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  • Emmanuel Mehr

Rethinking Baltimore's July Fourth: Anti-Segregation Protests at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park, 1963

Special Feature: July 4, 2023

 

Scanned newspaper photo of two protesters being restrained by the police.
Figure 1. “175 Park Demonstrators Held in County Jails,” Baltimore Sun, July 5, 1963 [1].

 

On July 4, 1963, protesters non-violently marched on Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Baltimore County, demanding an end to its segregation policy. About eight hundred activists joined the march and the police made 273 arrests. [2] Significant numbers of interracial religious clergy joined in, adding an element of moral crusade to the event. [3] This was the culmination of years of anti-segregation picketing in the park, led by the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) since 1955. [4] As the Baltimore Afro-American reported, on “Independence Day at Gwynn Oak Park, Baltimore County, no speeches on brotherhood, freedom and patriotism were heard.” [5] Protesters made a statement by choosing the Fourth of July holiday for their demonstration, even singing the Star-Spangled Banner as they marched. [6] Sure, it was the anniversary of the United States becoming free from Britain, but Black Baltimoreans were not free from racist policies.


The clergy presence amongst the protesters reflected the involvement of an interracial and interfaith group called The National Commission on Religion and Race. [7] It was an alliance of Protestant, Catholic, and Jewish people. Clergy members actively participated in the unrest and the police arrested thirteen of them. [8] One of those arrested was Black Baltimorean Reverend Marion Bascom. In 2006, oral historians interviewed Rev. Bascom about the unrest that followed the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968, five years after the Gwynn Oak protests. Bascom told the interviewers, “[C]hurches all over the city of Baltimore, and across the country, gave real, real support to the civil rights movement. And you’ll have to remember that… many of the people in the movement were preachers.” [9] He went on to emphasize Martin Luther King being a minister, but Bascom himself was also directly involved with civil rights. For a brief period, he was both the pastor at Baltimore’s First Baptist Church and the president of the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). [10] On the day of the Gwynn Oak demonstrations, Rev. Bascom made his commitment clear, stating, “I am the one who said all along I will not go to jail, but I will help others who go. But this morning I said to myself I have nothing to lose but my chains. So if I do not preach at my pulpit Sunday morning, it might be the most eloquent sermon I ever preached.” [11] It is unclear if he gave his Sunday sermon, but on July 5th the Afro-American listed Rev. Bascom as one of the arrestees who “chose to remain in jail.” [12]


While the Gwynn Oak protesters remained non-violent throughout the day’s events, counter protesters did not. The Baltimore Sun reported that two white men “were charged with throwing firecrackers” into the crowd of “integrationists.” One firecracker victim told the Sun, “[T]he firecracker struck her and exploded as she and other demonstrators walked past the tavern where they had been refused food service earlier and heckled by the customers.” [13] As this heckling shows, some park patrons were openly hostile to the protestors. Another demonstrator was struck in the head with a brick, later needing ten stitches to repair the damage. Additionally, two Black women park employees were mistaken as demonstrators and badly beaten by white guests. [14] Violence fueled by racial hatred sharply contrasted the non-violent approach of the activists. Perhaps this contrast contributed to the pent-up frustration released through violence five years later following the assassination of Dr. King.


After the July 4, 1963, demonstrations Gwynn Oak became a national and international example of racial intolerance. The next day, the story was on the front page of the New York Times. [15] It also received international exposure because it was in a part of Baltimore County known for denying restaurant service to non-white diplomats visiting the Washington, DC, area. [16] The Gwynn Oak protests contributed to Maryland’s reputation as a glaring outpost of segregation. As humanities scholar Paul Haspel writes, “By the early 1960s, segregationist thinking had given the state of Maryland an unwelcome place in the international spotlight.” [17] The coalition of demonstrators was also significantly white, which likely contributed to some of the story’s allure. According to the Sun, the protest stood out from prior Gwynn Oak picketing because “For the first time, white sympathizers greatly outnumbered Negro [sic] demonstrators.” [18] The protests had a clear impact, as the amusement park integrated on August 28, 1963. This was the same day that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I have a dream” speech at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. When Gwynn Oak Amusement Park went out of business in 1974, a co-owner publicly blamed integration. [19] White boycotting of integrated businesses was indeed a primary tactic used by opponents of integration. [20]


