A Jan. 27 story in The Post's Metro section about a successful campaign to raise nearly $20 million for the renovation of Glen Echo Park in neighboring Montgomery County nearly caused my jaw to drop. The dollar amount wasn't stunning. Neither was the idea of a face-lift for the park. In the 30 years or so since it became a national park, Glen Echo has become a local treasure for many. It's worth preserving.
I was pulled up short, however, by the description of Glen Echo as a "beloved former amusement park" that "was popular before closing in the 1960s." That's not how we saw it in my neck of the woods.
February being African American history month, and for the sake of generations who may not know any better, this might be the moment to add a little color to the Glen Echo amusement park story, at least as it's chronicled in my mind and The Post's own news clips.
Glen Echo may well have provided fun-filled days for many area residents. But from its inception as an amusement park in 1911 until 1961, Glen Echo amusement park was, for Washington-area African Americans, exactly what a "white only" lunch counter was to our cousins, aunts and uncles in the segregated Deep South: strictly off-limits. In fact, apart from the segregated D.C. public schools I attended, Glen Echo amusement park may have been one of my earliest introductions to government-sanctioned discrimination in public accommodations.
I was still in short pants when that lesson was taught.
Sunday afternoons of my childhood were times of family outings. That meant my father, by order of my mother, took his three small children out of the house for long streetcar rides around the city. We didn't own a car, but so what? In those days, an adult with a $1.25 streetcar pass could be accompanied by children free of charge on Sundays.
We usually struck out eastward from our home on 24th Street in the West End, sometimes ending up across the Anacostia River in Southeast, where we would buy a freshly baked pie at Stephenson's Bakery. Or we would ride down to the wharf in Southwest, where my father would buy a shopping bag full of crabs. And, yes, the little crustaceans traveled home with us on the streetcar.
Sometimes we rode to Mount Rainier, which was just across the D.C. line in far Northeast.
I also recall traveling westward toward Cabin John, Md., which was great during the summer because there was a long stretch of tracks beyond the District where the car picked up speed and the breeze through the open windows cooled us off. And we used to pretend we were on a train, which for the King kids was fun, because we had never been on a real train.
The streetcar pulled up to a stop. We could see a roller coaster, a Ferris wheel and amusement rides through the window. We stayed in our seats. My father later said something about us not being able to go there because we were "colored" and the park was for "white people." It was Glen Echo amusement park.
The privately owned park remained firmly closed to blacks, even when daily demonstrations led by Howard University students got underway in June 1960.
The state of Maryland was no help. It refused to take a position on the segregation issue. And the Montgomery County attorney ruled that the county had no authority to oppose the park's racial barriers.
Montgomery County, in fact, aided and abetted the park's ban on blacks by daily transporting hundreds of white children from the lower part of the county to the Glen Echo swimming pool, courtesy of the county's recreation department. Those trips put thousands of dollars in children's entrance fees into the park's coffers.
As for black Montgomery County kids? They were bused into the District of Columbia on rented county school buses so they could swim at Francis, the city's public pool located two blocks from where I used to live.
Fortunately, Montgomery County was not Montgomery, Ala. A number of white families in the Bannockburn community near Glen Echo, along with several county religious and political figures, also objected to the segregated park. They circulated petitions and appealed to the county council. MoCo's leading citizens also added their voices in support. And when Howard U. students, tired of the government's inaction, launched their daily protests at Glen Echo Park, they were joined by many white supporters. Sometimes there were more white people than blacks on the picket lines.
Although it was the '60s, it wasn't all peace and love.
Police and private guards sworn in as deputy sheriffs arrested protesters by the dozens. George Lincoln Rockwell and "troopers" from his American Nazi Party showed up to counter-picket. There were some physical clashes, too.
By summer's end, the county council finally decided, under pressure, to halt the use of county buses to haul children to Glen Echo. That ended the county's patronage of a racially segregated park. But the owners still resisted, so the gates remained locked to African Americans. The case climbed the legal ladder to the U.S. Supreme Court.
As I looked at old Post news clips, I was amazed to see the names of people engaged in that local struggle who later went on to become leading lights on the national legal and civil rights scene. Hyman Bookbinder and Ed Rovner, both Bannockburn residents, walked the picket line and lobbied the Montgomery County Council. Charles Duncan -- later to become D.C. corporation counsel, Howard University Law School dean and tribunal judge at the U.S. Claims Tribunal in The Hague -- filed suit in behalf of the students and argued the case in Baltimore federal court and the Maryland Court of Appeals. Charles Horsky submitted a supporting legal opinion in behalf of 47 county lawyers, stiffening the county council's spine. Joseph Rauh argued the Glen Echo case in behalf of five arrested black students before the U.S. Supreme Court in 1962 -- and won -- even though the owners had relented and agreed to open the park in March 1961 on a desegregated basis for the first time in 52 years.
Much is owed to the Howard University activists who got it started: Dion Diamond, Laurence Henry, Woody Jenkins, Leonard Brown; and the student plaintiffs in the civil rights suit: William Griffin, Marvous Saunders, Cecil Washington, Michael Proctor, Gwendolyn Greene.
It's over now, the official degradation a part of history -- a memory.
It's true. In many households, Glen Echo amusement park was a joy and "popular before closing in the 1960s." But for some of us, even nearing our autumn years, it's still painful to recall.