Marker to honor tennis court protest

July 10, 1992|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Staff Writer

*TC On July 11, 1948, a group of black and white tennis players broke the barrier of segregation that separated the two races in Baltimore City's recreation and parks system.

Charles L. Williams does not want the world to forget their act of bravery in Druid Hill Park. It was an early benchmark of the civil rights movement. "These people are heroes to me, and I don't think they should be forgotten," he says.

Tomorrow -- 44 years to the day since the protest on the park's clay courts -- Mr. Williams' efforts to preserve the memory of the occasion will be realized in a commemorative ceremony at the park.

A monument, listing the names of the 24 protesters who were arrested and jailed, is to be dedicated at 1 p.m. The monument sits to the left of the Conservatory and in front of a green field, site of the clay courts that were removed in 1989. A handful of the original protesters will be present, as will representatives of the city's Department of Recreation and Parks, the Parks Board and the Baltimore Tennis Club.

Although unable to attend the protest -- he had worked until 6 a.m. in a part-time job as a waiter -- Mr. Williams well understood its significance.

As a child, he and his family were forced to play on the inferior "colored playground" and swim in a segregated pool at Druid Hill. As a tennis player, he had to play on the few crumbling courts open to blacks.

Long after the parks were integrated in 1956, Mr. Williams remained grateful to the trailblazers who played spirited tennis in front of 500 supportive spectators before their arrest. In 1983, he arranged a tribute in Leakin Park to the protest participants.

He had always cherished the idea of dedicating one of the Druid Hill clay courts to the protest. When they were dug up, "I was spurred on more. I decided I would put a monument out there," said Mr. Williams, who, at the age of 73, still plays tennis occasionally.

He went to the Parks Board, where his plan was well received. "It's completely appropriate that we remember the events that happened on the clay courts and honor them," said Laura Perry, immediate past president of the board and a current commissioner. "It's a sad part of the city's history. And the people who tried to integrate these courts were brave, and we should honor them."

Mr. Williams, retired from a civilian job with the U.S. Army, raised money for the monument through donations from individuals, businesses, sports associations, the Parks Board and New Shiloh Baptist Church. The Fram Monument Co. gave him a discount on the monument, which cost $472. The extra money raised, about $200, will go toward the Baltimore Tennis Club's youth program.

Royal Weaver, 75, one of the original protesters who will be in attendance tomorrow, is proud and pleased with the permanent tribute. "All I can say is, just fantastic, just fantastic," he said.

The 1948 interracial tennis match in Druid Hill Park was organized by the Young Progressives of Maryland, a left-wing branch of the Progressive Party, which took to the courts with members of the black Baltimore Tennis Club. When about 20 police officers moved in to make the arrest, the players sat down on the clay courts in protest.

Defense attorney Duke Avnet's argument that protesters "were challenging the constitutionality of segregation in public facilities based on race" was rejected by a Baltimore court. However, all except seven white participants were freed. Their convictions were upheld in appeals courts, and the U.S. Supreme Court refused to review the case.

The demonstrators received the backing of H. L. Mencken, who wrote in The Evening Sun on Nov. 9, 1948, one of his best-remembered lines: "It is high time that all such relics of Ku Kluxry be wiped out in Maryland." It is believed to be Mencken's last piece of published writing before he suffered a stroke two weeks later.

Mr. Williams calls himself a "background kind of guy" and shuns publicity for his work on the monument. He is more concerned about teaching a history lesson to youngsters. He wants to make the tribute an annual event.

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