The last time Dion Diamond walked through the gates of Glen Echo Amusement Park, he was ushered out after two minutes. The last time Michael Proctor tried to ride the merry-go-round there, he was arrested.
That was in 1960, when blacks were not allowed to swim in the park's famed Crystal Pool, with its slide and fountain, and also could not ride on the roller coaster.
On Saturday, the two civil rights activists returned for the first time to mark the anniversary of the picket lines that led to the desegregation of the park and ultimately to a U.S. Supreme Court case.
"I was never in here for more than a couple minutes," said Diamond, 64, laughing and shaking his head in disbelief as he looked out at the same carousel, with its ornate wood-carved horses and cheerful organ music.
Even though the park's private owners quietly opened the gates to all in 1961, Proctor had never returned.
"I told my kids about it," the Hughesville doctor said. "But way down deep, there were some negative feelings."
The effort to integrate Glen Echo Park, in the summer of 1960, came after the first sit-ins at segregated lunch counters in North Carolina and during student protests throughout the region.
But Glen Echo Park was notable because of the support the protesters, black Howard University students, received from white residents of the nearby Bannockburn neighborhood, some of whom were experienced labor leaders. They walked side by side for five weeks that summer -- and they came together again yesterday.
Browsing a collage of black-and-white photos and yellowed newspaper clippings, they recalled some of the most dramatic moments when Proctor and four other members of the D.C. Non-Violent Action Group were arrested for refusing to get off the merry-go-round.
In 1964, the Supreme Court ruled that the Montgomery County deputies had improperly enforced private segregation.
Outside the park gates in 1960, the students brought a sense of fearlessness and enthusiasm. Stay-at-home mothers from Bannockburn were the reliable foot soldiers on the picket line, and the labor leaders brought political connections and organizing strategies.
Esther Delaplaine, who lived five blocks from the park, mobilized fellow mothers. She recalled the intense pain and frustration of the time. "We could ride the merry-go-round, but [black students] got arrested," said Delaplaine, 81.
Her daughter Rocky led yesterday's gathering of 300 people in an emotional rendition of "O Freedom," a song that was sung on the picket line,
Hyman Bookbinder, then an AFL-CIO lobbyist for civil rights, was joined yesterday by his daughter and granddaughter. "The movement wasn't only for us old-timers. It was for our families," said Bookbinder, 89. "This event is a reminder."
For some involved in the sit-ins and picket lines, it was too painful to return. Those who attended said it was as if they were transported in time.
Seeing the trolley car parked in front of the gates, Tina Clarke said she felt like a teenager again, as she was when she protested with the county chapter of the NAACP. She said she still could feel the spit on her cheek from a white male heckler that stained the white collar of her blouse.
"There is no time frame on when pain and suffering should end," said Clarke, 67, African American liaison for Montgomery County Executive Douglas M. Duncan (D).
Clarke said she had to explain to friends and relatives who questioned her decision to return to the park that it is now an arts and cultural center operated by a nonprofit partnership with lands managed by the National Park Service.
"It's not just my history; it's our history," she said. "It's part of what helped us get to where we are today. If none of these things happened, where would we be?"
But the park is a troubling memory for some who were children at the time. When Vernon Ricks drives past the park from his home in Potomac, he remembers riding the trolley car to the entrance on Sundays. From the windows, he could see the neon lights, the merry-go-round and the wooden roller coaster, but he could not enter. He attended the gathering because his wife, Janet, wanted to "start the healing of a scar," she said.
"To me, it is still a symbol of segregation," said Ricks, 66. "I'm still not happy to be here."
Later, he added, "Don't say I'm coming back."
Taking her husband's hand, Janet Ricks said, "Yes, you are. Yes, you are."