Tennis Everyone?

Mitzi Swan recalls a 1948 civil rights incident that changed her life and became the subject of H.L. Mencken's final column

April 24, 2003|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,SUN STAFF

The 12-year-old boy watched his big sister and her friends being pulled from the tennis courts, arrested, packed into police cars and paddy wagons and hauled off to jail.

"They didn't do anything wrong," David Freishtat cried. "They were just playing tennis,"

That's pretty much what H.L. Mencken, the renowned Baltimore editor and critic, said in the last column he published before a massive stroke ended his long writing career for the Sunpapers.

On July 11, 1948, David's sister, Mitzi Swan, and her African-American tennis partner, Mary Coffee, walked onto the "whites only" courts at Druid Hill Park and stepped into Baltimore's civil rights history.

Swan was Mitzi Freishtat then, 18 years old and a sophomore at the University of Maryland. Mary Coffee was 19 and a student at Morgan State College, as it was then called.

Swan had barely bounced a ball on the court when park police appeared.

"As soon as we dropped the ball and were ready to swing at it, they were there," she says. "We were starting to warm up. I think we may have gotten it over the net once."

She and Coffee and another dozen players were arrested for refusing to obey the order of the park police to stop playing on courts reserved exclusively for whites.

Altogether 24 people were arrested, including seven charged with disorderly conduct while protesting the arrest of the players. Among the group was Charles M. Swan, who would later become Freishtat's husband.

If not the first, it was among the first interracial protests against segregation in Baltimore.

The tennis court cases went to the Supreme Bench of Baltimore City, now the Circuit Court, where seven people were convicted, including Swan's husband-to-be. Seventeen cases were dismissed, including hers.

On Saturday, Swan will talk about the protest and her arrest at the Spring Meeting of the Mencken Society. The meeting will be at 2:30 p.m. at the Enoch Pratt Central Library.

Mencken's column appeared in The Sun on Nov. 9, 1948, after the verdicts were in. An old Supreme Bench rule prevented comment earlier. Mencken laces into the "irrational and nefarious" tennis order.

"A free citizen in a free state," he writes, "has an inalienable right to play with whomsoever he will, so long as he does not disturb the general peace. If any other citizen, offended by the spectacle, makes a pother, then that other citizen, and not the man exercising his inalienable right, should be put down by the police."

Swan was surprised and pleased.

"I didn't think he would take this kind of a stand," she says. "I was very pleasantly surprised. It was supportive. ... He says Maryland still has a bit of `the Georgia Cracker' and that we have to wipe `Ku Kluxry' out of the state of Maryland.' "

Two weeks later, Mencken was incapacitated by the stroke that left him unable to read or write for the next eight years, until his death on Jan. 29, 1956.

Swan says the genesis of her appearance at the Mencken Society meeting is a story she wrote for a "learning in retirement" class called Memory Pictures at the College of Notre Dame's Renaissance Institute.

"The assignment to the class was to write about an event that affected your life. And this one definitely did."

She laughs.

"I mean, I met my husband there."

Nineteen forty-eight was the year of the Progressive Party, a left-liberal party with a strong civil-rights plank. The Progressive Party convention in Philadelphia would be the last Mencken covered. He had reported on his first political convention in 1904. He seemed more amused than alarmed by the Progressive left of 1948. And they passed away with the victory of Harry S. Truman that fall.

"I belonged to the Young Progressives," Swan says. "That was the youth component of the Progressive Party of Maryland. That was a third party, and Henry Wallace was the person running for president. I believed in his platform and one of the big items on his platform was equal rights."

But she didn't consider herself "radical."

"This is what I believed in," she says. "We were trying to find something to make a statement and a lot of us played tennis."

Swan, who is white, was on the Western High tennis team, and she played often on the clay courts at Druid Hill Park. She lived on Whittier Avenue, off Auchentoroly Terrace, right across the street from the courts. Her brother, David, who watched her being trundled off to jail, became one of the top players in Baltimore. He's a lawyer still in practice here.

"We were trying to break a barrier," she says. "The park policy would not allow us to play. It wasn't a law. It was the policy, and the policy said no interracial sports on the courts. And we were testing that."

The courts where blacks could play were terrible.

"There were just a few of them," Swan says. "They were overgrown with weeds and ruts. They were in terrible condition. Just the same with the swimming pool. They had a swimming pool for blacks. They had water fountains for blacks and whites! They couldn't drink out of the same water fountains!"

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