Glen Echo Park remembers the summer of change

By Rick Rojas
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, June 27, 2010

The men and women, white and black, returned as welcomed guests Saturday to a place that, in the summer of 1960, they had picketed because blacks weren't allowed inside. Their hair was grayer, or gone altogether. They had wrinkles, some needed canes and there were repeated shouts telling to speakers to talk a little louder.

But the memories from the civil rights victory at Glen Echo Park 50 years ago remain as vivid as ever.

Dion T. Diamond was a gangly 18-year-old freshman at Howard University with the Nonviolent Action Group that worked its way up from sit-ins in Northern Virginia to the white-only amusement park in a Maryland suburb near the District. When the students arrived, they found white, politically active neighbors ready to join their fight.

"This civil rights movement was the first time I could establish relationships on a personal basis" with white people, Diamond said. "I've found the movement, if you will, as a vehicle for people to get to know people as people."

For eight weeks outside the park, the black students and the white neighbors walked together. The protests involved few altercations with police or other protesters. A rare exception was when one of the students, Gwendolyn T. Britt (then Gwendolyn Greene), who would become a Maryland state senator representing Prince George's County, was arrested after trying to ride the park's carousel.

The students and their energy inspired the neighbors to make signs and sandwiches and walk with them, said Esther Delaplaine, a former resident of the Bannockburn neighborhood. She said residents of Bannockburn -- then considered a fringe liberal outpost-- had been "fretting" about the discrimination at Glen Echo Park.

The neighborhood was founded by Jews, many of whom had escaped Europe during the Holocaust of World War II. The founders of what would become Bannockburn had difficulty finding land or financing because of deed covenants preventing Jews or other minority groups from being able to buy the property.

In 1957, Bannockburn residents petitioned Montgomery County to stop busing white students to the Glen Echo swimming pool while black students were taken into the District. Delaplaine said that she and other parents wouldn't allow their children to visit Glen Echo Park until it was integrated. Many of the neighborhood children complained, she said, because the Chevy Chase County Club was also off-limits to Jews.

During the protests, young black students from the District walked alongside white, suburban, mostly Jewish mothers. "We were black and white together," Delaplaine said, now 86 and living in Friendship Heights. "That was the message."

Loren Weinberg, who was a 17-year-old student at Walter Johnson High School in Bethesda, joined the picket line to the chagrin of his parents. "I was young and it set a political identity for me for the rest of my life," he said.

As a white teenager in the picket line, he looked up to the students from Howard in awe. Now 67 and a resident of Boulder, Colo., Weinberg held back tears while looking at photographs taken from the protest.

"Fifty years later, they are my definition for what it means to have heart," Weinberg said. "What they did took as much courage as going into war."

Their protests during the summer of 1960 were successful: the next spring, the park was opened to whites and blacks. Glen Echo Park closed as a privately owned park in 1968 after a riot and reopened as a public park in 1971.

Eventually the protesters lost touch with each other, though some continued their activism. Britt, who died in 2008, and Diamond became Freedom Riders.

As the protesters reunited at Glen Echo Park, they reveled in their achievements. "This is a dynamite day in my life," said Robert Williams, 73, as he reminisced with people he hadn't seen since he was a 23, taking the daily trip from the District to protest.

Diamond, however, was disappointed because only those who lived the history showed up to celebrate what had been done.

"It means in a way we failed," he said. "There were no kids."

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