Summer of '60
Protest on a Sculpted Horse
Black activists stepped inside a segregated Maryland theme park -- and sparked a battle.
By Brigid Schulte
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, June 29, 2004; Page B01
Outside the towering twin gates of the amusement park entrance, its neon red Glen Echo Park sign glaring in the summer evening, about 20 young people gathered nervously. The screams from the roller coaster, the barking carneys inviting one and all into Jungle Land, the happy organ music were distant sounds, lost to the group and their purpose.
Gwendolyn Greene was 18. She held her breath and, with 11 others, walked through the gates.
A friend handed Greene a 75-cent ticket for a ride on the merry-go-round, the spectacular Dentzel with hand-carved horses, rabbits, tigers and ostriches that whirled round and round under the wings of smiling white angels. She clambered onto the nearest horse, a spotted yellow one.
In her starched dress and low-heeled pumps, she held onto the shiny brass pole as if it were her lifeline. Her legs shook. Her heart beat fast. And then it began.
"Miss, you have five minutes to leave the park," a security guard told her, "or you will be arrested."
It was June 30, 1960 -- six years after the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Brown v. Board of Education that the nation's public schools should no longer be segregated, 4 1/2 years after Rosa Parks refused to move to the back of the bus in Alabama. Yet Glen Echo Park in suburban Maryland, just 20 minutes north of the Capitol, was open only to white people. And Gwendolyn Greene was black.
The Glen Echo Park civil rights protests would last five long, hot weeks that summer. Picketers, both black and white, carrying signs with such slogans as "Bigotry is no fun," would wear a narrow dirt path into the grassy roadside of MacArthur Boulevard in Montgomery County, along the trolley tracks that deposited revelers at the gates of the park.
Before the summer was over, Greene and her fellow members of the D.C. Non-Violent Action Group, made up mostly of Howard University students, would be arrested, spat upon and taunted by counter-picketers from the American Nazi Party. The students' protests in other parts of the region also would help force the desegregation of lunch counters in Northern Virginia, a bowling alley in Prince George's County, the Hiser Theater in Bethesda and Hi-Boy restaurants in Rockville.
At Glen Echo, they were aided by the liberal, politically connected and largely Jewish Bannockburn community near the park. Residents painted signs, organized food and lemonade drops, picketed with babies in strollers, invited politicians, labor leaders and reporters to the site, and guided a legal battle that would end up before the Supreme Court.
The summer of '60 protests would, over time, be overshadowed by the nation's civil rights movement and its many landmark moments, yet they remain among the most important local demonstrations for freedom and equality.
Gwendolyn Greene grew up in Northeast Washington, in a world bordered by an unspoken line of color, she recalled. If she were to shop, it was at Hecht's. There, she could at least try on clothes. She knew not to go to Woodward & Lothrop or Garfinckel's, where blacks could not so much as touch a hat when she was a girl. For fun, she went to shows at the Howard Theater and to movies in her segregated neighborhood movie house. "We socialized with our own," she explained.
Her sister, Connie, older by a year, said there was a measure of comfort in that at the time. "There were areas we couldn't go. But they were also areas we didn't need to go," she said. "So I guess we never pushed the envelope."
All of that changed the summer of 1960. In February of that year, four college students in Greensboro, N.C., staged the first of what would become hundreds of sit-ins at segregated lunch counters. Change was coming. The Greene sisters wanted to be part of it.
They heard talk at Howard University one day about a group forming. Led by a 25-year-old divinity student from Philadelphia, Lawrence Henry, an ascetic and intellectual figure, the D.C. Non-Violent Action Group, or NAG, first picketed the Capitol in March 1960 for congressional action on stalled civil rights legislation. White college students joined them.
The group began its local "challenges" in June at Arlington lunch counters. After 10 days, owners agreed to allow blacks not only to order food for carryout, as they had in the past, but also to sit at the counter and eat. Two weeks later, lunch counters in Alexandria and Fairfax County followed suit.
