July 4, 1963, at Gwynn Oak Park Baltimore Glimpses

February 17, 1998|By Gilbert Sandler

THURSDAY, the Fourth of July, 1963, started out like every other Independence Day in Baltimore. Parades, cookouts, ballgames, fireworks and patriotic speeches were scheduled. The weather was a pleasant 78 degrees. Baltimore was on holiday.

But not everybody was taking one. Before the day was over, Baltimore would be a changed city, and a new chapter in the history of Baltimore's black community would be written.

About noon, about 300 people assembled at Metropolitan United Methodist Church at 1121 W. Lanvale St. The event had been organized by the local chapter of the Congress of Racial Equality, Maryland Council of Churches and the New York headquarters of Campus Americans for Democratic Action. This was no ordinary gathering. The assemblage included respected, highly placed, local and national Catholic, Protestant and Jewish clergymen -- white and black.

They were here to organize a protest march on Gwynn Oak Park in Woodlawn, which had been a center of controversy for years because of its "whites only" admissions policy. (Gwynn Oak was not alone in its discrimination policy; Maryland restaurants, swimming pools and movie theaters also kept blacks out.)

Among the protesters were the Rev. William Sloane Coffin, chaplain at Yale University; Rabbi Israel M. Goldman of Chizuk Amuno Congregation; Monsignor Austin L. Healy of the Archdiocese of Baltimore; Rabbi Morris Leiberman of the Baltimore Hebrew Congregation; the Rev. Dr. Eugene Carson Blake, stated clerk of the United Presbyterian Church; the Rev. John T. Middaugh, senior minister at Brown Memorial Presbyterian church; and representatives of the National Council of Churches.

The group discussed how the protest was to be carried out (peacefully), and whether participants were willing, individually and collectively, to go to jail (yes).

'A lot of hate'

At 1: 30 p.m. the group made its way out of the church, marching and singing, "We shall overcome, someday." They boarded buses and headed west for Gwynn Oak Park for a confrontation with Baltimore County police and a rendezvous with history. On the way, spirits rose, as did the tension.

The protesters arrived at the main gate at 3 p.m. They were met by hostile bystanders.

"There was a lot of hate out there that day," recalled William Engelman, one of the protesters. Fearing the number and mood of the hecklers, the police immediately cordoned them off.

The protesters were met, too, by Baltimore County Police Chief Robert Lally. Behind him were 560 police officers; Lally said later that police dogs were kept on call, along with several hundred additional officers. As more buses arrived, the protesters joined a picket line on the median strip on Gwynn Oak Avenue in front of the park.

The main gate, where protesters were blocked by Chief Lally, quickly became the focus of the jostling crowd. He read the Maryland Trespass Act, charged the protesters with violating it and ordered them arrested. Obviously embarrassed at having to lock up so many clergymen, he said, "As chief of police I have no alternative. The law of Maryland says they can't trespass. I can't legislate."

Quietly, orderly and accompanied by freedom songs, the protesters boarded county school buses and were driven to the Woodlawn police station.

Robert Watts, who later became a judge, met them there to act as counsel. Cool heads prevailed on both sides of the bench, and the tension was diffused.

"Gwynn Oak was the mountaintop of the Baltimore civil rights demonstrations," Judge Watts remembered. "Once we reached it, civil rights in Baltimore seemed downhill from there. In time, all of the restaurants, the movies, the parks, everything opened up to blacks.`

In late August 1963, Baltimore County Executive Spiro T. Agnew persuaded the County Council to create a Human Relations Commission. One of its first acts was to open Gwynn Oak Park to all. In 1974, after amusement parks had made it obsolete, Gwynn Oak closed.

Since then, many will argue, the record of black progress toward civil rights in Baltimore has been mixed. But nothing can take away from the enormous accomplishments of individual blacks, nor of their impact and influence in Baltimore's civic, mercantile and professional life today.

They and their peers are the legacy of America's civil rights history, a lot of which was made at Gwynn Oak Park.

Gilbert Sandler writes from and about Baltimore.

Pub Date: 2/17/98

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