In 1964, Lake DeFuniak was closed to evade desegregation. After 57 years, it reopens.

Jim Thompson
Northwest Florida Daily News

DeFUNIAK SPRINGS — For the first time since 1964, when it was closed under the transparent civil rights-era pretext that it was polluted, swimming will unequivocally be allowed in Lake DeFuniak, the naturally circular spring-fed lake that is the centerpiece of the Walton County seat.

The reopening of the lake comes as the result of a 3-1 decision by the DeFuniak Springs City Council at its June 14 meeting.

Under that decision, a designated area between the Chautauqua Hall of Brotherhood boat ramp and the area behind the DeFuniak Springs Library will be open to swimming beginning Saturday through Sept. 30 from 8 a.m. to sunset Mondays through Saturdays and from 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.

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The lone dissenting vote on swimming in Lake DeFuniak was cast by the council's only Black member, Kevin Crystal, because of a couple environmental concerns about reopening the lake to swimming.

The historic Chautauqua building sits over Lake DeFuniak. For the first time since 1964, Lake DeFuniak  will be open for public swimming. The swimming area at Chipley Park will open at 8 a.m. Saturday and remain available for swimming through Sept. 30. Swimming hours are 8 a.m. to sunset Mondays through Saturdays, and 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. on Sundays. Next year, swimming will open March 1 and continue through Sept. 30.

According to a news release from the city, for next year and in subsequent years the swimming season will begin March 1 and will extend through through Sept. 30, in a designated, roped-off area between the Chautauqua Hall boat ramp and the amphitheater. As is the case this year, hours for swimming will be from 8 a.m. to sunset Mondays through Saturdays and 12:30 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. 

Prior to 1964, according to city sources, the lake had been open to swimming, but with separate beaches for Black people and white people.

But in special called meeting on May 6, 1964 — in the midst of strong Southern opposition in Congress to the proposed federal Civil Rights Act of 1964, signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on July 2 of that year — the DeFuniak Springs City Council took action that effectively shut down the lake ahead of the prospect of having Black and white people swimming together.

At that meeting, the mayor and council voted to close the lake to "swimming, boating, skiing, fishing or any other purpose ...," according to minutes from the session. Prior to the vote, as recorded in the minutes, a "group of citizens met with the Council and presented a petition requesting that the Lake DeFuniak be closed."

According to the minutes, the council's decision was preceded by a report presented by the Walton County sanitarian on a "Water Pollution Survey made on Lake DeFuniak which stated that the water is unsafe for human activity."

The minutes do not record how the five council members and the mayor voted on the issue, noting simply that a motion to adopt an ordinance "carried."

The ordinance states that the action was taken "for the protection of the general public for safety and health reasons." Additionally, the ordinance set a maximum fine of $100, or no more than 30 days in jail, for a violation, or a combination of a fine and jail time, at the mayor's discretion.

Sitting Mayor Bob Campbell, who learned to swim in Lake DeFuniak in 1955, and learned to water ski there seven years later, said Thursday that there were a combination of factors for the 1964 decision.

"It was kind of a mix between some racial issues, and there were some bacteria problems," he said.

A subsequent 1977 ordinance eased restrictions on the use of Lake DeFuniak.

In recent months, DeFuniak Springs Councilman Tony Vallee, who brought the issue of reopening the lake to swimming to the council at its June 14 meeting, got curious about the lack of swimming there.

In the beginning, Vallee said Thursday, his primary motivation was to unequivocally open the lake to swimming to help boost development of the downtown area, which skirts the northern edge of the lake, and to enhance the city's recreational offerings. 

As he uncovered the history behind the closing of Lake DeFuniak, Vallee said, "It made me angry. I wasn't happy to hear that (apparent racial motivation) was part of it."

But he added that his efforts to reopen the lake to swimming wasn't intended to dredge up an unfortunate part of the city's past, even though he "wanted to see a change."

"It's always tough to reopen those wounds," said Vallee, who noted that such reaction across the South to the civil rights legislation of the 1960s "was not unique to here."

"It was a heated time," Vallee added. And in retrospect, he said it's easy today to see that in closing the lake in 1964, "really, we (the city) were just punishing ourselves."

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Additional research by Vallee turned up the 1977 ordinance, which allowed for fishing and kayaking in Lake DeFuniak, but required a permit for swimming, with a misdemeanor penalty and a $500 fine for not having a permit.

Thus, since 1964 there have been "just constant obstacles and opposition" to swimming in the lake, but with the council's June decision, "finally we've got the opportunity to get it back," Vallee said.

In a news release from the city about reopening the lake to swimming, Vallee is quoted as saying that “(t)oday’s new leadership in the City of DeFuniak Springs welcomes back an original DeFuniak Springs tradition. I’m grateful to my colleagues on the Council and to the many citizens who encouraged us to take this long-awaited move benefitting all who visit our beautiful Chipley Park and Lake DeFuniak.”

Swimming in Lake DeFuniak will be open to city residents and visitors, according to city spokesman Chris Mitchell.

"We're interested to see how this evolves," said Mitchell, who added that the city doesn't expect parking to be an issue. Other decisions about swimming, including whether the city will provide lifeguards, likely won't be made before the end of this year's truncated season, Mitchell added.

According to minutes from the June 14 City council meeting, Vallee was joined by Councilmembers Todd Bierbaum and Henry Ennis to reopen Lake DeFuniak to swimming on the conditions that the city staff continue to monitor and test the water, and that the city confirm with the Florida Department of Environmental Protection that there are no endangered species or other wildlife in the area that would restrict human activity.

The conditions appear to address Councilman Kevin Crystal's concerns about reopening the lake to swimming. According to the minutes of the meeting, Crystal expressed concerns about contamination in Bruce Creek, which also feeds the lake. Crystal also raised questions about whether ducks and turtles on the lake might have to be relocated.

Crystal did not immediately return a phone call and a text message seeking comment on his vote.

Councilman Robert McKnight had an excused absence from the meeting, the minutes note.

Mayor Campbell said Thursday that the city has been checking water quality at Lake DeFuniak several times a year for some time, and the water there is actually better than the water in Lake Stanley, another lake in the city where swimming is allowed.

Campbell characterized the short swimming season this year at Lake DeFuniak as "a little bit of a trial." Echoing Vallee's interest in economic opportunity, Campbell said the city will look at how vending of paddleboards, kayaks and bicycles might work out.