Fond memories of a harsh era 'Sacred' sites: Many blacks are nostalgic for the segregated Druid Hill Park of years gone by, and the plan to renew the park will include a memorial to that era.

April 13, 1996|By Rafael Alvarez | Rafael Alvarez,SUN STAFF

Back in the days when Warren Weaver played in Druid Hill Park, sheep grazed the rolling hills and African-Americans were expected to know their place: the "colored" sections of Baltimore's 745-acre park.

"You'd spend all day there and then go home and eat dinner," said Mr. Weaver, now 80, remembering youthful summers spent playing tennis on segregated courts that soon will be rebuilt as a memorial to good times spent under hard conditions.

What might seem peculiar -- remembering fondly a time when black people were at best considered second-class citizens -- promises to be one of the more vibrant themes at a symposium today on the past and future of Druid Hill Park.

"As children, you didn't pay much attention" to racism, said Irvington "Rip" Williams, 79, like Mr. Weaver a champion amateur tennis player from the 1930s who learned and mastered the game at Druid Hill Park. "As you got older, you got wiser to it."

The daylong symposium will focus on the city's master plan to renew the 135-year-old park, a capital project heavy on improvements in parking, roads, walkways and lighting.

But as the symposium was being organized, discussions with people who grew up using the park or still live near it in Reservoir Hill brought forth something bureaucrats had not considered: nostalgia for the sections of Druid Hill beloved during segregation and largely abandoned since the beginning of integration in the 1950s.

To this day, blacks looking for a game of tennis at the park tend to gravitate to a few of the old "Negro courts" that still function before using what had been known as the "white courts."

As a result, the old swimming pool and black tennis courts, where a national tournament was held in 1924, are at the heart of ZTC the master plan. About $500,000 will be spent to return the courts to tournament condition, and the pool probably will be filled in, sodded and transformed into a quiet place to remember segregation.

Most of the work will be done by architects and landscapers, but the vision will come from artists being sought from around the country. Three visual artists to be hired by June will be paid $15,000 each to work on the design for the memorial area.

"Even though this horrible thing happened, it doesn't mean that forever we have to ignore the space. It's possible to re-create [those sites] as sacred," said Leslie King Hammond, dean of graduate studies at the Maryland Institute, College of Art, where the symposium will be held.

"The memories cannot be obliterated just because it was a segregated site," she said. "You don't erase the scar; you pay honor to the pure joy of being youthful, what the park meant during that cycle of your life."

Dr. Hammond said that in selecting the artists, no consideration will be given to a candidate's race or hometown.

In 1948, segregation was so repulsive to Mitzi Freishtat Swan that she and another white woman, Jennette Fino, protested by organizing a game of tennis at Druid Hill Park with two black friends.

Reporters and police were on hand when the group gathered on the white courts. Before the first ball was served, four players and several spectators were arrested.

"It was something that was waiting to happen," said Ms. Swan, 66, who grew up on Whittier Avenue.

"The police would chase whites away from the colored courts, but it was breaking the law if a colored person went on the white courts."

One of the peculiar things, Mr. Weaver said, was that blacks and whites did things together at the park for years -- the simple stuff of everyday friendship -- and no one paid much attention.

"I played a white man in tennis here back in 1937, and there was a cop who worked in the park named Dick who was our friend and would never have thought of arresting us," he said.

But in 1948 -- after a war in which thousands of blacks had died and thousands of others had returned to again face racism in the society they had fought for -- people sickened by segregation wanted to make a point.

"I had just turned 18 when we got arrested," Ms. Swan remembered. "My folks were proud of me, but some of my relatives weren't."

Park symposium

What: Commemorating History: Druid Hill Park Symposium, a free public symposium on the past and future of Druid Hill Park

Where: Mount Royal Building, Maryland Institute, College of Art

When: 9 a.m. to 3: 30 p.m. today

Pub Date: 4/13/96

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