandchildren. Last October, Joan died of leukemia, at 78 years old.


Join others at Barton Springs Pool to honor Joan’s life this Saturday. The event will include a proclamation, speakers, a water blessing ceremony, and the screening of a documentary featuring Joan.

If you have your own stories to share, visit the event’s listening booths, where attendees can record oral histories to be used in an exhibit at the Beverly S. Sheffield Exhibition Center. (If you’d like to share your stories with us, we’d love to hear them as well.)

Saturday’s ceremony will take place from 10 a.m. to 12 p.m. Get more details here.

More from ATXtoday