Kelly: Book illuminates Baltimore's early role in civil rights

City had early role in fight for equality

October 28, 2011|Jacques Kelly

Only recently, with the controversy over the proposed demolition of the Read's drugstore at Howard and Lexington, are we beginning to take note of Baltimore's important and early role in the civil rights movement. A few weeks ago, a copy of a new book, "Round and Round Together," arrived with much to say.

Its title refers to Gwynn Oak's merry-go-round, which the author treats as a kind of centerpiece and metaphor for the local movement of the 1950s and 1960s. I later spoke with the author, Amy Singewald Nathan, a Baltimorean from Hunting Ridge who had just graduated Western High School during the summer of 1963, when Gwynn Oak was the subject of national attention.

Nathan told me she initially started writing the book with high school readers in mind and later expanded her text for a larger audience.

She shows that the first five-and-dime store to open its lunch counter to African-Americans was Kresge's, at Park and Lexington, in 1953. Its competitors soon followed suit — and there were many when downtown Baltimore was a vibrant shopping destination. The bigger department stores were initially reluctant to open their counters and tearooms. But by the spring of 1960, even the sedate Hutzler Brothers' Colonial Tea Room was accessible to all.

I spoke with John Roemer, who was vice chairman of the Congress of Racial Equality at the time. His father headed Hutzler's food service, which was Maryland's largest restaurant chain though its downtown flagship store, boasting four restaurants and multiple branches.

When his father watched television news footage of demonstrators picketing on Howard Street, he said, "Those people are ruining my business." The younger Roemer, then a Princeton University student activist, responded, "I am vice chairman of that group."

Another important local integration battle took place at the old Hooper's restaurant on Fayette Street near what is now the Clarence M. Mitchell Jr. Courthouse. Its owners refused to serve blacks. Among others arrested in 1960 protests there was Robert Bell, then a Dunbar High School senior and today Maryland's chief judge.

On a radio broadcast, Roemer happened to hear that the mayor and governor would be going to Hooper's to attempt a mediation. He knew that the top officials always took reporters along, and he knew from his father, who had once worked for the Hooper family, that an employees' door would be open should the front door be closed to black patrons.

Sure enough, he and fellow activist Walter Carter were denied at the front entrance, but they slipped in through the alley door and took a seat. Just as the mayor and governor arrived — along with a large press contingent — they were again denied food service and ejected.

"Customers started leaving, and they remarked it was disgraceful they way people were being treated," Roemer recalled.

Throughout this period, activists were looking to integrate Gwynn Oak Park, a privately owned summertime amusement grove with a handful of rides, including the carousel that becomes a centerpiece of the book. After days of arrests, and involvement of well-known members of the clergy, the park opened to all, just as the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was addressing thousands on the National Mall in Washington. The park remained in business but felt strong financial competition from larger, more sophisticated amusement destinations then opening along the East Coast.

Tropical Storm Agnes in 1972 caused the Gwynns Falls to overflow and inundated the park, which is now operated as a Baltimore County public greensward. That same carousel, the ride that was at the center of all those demonstrations and arrests, now sits, restored and operating, on the National Mall in Washington.

jacques.kelly@baltsun.com

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