Marking 50th anniversary of Gwynn Oak Park protests

In summer 1963, park near county-city line opened to African-Americans

  • Gywnn Oak Park will soon be home to an outdoor market.
Gywnn Oak Park will soon be home to an outdoor market. (Erin Kirkland, Baltimore…)
June 21, 2013|Jacques Kelly

The Gwynn Oak Park I visited this week, as maintained by the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks, looks pretty much like what you would expect of a 64-acre grassy picnic area. There's a set of playground equipment, playing fields, a volleyball net and a nice water hole created along the meandering Gwynns Falls.

I had not walked through Gwynn Oak since the early 1960s, when I recall spending a day there with classmates. The park was then filled with amusement rides, a train and boats in the pond. It was also segregated and closed to Baltimore's African-American families.

That changed in the summer of 1963, when a well-organized series of demonstrations and well-publicized arrests put the shame of segregation in a national perspective. Local activists, as well as prominent members of the national clergy, converged on this corner of Baltimore County just outside the city limits. It was a high point of the civil rights movement in Baltimore.

After that series of arrests in July, the park's owners agreed to open the gates to all. The first black families were admitted Aug. 28, 1963, the same day the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic "I Have a Dream" speech on the National Mall in Washington. The park, which was then privately owned, remained open until Tropical Storm Agnes put it out of business in 1972. Baltimore County then acquired the property.

Its amusement rides were auctioned off. The carousel, where Sharon Langley, an 11-month-old African-American girl, took a ride that August day in 1963, wound up and remains on the National Mall in Washington as a working antique.

And while that Gwynn Oak summer has not been forgotten, the actual place has assumed an unrecognized status. No marker. No mural. No history center.

"People who walk by that park have no idea what happened there," said Amy Nathan, a former Baltimorean who now lives in New York and wrote a 2011 book about the Gwynn Oak protests, "Round and Round Together."

Given the media attention focused on Gwynn Oak Park during the summer of 1963, it's fitting that this summer, the event will get the recognition it deserves. On July 7, the 50th anniversary of one of the largest protests, a commemoration and historic marker unveiling will begin to get the word out.

"After all the interest in the Gwynn Oak demonstrations, I wondered, 'Does it take 50 years?' " said Charles Mason, a Mount Washington resident who was one of the original Congress of Racial Equality organizers for the Gwynn Oak protests.

The July 7 event is called "Opening the Gates: Celebrate the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park." It begins at 1 p.m. and runs until 7 p.m. Langley is among those who plan to attend.

Barbara Cuffie, a Gwynn Oak neighborhood resident and president of the Security Woodlawn Business Association, said, "The park has had an amazing history. But local people today do not realize what happened there, the way people came together for a good cause."

"This is the time to do it," said Rabbi Gila Ruskin, one of the event's organizers. "We should honor our predecessors who participated in the movement that opened the park to all."

I walked around the park and looked for clues of its former life. The former boat lake looked larger than I recalled. There was an embankment where I think the train ran. One pair of concrete steps seemed original. I wondered where the Dixie Ballroom stood. On those grassy lawns, surrounded by tall trees, you wondered how the Marvelettes or some other vocal group could have serenaded us.

Amusement parks can be places where memories haunt you. Gwynn Oak's green acres, as divorced as they are from shooting galleries and a roller coaster, seem a fitting memorial to a day when Baltimore did come together for a better purpose.

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