The July 4, 1963, anti-segregation protests at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park made national news for bringing together an interracial, interfaith group of activists. [21] The demonstrators remained non-violent but fell victim to some violence from counter-protestors. It was quite a scene to mark the July 4th holiday. As the Afro-American put it, “The horde of Freedom Riders struck the park at all points simultaneously and in staggered formations at 3 p.m. in a brilliant sunshine kissed by a gently and cooling breeze.” [22] The crowd effectively halted the park’s operations, making clear to white Fourth of July park guests that there was still work to be done for freedom in America. It was a true coalition effort, as “At least 40 church, labor, political and peace groups took part.” The group stood united by a message that segregation needed to end. As they marched, some chanted, “Free-ee-dom, Free-ee-dom, Now.” Park spokesman James Price said, “We don’t mix out here socially,” speaking about the state of race relations in Baltimore County. He defended the park’s segregation policy as not “for moral reasons,” framing it instead as an economic decision based on patron preference. [23] The downfall and closure of the park eleven years later suggests that this economic evaluation was partially correct. It appears many white Baltimore County residents preferred to not spend the Fourth of July with Black Americans.

 

[1] “175 Park Demonstrators Held in County Jails,” Baltimore Sun, July 5, 1963, 1, https://www.newspapers.com/image/370440253/.

[2] Victoria W. Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters: The Struggle over Segregated Recreation in America (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2012), 183, Kindle edition; Michael B. Friedland, Lift Up Your Voice Like a Trumpet: White Clergy and the Civil Rights and Antiwar Movements, 1954-1973 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 82, https://archive.org/details/liftupyourvoicel0000frie.

[3] Friedland, Lift Up Your Voice Like a Trumpet, 83.

[4] David Taft Terry, The Struggle and the Urban South: Confronting Jim Crow in Baltimore Before the Movement (Athens, GA: The University of Georgia Press, 2019), 168, Kindle edition.

[5] “Gwynn Oak: ‘Not Today,’” Baltimore Afro-American, July 6, 1963, 1, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=5QknAAAAIBAJ&sjid=2gIGAAAAIBAJ&pg=795%2C3754010.

[6] “175 Park Demonstrators Held in County Jails,” Baltimore Sun, July 5, 1963, 2, https://www.newspapers.com/image/370440253/.

[7] Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters, 183.

[8] “Dr. Blake Among 283 Held in Racial Rally in Maryland,” New York Times, July 5, 1963, 1, https://nyti.ms/3PHQCl9.

[9] Marion and Dorothy Bascom, Baltimore '68: Riots & Rebirth Collection (hereafter BSR), University of Baltimore, November 4, 2006, 10, http://archives.ubalt.edu/bsr/oral-histories/transcripts/bascom.pdf.

[10] Marion and Dorothy Bascom, BSR, 21.

[11] “Early Civil Rights Era: Pennsylvania Avenue Heritage Trail,” The Historical Marker Database, March 17, 2021, https://www.hmdb.org/m.asp?m=168825.

[12] “Gwynn Oak Says ‘Not Today’ As More Than 280 Are Jailed,” Baltimore Afro-American, July 6, 1963, 9, https://news.google.com/newspapers?id=5QknAAAAIBAJ&sjid=2gIGAAAAIBAJ&pg=689%2C3795769.

[13] “175 Park Demonstrators Held,” 2.

[14] Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters, 184.

[15] “Dr. Blake Among 283 Held,” 1.

[16] Paul Haspel, “Roller Coasters and Civil Rights: John Waters’s ‘Hairspray’ and the Desegregation of the Gwynn Oak Amusement Park,” Studies in Popular Culture 26, no. 2 (October 2003): 24-25, https://www.jstor.org/stable/41970397.

[17] Paul Haspel, “Roller Coasters and Civil Rights,” 23.

[18] “175 Park Demonstrators Held,” 1-2.

[19] Haspel, “Roller Coasters and Civil Rights, 26-27.

[20] Wolcott, Race, Riots, and Roller Coasters, 184.

[21] “Dr. Blake Among 283 Held,” 1.

[22] “Gwynn Oak Says ‘Not Today,’” 9.

[23] “Dr. Blake Among 283 Held,” 1.

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