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The Reflection Pool

Beneath its surface, the now-closed pool on the 17th floor of Lewis Towers tells a tale from a turbulent time – the 1960s. It was an era of protest, rebellion and change.

For Loyola, change came in the form of an all-black starting line-up for the December 1962 men’s basketball game against Wyoming. Loyola was an integrated university by 1963 – or so it seemed.

On July 1, 1963, several Loyola students, Chicagoans, Franciscan nuns and a priest took to the streets with picket signs and determination. “We enlisted the Student Union; it was word of mouth mostly,” said Loyola alumna and former rabble-rouser Marie Leaner. “The nuns also did some organizing, too. I was working as a tour guide at the Chicago Sun-Times, so I was able to use those connections to make sure the word got out.”

The year brought a NCAA championship-winning basketball team to Loyola – so why such unrest? Alberta Lewis, wife of the Lewis Towers donor, used the top floors of the building for the Illinois Club for Catholic Women (ICCW). The club was segregated, to the dismay of many Catholics. The pool on the 17th floor of Lewis Towers was open to coeds to swim in – but only white coeds.

After Leaner was denied entry to the pool during her sophomore year because she is African-American, she attempted to expose this instance of racism within Loyola’s grounds, along with the help of fellow student Nancy Amidei. “It was the times,” Leaner said. “There was a lot of confrontation of institutions who were not friendly to African-Americans.”

The writers for the Loyola News, Loyola’s student newspaper at the time, couldn’t resist chiming in. The editorials flowed, condemning the actions of the ICCW, yet the school took no action. It appeared their hands were tied: According to Margaret Steinfels, one of the staff writers at the time, the university was hesitant to offend the Lewis family, one of its biggest donors.

As the university muddled its way through the conflict, students organized. There were demonstrations at Lewis Towers throughout May and June and the confrontation came to a head on July 1. Suddenly, Loyola’s little problem had become national news with the additional support of seven Franciscan nuns and one priest. “I was ecstatic about the nuns participating in the march,” Leaner recalled. The students were finally getting the support they needed.

The conflict was resolved when Lewis caved in to popular opinion. As Steinfels put it: “People thought it was about time these things were sorted out.” The pool was closed for renovation and was never reopened during Leaner’s time at Loyola.

In the winter of 2012, the editorial team of former Loyola News glory, along with Leaner, reunited to reflect on that rebellious spring with Chicago historian Ellen Skerrett. Fellow Loyola alumnis Margaret and Peter Steinfels and Barry Hillenbrand collaborated once more to set the story straight. Their memories and insights were published in Chicago History, the Chicago History Museum’s magazine.

The project gave the team perspective. “I found out how complicated the whole thing had been,” Margaret Steinfels said. “When you’re just doing a little piece of it, you don’t really get a whole picture.”

The Loyola alumni came to realize the bind the school had been in. Leaner recalled feeling that the university was not supporting the student’s efforts. “What was intimidating was the school. They didn’t stand up for us.”

Like her contemporaries, Leaner recognized her power as a student and activist during the national racial struggle of the 1960s. Leaner said it best: “I was just trying to right a wrong.”

The Civil Rights Movement often seems like a thing of the past, but the realities of inequality are still present today. Whether the issue is equality in marriage, wealth or any other social imbalance, there is opportunity for a socially conscious student body, such as Loyola’s, to make a mark.

This snippet of history offers a chance to see how far this school – and country – has come. But it also reveals how far there is have to go. The 17th floor of Lewis Towers is no longer a pressure point, but we can continue to strive for justice and equality.

As a university that promotes social justice, it is important for Loyola to learn from past mistakes. Current students have these pioneers to thank for freedoms afforded to them today. Today, we once again face social unrest; from the Arab Spring to Occupy Wall Street, social justice and equality are just as relevant today as they were 50 years ago. As we watch these events unfold, it’s important to take a glance back to see just how far we’ve come.

Leaner never had the opportunity to swim in that pool, but her courage and that of her fellow students will continue to inspire future generations of Loyolans to challenge the status quo.

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