For more than 20 years, Washington’s Deanwood neighborhood had the city’s only established amusement park. Tell us more!
— Joyce A. Lancaster, Washington
In the spring of 1925, a Washington college student put on his U.S. Army uniform — he was a veteran of World War I — and headed out for an evening of leisure. He was African American and not very surprised when he was repeatedly denied entry at whites-only theaters and public halls. In fact, his visit was part of research conducted by William H. Jones, a Howard University sociology professor who was gathering material that would later be published in his book “Recreation and Amusement Among Negroes in Washington, D.C.”
Of the unnamed student — apparently a pupil in Jones’s social pathology class — Jones wrote: “His total findings confirmed that much-repeated statement that ‘in Washington, a black man cannot get into the white man’s social life.’ ”
And when that is the case, the black man makes his own social life.
Suburban Gardens is a prime example. It remains the only amusement park to have been built within the District of Columbia (if you don’t count the giant Whack-a-Mole/Tilt-a-Whirl that is the U.S. Capitol).
Suburban Gardens was at 50th and Hayes streets NE. It was opened in 1921 by a black-owned real estate concern called the Universal Development and Loan Co., whose owners included architect H.D. Woodson and John Paynter, whose ancestors included slaves who attempted to escape on the Pearl.
“I imagine that they decided that black people ought to have a place like Glen Echo, and set about building a first-class amusement park,” said Patsy Fletcher, community outreach coordinator for the District’s Historic Preservation Office, who has studied Suburban Gardens.
While the city already had several black-owned “pleasure gardens” — with merry-go-rounds, dance pavilions, food stands and picnic areas — Suburban Gardens was much more amply appointed. Jones described it in his book: “The park comprises seven acres of land and is equipped with over a mile of macadam roadway together with over twenty concessionaires, booths and pavilions. In addition to a large dancing pavilion, there is a caterpillar, a coaster, an areo-swing, a ferris wheel, a dogem, a frolic, a tumble-bug and a fully-equipped free children’s playground.”
Some of the buildings were designed by noted black architect Lewis Giles Sr. Howard University swimming coach Clarence Pendleton Sr. oversaw aquatic programs. The dance pavilion hosted performances by the likes of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway.
“It was pretty substantial,” Patsy said.
Around 1928, Suburban Gardens was bought by Abe Lichtman, a white movie theater owner. Around the time he purchased the amusement park, he proposed building a picture house in Deanwood. Among those who objected was one of the neighborhood’s most famous figures, Nannie Helen Burroughs, who ran the nearby National Training School for Women and Girls.
“She complained that her young ladies waiting at the streetcar stops were already being harassed by [amusement park] patrons and being exposed to people drinking and carousing,” Patsy said. “And now you’re going to build a movie theater?”
Burroughs’s complaints fell on deaf ears, and the Strand Theater was built at 5129-5131 Grant St. NE — ironically, today’s Nannie Helen Burroughs Avenue.
Suburban Gardens closed in the 1940s. The area was redeveloped and turned primarily into apartment buildings.
Jones’s book is a fascinating read. He surveys all forms of leisure found in Washington: golf courses, tennis courts, playgrounds, pool halls, cabarets, dance halls, casinos, movie theaters. He describes the E. Madison Hall, a black-owned excursion boat, and relates the appeal of informal recreation spots, such as barbershops.
In his introduction, Jones complains that the idea of recreation had been too rigidly tied to the notion of health. While it may be true that the two are linked, he writes, “the value of recreation extends far beyond the physiological. Play and entertainment influence cultural patterns and institutions. Any interpretation of a group without a consideration of the ways in which it uses its leisure time must necessarily be inadequate.”
A nifty amusement park like Suburban Gardens was well and good, he seemed to be saying, but because of segregation, African Americans in Washington were denied exposure to higher forms of culture. At the end of his book, Jones listed several recommendations for improving the situation, chief among them that racial barriers be removed.
It would take decades for that to happen. Glen Echo was not desegregated until 1961.