Flush from their first success, the Howard students began looking for their next target. Someone mentioned Glen Echo Park. Every week in the summer, Montgomery County buses took more than 2,000 white children to pay 35 cents and swim in the Crystal Pool, one of the largest swimming pools in the country, with 1.5 million gallons of water, a fountain, slide and underwater lights. Black children were bused to small, crowded pools in the District.
So on the evening of June 30, 1960, Gwendolyn Greene and four other black members of the group sat on Glen Echo Park's merry-go-round, refusing to move. A white security guard confronted Henry, the group's leader, who sat astride a gray rabbit. The exchange was captured by a WWDC radio reporter.
"Can I ask your race?"
"I belong to the human race," Henry said.
They were all arrested for trespassing and taken from the park in squad cars.
The next day, the protesters were back, and this time the Bannockburn community turned out in droves to support them. "Quietly, people said that it was going to lower the value of our homes if we got involved, but that was quickly rejected," said Hyman Bookbinder, a lobbyist for the AFL-CIO at the time. "We saw it immediately as our local manifestation of the civil rights movement, to put theory to practice, close to home."
Local officials hesitated. The attorney for Montgomery County ruled that the county had no authority to force the then-private park to desegregate. Joe M. Kyle, then a County Council member, told reporters that he sympathized with the protesters, "but I'm not disposed to tell the management how to run its business."
And Glen Echo Park's owners, Abram and Samuel Baker, were unmoved. "This has always been a segregated park," their spokesman was quoted as saying in The Washington Post, "and we intend to keep it that way."
After weeks of controversy -- arrests, letters to politicians, leaflets and protests in the pouring rain -- the park closed as scheduled for the season. "No Change of Policy Foreseen" read a Washington Post headline that September.
A 12-hour protest walk through the night up Route 1 from Washington to Baltimore failed to move a federal court in Greene's trespass case. It would take until 1964 for the U.S. Supreme Court to rule in her favor that park security guards, sworn deputies of Montgomery County, had acted with the authority of the state to improperly enforce private segregation.
That fall, Montgomery County stopped busing white children to the Crystal Pool. Over the winter months, the Baker brothers quietly announced that Glen Echo would open in the spring of 1961 to all comers, regardless of race. For the first time, they would charge admission.
The amusement park closed in 1968, a victim of changing times. The property limped along in decay for years under the National Park Service, the protests of the summer of 1960 all but forgotten, until a public-private partnership took over the park in 2002.
Some Howard students went back to college in fall 1960 and didn't think much about the protests after. Many never went back to the park.
Members of the Bannockburn community, the spirit of the times unquenched, invited black students from Virginia's Prince Edward County -- whose public schools had been closed in 1959 rather than integrated -- into their homes so the children could attend their schools. But most lost touch with the Howard students with whom they had spent so many hours on the picket line.
"That was one of our failures," said Bookbinder, 88. "We should have retained closer ties."
For Gwendolyn Greene, now 62, the summer of 1960 changed her profoundly. "I became determined to do what I could to make a person's life better," she said.
She left Howard and became a Freedom Rider, challenging Jim Crow laws in the Deep South. She spent 40 days in a Mississippi jail for sitting in a whites-only train station waiting room in 1961.
She later married and became Gwendolyn Britt and had two sons. She worked for the phone company before being elected a Maryland state senator in 2002, representing Prince George's County. And after years of stops and starts in her education, she graduated a few months ago from Bowie State University with a degree in political science.
She went back to Glen Echo Park recently to attend a political function, only her second time there in four decades.
An old man came up to her to shake her hand. He had been a security guard at the park in 1960, he said. He had arrested people like her. "I'm just glad," she remembers him telling her, "that things are so different now."
The merry-go-round, which she never did ride, glimmered in the distance.
Staff researcher Bobbye Pratt contributed to this report.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company