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Gwynn Oak Park: 50 Years Later

Gregory Kane | 7/11/2013, midnight
It happened 50 years ago, in the summer of 1963.

It happened 50 years ago, in the summer of 1963. Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore County was still segregated, as were many other places in Baltimore and the state of Maryland.

As part of an effort to drag white Marylanders kicking and screaming into the 20th century on matters of race, a group of demonstrators gathered on July 4, 1963 and picketed the amusement park.

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Gregory Kane

The effort was only partly successful. In 1964, 1968 and 1972, a significant number if white Marylanders cast their ballots in presidential primaries for George “Segregation Now, Segregation Tomorrow, Segregation Forever” Wallace of Alabama, which means they were dragged, kicking and screaming, only as far as about the 1940s.

Nearly 300 people were arrested. Mickey Schwerner, a civil rights worker for the Congress of Racial Equality, was one of the demonstrators present, if we’re to believe William Bradford Huie’s book Three Lives for Mississippi.

Less than a year later, Schwerner would be in Mississippi for that state’s “Freedom Summer,” along with a New York lad named Andrew Goodman and a native Mississippian named James Chaney. Sheriff’s deputies in Neshoba County, Miss., arrested the trio in late June of 1963 and then turned them over to the tender mercies of a mob that lynched them.

Rev. Chester Wickwire, then the chaplain at Johns Hopkins University, was also among those arrested. Wickwire, a white mid-Westerner was nearly a legend in the local civil rights community.

In addition to helping desegregate Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, Wickwire, later in the 1960s, was part of a vigil at the headquarters of the Baltimore Black Panther Party chapter. It’s generally conceded that it was only Wickwire’s presence that prevented a police-Panther shootout at those headquarters.

I have a hunch that was disappointing to the late Donald Pomerleau, who was Baltimore’s police commissioner at the time. He was probably hankering for the shootout.

Wickwire was also one, if not the only, man to be president of Baltimore’s predominantly black Interdenominational Ministerial Alliance. Only the representative from the Nation of Islam objected to Wickwire’s membership.

“But the others got him to accept me as a brother in Christ,” Wickwire would quip to me later.

Joining Wickwire and Schwerner on the picket line were Rev. William Sloan Coffin, the chaplain of Yale University, and members of the National Council of Churches. Before the summer was over, Gwynn Oak Park was desegregated.

On Sunday, July 7, starting at 1 p.m., dancers from the Flair Studio of Dance and Modeling will kick off a six-hour celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Gwynn Oak Amusement Park. Where will the celebration be held?

Why, right on the site where the old amusement park once stood, in Gwynn Oak Park, of course. (The park had to close in 1973 after extensive damage from Hurricane Agnes, according to one news story.)

Other groups performing or participating in the celebration will be Nucleus, a gospel and R&B group; the Baltimore Klezmer Orchestra; the Set The Captives Free Choir; the David White Gospel Ensemble featuring the Angelic Voices; Cherise Watson and Sapphire Exchange; the Charm City Labor Chorus; and the Spindles, who will perform a Motown review.

Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz will be on hand to unveil a historic marker at the site of the 1963 protests. A flyer advertising the event promises attendees that they will have a chance to “meet courageous protesters from 1963.”

Indeed they were courageous. Even though Baltimore County police were on hand to keep order, demonstrators still had to face a crowd of hostile whites stuck somewhere in the 1850s when it came to attitudes about race.

Kudos to those demonstrators of all races that had the courage to change that. And kudos to those who thought that courage worthy of commemoration and celebration 50 years later.