Editors' pick

The Carousel on the National Mall

The Carousel on the National Mall photo
(Bill O'Leary/The Washington Post)

Editorial Review

Children regularly scramble onto the carousel on the Mall for a three-minute thrill, one which the rapidly whirling merry-go-round with the faded paint and kitschy ponies never fails to deliver.

The Smithsonian carousel was built in the 1940s by the Allan Herschell Co., but its history is far richer than the families who frequent it might suspect.

Before the carousel arrived on the Mall, it was a popular attraction at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Woodlawn, Md., one of the region's most booming parks. Gwynn Oak was, as many amusement parks were at the time, whites-only.

But in September 1955, as a wave of integration efforts was beginning to effect change in schools, restaurants and public services, a group of 40 protesters from a group known as the Congress of Racial Equality arrived at Gwynn Oak to ask why black people weren't allowed in the park, author Amy Nathan writes in her new book "Round & Round Together." The book chronicles the carousel's place in the local civil rights movement and the broader effort to integrate amusement parks.

Protesters had begun to target the parks in part because, Nathan says, turning away children had a particular sting -- it was an injustice that clergy and political leaders couldn't ignore, and many joined the picket line.

It took years of tenacious protests, till Aug. 28, 1963, before Gwynn Oak opened its gates to all visitors. (By contrast, Glen Echo's desegregation protests began in 1960 and were successful by 1961.) The first African American family to enter the park that day were the Langleys; the ride that they chose for their wide-eyed toddler, Sharon, was the carousel.

Today, there are no signs noting that history, but "riding the merry-go-round today can give you a link to that era," Nathan says. "They got nowhere, for years, but they kept persisting and changing their strategies till it paid off."

-- Lavanya Ramanathan (Jan. 27, 2012)